When I first moved to New York City, my eat-at-home universe expanded to virtually every cuisine, price point and quality. Growing up in Southern California, food delivery options were limited to pizza and one or two Chinese spots who would charge extra for the service. In New York though, I’d come home every day to more menus shoved under my door than my kitchen junk drawer could handle.
And it was a great thing.
Everyone in New York had a menu drawer - some still do - filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of menus shoved under your door by local restaurants vying for your evenings. When dinner time rolled around, a massive, colorful pile of menus would be spread out for friends and family to peruse, mini reviews were exchanged and decisions were made. Then it was a simple exercise of picking up the phone, talking to the restaurant (a real person!), and scrambling to make sure we had enough cash before they arrived in about 30 minutes. That was it.
Then Seamless, GrubHub, Eater, Yelp, UberEats, Caviar and Amazon Restaurants changed everything. Seemingly overnight, all you had to do for delivery was pull up dozens of options on your computer or smartphone, make a choice and off you went. No talking on the phone, no cash, nothing.
And we loved it. It was so easy. It was too easy. We’d clamor for our favorite restaurants to show up on Seamless, forgetting that they had phones and would still accept orders for cash over the phone. Cash? Phone? What kind of nonsense is that?
So all the smart restaurants put their menus on Seamless, and the local economy was changed forever. Prices went up, service diminished, ghost restaurants showed up, restaurants that couldn’t afford to stay on Seamless closed, and that was that.
I miss that old world from only four years past. I miss calling up my favorite Chinese restaurant, hearing the same voice on the other end, being asked if I’d be having the usual, and greeting the same old delivery guy 20 minutes later, slipping $3 into his hand, and bidding him good night. Now, none of them know me. Now, it costs twice as much from that same Chinese restaurant for a simple Kung Pao chicken. Now, when I call them to ask where my order is, they treat me like a nuisance.
This is the new Seamless economy: more expensive, less personal, questionable quality, and, somehow, it even takes longer. Call to complain, and they throw a $5 coupon at you and hope you go away. Quality sucks? Try another one until their kitchen gets overloaded and and move on once again.
But maybe it was just me. Maybe it was my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Maybe I was in a bad pocket and other people three streets over were having a better experience. So I went straight to the source: a chef and restaurateur who’s done it all, from high-end dining rooms to delivery-friendly fast food.
Eric Greenspan, chef and entrepreneur, runs Maré, a high-end seafood experience in Los Angeles. He also runs Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese, a fast-food establishment. He also just opened Fleishik’s Sandwiches, Nosh & Whiskey, a kosher sandwich deli that’s seeing lines down the street. He recently closed Greenspan’s Grilled cheese, citing cash-flow issues and, yes, competition from delivery services.
And he doesn’t do delivery.
“They take 30 percent,” he started. He says he eventually gave in to delivery for Greenspan’s Grilled cheese, saying that at least with the Uber Eats service, costs were minimized and cash flow was maximized. But he didn’t make anything off of delivery once he paid for overhead and delivery charges.
After he closed two Maré locations and Grilled Cheese to concentrate on his new businesses (and a new Maré in Silverlake), he sees the writing on the wall: Delivery is virtually mandatory now that more diners turn to the services rather than going out.
“Even David Chang,” he mentioned, citing the famous chef and owner of insanely popular Momofuku, “is doing a delivery only service.”
And he’s considering doing the same, perhaps if only to survive in a restaurant economy that can’t turn back from at-home digital convenience. In fact, he’s in talks with a startup called CloudKitchens who offer up kitchens to chefs like him, handle the marketing, technology and delivery, leaving him to making good food. All he’ll need to do is show up, make the food and let them handle the rest, including overhead, delivery and customer service.
I asked about my personal experience, about my longing for that personal touch of calling the restaurant, and of my chagrin over escalating prices.
“The restaurants have to do that - charge more,” he said. “Many of them don’t even handle their own deliveries anymore.”
This is the new Seamless economy: more expensive, less personal, questionable quality, and, somehow, it even takes longer.
It seems they may as well just be CloudKitchens, and chefs like him and Chang are looking to delivery culture not just as a way to make money, but as a necessary part of survival.
But then there are those rare restaurants that can get away without doing delivery, mostly because of word of mouth and foot traffic. These are the holdouts, the old-world gems that treat you well when you walk in, where their kitchens are focused only on the customers sitting at tables, and not stretched thin by dozens of orders coming in on computer screens from dozens of delivery services. If you want it, get off your fat ass and go get it, in other words.
One such holdout in my area, Kum Kau Chinese, serves unassuming cuisine: noodles, dumplings, the usual. For years, I hoped they’d one day appear on my Seamless list, but it never happened. At first, I was nonplussed: Why wouldn’t they just get with it and offer up delivery like everyone else?
But then one day, my hankering for Kum Kao got the best of me. I threw on a coat and walked the few blocks to the old place on Myrtle Avenue. And there she was: the same little old lady who was there the last time I ordered pork fried rice. She recognized me, didn’t really smile - but she recognized me - and had me on my way with the best damn Chinese food in all of Brooklyn.
As I dug into the rice, I pondered why it was so damn good compared to the other thousand Chinese restaurants in Brooklyn, and it was blazingly obvious: it was because they don’t deliver. They never did, even before Seamless. And they never will.
I’m not saying that all app-enabled restaurants that deliver are bad, but when you compare their focus on food and customer service, there’s really no comparison.
Perhaps what Greenspan and Chang are up to is the answer: Kitchens dedicated just to delivery, where their focus is on those customers, on making sure that food shows up just right. No tables to worry about, no front of restaurant to wrangle in-house diners.
Is this the new Seamless economy? Will we see more delivery-only kitchens in the near future as costs escalate and focus continues to splinter? Only time will tell, but my pork fried rice says yes.