Filler App: How Tech Companies Are Disrupting Restaurant Delivery

Like most busy San Franciscans, I eat a lot of takeout, and also complain heartily about the lack of delivery options in the city. (Along with taxis and late-night dining, takeout is an area where New York has us handily beat.) Popular New York apps like Seamless and GrubHub aren't very useful here — their restaurant selection isn't very good, and the delivery time and food consistency can very wildly. Last year, Eat24 partnered with Yelp to offer delivery and takeout directly through the review site, but its options are limited to restaurants that already deliver. S.F. does have a few great options if you live in the center of the city: Mission Chinese, Lers Ros, Little Star, Wing Wings. They're not enough.

But this is San Francisco in the Great Age of Disruption, and of course a number of new companies are trying to improve upon the delivery experience. Some are basically courier services, fetching food from any restaurant you're craving at the moment. Others eliminate the middleman and employ chefs to create healthy meals that you order through your phone. It's still early days, but perhaps in a few years that call to your local Chinese restaurant will be a thing of the past.

Of the courier-type services, Postmates (postmates.com) seems the most useful. The iOS/Android app has thousands of local restaurant menus loaded in; it's fairly painless to find the restaurant and make your order. I tried it out on a rainy Saturday when I felt like eating San Tung chicken wings but didn't feel like leaving the couch. After nailing down the order, a screen popped up alerting me to 1.5x "blitz pricing," bumping the delivery fee from $10 to $15. I accepted, and within a few minutes a friendly looking girl named Jennifer (five stars, 22 deliveries) had accepted my order.

After about 10 minutes, I got a text from someone at Postmates checking if the 50-minute wait at San Tung was okay. I said it was, Jennifer picked up the food on time, and I tracked her drive from the Sunset to the Haight in an interface that looked much like Uber or Lyft's. The handoff was uneventful. The chicken wings and soup were warm, the potstickers were cold and soggy, though that was more San Tung's packaging than Postmates' fault. Delivery fee, tip, and service fees added an extra $27.75, making a fairly cheap order not so cheap. But I had skipped the madness at San Tung, and if I had a larger group the fees wouldn't matter so much.

The counterpoint to Postmates is Caviar (trycaviar.com), a website that started in San Francisco and has since expanded to Seattle and Manhattan. The web interface has fewer restaurants than Postmates, but every menu item is professionally photographed, making it a much better browsing experience. Delivery is a flat fee of $10 and there's no surge pricing, but choice is limited. Co-founder and CEO Jason Wang told me that the company's goal is to "work with the best restaurants," but the list is a little sparse — there are hot restaurants like Brenda's, Wise Sons, and Shanghai Dumpling House, but also more random-seeming places like Frjtz, Pacific Catch, and Freshroll.

Brenda's wasn't available on the weekend, so I ordered pizza and lasagna from Tommaso's in North Beach. My delivery window was 5:30-6:30 p.m., and by 6 I could tell by the site's tracking that my order hadn't even been picked up. Finally, the little car on the map started moving, and I got a call from the company apologizing for the late pickup — the Chinese New Year's parade had screwed up traffic. Despite the driver's insulated bag, the food was lukewarm when it arrived at 6:22. It wasn't necessarily the company's fault, but the hiccup did call attention to the fact that asking your fellow citizens to fetch food for you is a gamble, just like asking them to drive you around through UberX and Lyft. They're trying their best, but in the end it felt a little like I'd been delivered a doggy bag.


Expanding the universe of restaurants you can order from is one way to make delivery better. But the more interesting model — and the one I can see becoming the new standard — is one where the restaurant and the delivery service are the same. Companies like Sprig, SpoonRocket, and Munchery are hiring chefs to prepare food in commercial kitchens, then deliver it to you in a specific time window.

After a lifetime of eating delivery, I thought Sprig (eatsprig.com) was the most revolutionary. The start-up's easy iOS interface offers three rotating meals a day prepared by Nate Keller, formerly head chef at Google's cafeteria. I ordered chicken agridolce with brown rice and spicy broccoli, and French onion shredded beef with carrots and green beans (there was a vegetarian option, a quiche, but it looked a little lackluster in the photo). Every dish is $10, with a $2 delivery fee. The hot food was at my door within 12 minutes of ordering. It was basically magic.

The dinners themselves reminded me of the meals that my mom used to make — a protein, a side, a vegetable, all wholesome and mostly healthy. The beef was tender and had a bit of melted cheese on top; the carrots and green peppers were perfectly cooked and nicely seasoned. While the cherry/fig sauce on the chicken was too sweet, the sliced breast itself was soft and juicy (Keller uses a lot of sous vide), and the broccoli and brown rice/black eyed peas on the side weren't inspired but were healthy. It was quick, easy, and satisfying. I will almost certainly be ordering from Sprig again, and probably also from the similar SpoonRocket (spoonrocket.com), an East Bay-based service that's currently testing delivery in SoMa and plans to expand into more of the city soon.

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9 comments
aliasetc
aliasetc topcommenter

Hopefully the tech companies will move to the wide open spaces in Austin Texas and give Frisco back to the people who belong here!

spilth
spilth

Maybe you should just go into the real world and interact with real people in a real setting and become a real person. No, wait...hide in your 3 thousand dollar apt. You're probably not gonna tip anyway and you'll be on your phone the whole time.

WooHoo! S.F. is Fun!

Alejandro Durazo
Alejandro Durazo

As a former PostMates driver, I always had issues with customer service calling in ahead orders and meager pay. I'm glad I'm no longer with them.

mmturner88
mmturner88

www.ROTR.com - has a large number or restaurants with a big delivery area.  Professional drivers.  Always on-time.  Set up mostly for bigger orders to the office, like breakfast or lunch meetings and people working late, but can do smaller home ones if you want to pay the fees.

BrainyGal
BrainyGal

I am not really a fan of the food ordering apps, as I can oftentimes call the restaurant directly for a delivery. This seems more cost effective than paying a 3rd party app. Also, I think some of the delivery charges for the food ordering apps would be cost prohibitive for middle to low-income people who may like to order take-out from time to time. 

 
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