Can’t get a weekend reservation at that new farm-to-table restaurant? Try it at home.
A handful of high-end restaurants in major cities are introducing takeout and home delivery for customers willing to pay the price. Dinners arrive packed with fresh bread and butter, carefully labeled sauces, high-quality disposable cutlery and containers rigged to stay upright.
Restaurateurs say they are trying hard to keep standards high, so that fried foods remain crispy, for instance, and flavors remain nuanced. In some cases, chefs taste-test to-go dishes straight out of their takeout containers, so they can monitor what a dish tastes like after it leaves the controlled environment of a kitchen.
A delivery business can keep a restaurant kitchen busy during lulls. It also provides more options to serve diners who get shut out on a jam-packed Saturday night. In some cities, new third-party delivery services such as Caviar and Postmates are making it easier for high-end restaurants to offer delivery.
Loyal customers see it as a special reward to get home delivery of a favorite dish, often with special attention and freebies thrown in. Some customers also find take-home prices appealing, because there often are no cocktails or tips involved.
But establishing a home-delivery business can be risky for restaurants, says Ted Russin, director of consulting at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. A meticulous chef or maitre d’ has no control over what happens once dishes leave the kitchen and dining room. A sloppy carryout order can hurt the brand.
Before committing to a carryout menu this summer, David LeFevre, chef and owner at Manhattan Beach Post outside Los Angeles, says he spent about a month testing how dishes held up in their containers after 15, 20 and 25-minute intervals. Dishes that call for a dash of vinegar, such as a Brussels sprout salad, needed 50% more acid when ordered for takeout, to keep the tanginess from evaporating.
Steaks are cooked a shade less, because they continue cooking in a fully closed to-go container, he says. In containers of french fries, he pokes holes to keep fries crispy. He packages bread in a special paper bag to retain freshness. Most restaurants use plastic black containers that are microwavable and dishwasher safe.
Rather than have a dining-room host manage delivery orders, specially trained staff members take charge of an order as it leaves the kitchen and package it for delivery. They make sure it is ready to leave the restaurant in 20 minutes or less. Planning for takeout “was a really arduous process,” Mr. LeFevre says.
The restaurant packages meals in sturdy, rope-handled bags. A chocolate-pudding-and-peanut-butter-mousse concoction typically served in a Mason jar in-house is recreated in a round to-go container. “We want people to look at it and open the bag and say ‘Wow,’ ” Mr. LeFevre says. “We didn’t want them to open up a white Styrofoam container.”
Carryout typically makes up less than 5% of an upscale restaurant’s business, but the customers are often regulars who crave a particular dish, not first-timers, says Ahmass Fakahany, chief executive at New York-based Altamarea Group, which has restaurants around the world. To show appreciation for regulars, senior restaurant staff members may personally deliver an order, introducing themselves and thanking the customer. “After the 10th or 12th [order] the manager shows up for the delivery,” says Mr. Fakahany, who began offering carryout a few months ago at New York steakhouse Costata. The restaurant sometimes throws in complimentary appetizers or new dishes. (While some Altamarea restaurants offer delivery, Marea and Ai Fiori, its two Michelin-starred restaurants, don’t.)
Accustomed to fine dining as a business traveler, Betsy McLaughlin, 54, a retired chief executive of a clothing-store chain living in Manhattan Beach, Calif., orders in from high-end restaurants near her home, including the steak with chimichurri sauce from Manhattan Beach Post. She sometimes goes down to her cellar for a bottle of wine and serves the meal to friends in her formal dining room, using her own silverware and napkins.
Bastian Lehmann, chief executive at Postmates, a courier service, says 80% of his company’s orders are for food pickups at restaurants that don’t deliver. One of Postmates’ most popular New York City restaurant deliveries is from Nobu Next Door, part of the Japanese-inspired Nobu chain, which offers a $42 lobster shiitake salad for takeout. Postmates delivers it for a $5 fee plus tip.
On weekend evenings, food-delivery orders over $50 spike in many of Postmates’ 17 metropolitan areas. Currently, the San Francisco-based startup is in talks with several Michelin-starred restaurants about offering menu items for delivery.
Kathy O’Connor, a 48-year-old attorney, has ordered from New York’s Costata several times using Caviar, a high-end food-delivery startup, which launched last year. Caviar couriers pick up the food and deliver to customers. Users can track their courier via GPS. After eating at the restaurant for the first time this year, Ms. O’Connor says she enjoyed her steak but didn’t like the restaurant’s choice of music.
When ordering from Costata when she is home with her husband, Matt, she puts the restaurant’s truffle cream Garganelli alla Fiamma on some of her own plates, pours some wine and uses real silverware.
This spring, Ms. O’Connor threw a dinner party where she treated her guests to Má Pêche, one of David Chang’s New York City restaurants, with delivery through the Caviar site, which charges a $10 delivery fee. Ms. O’Connor ordered items such as the restaurant’s fried chicken and pork buns. “They ate everything,” she says. “They were totally excited.”
Jason Wang, co-founder of Caviar, a high-end food-delivery service based in San Francisco, says it works directly with restaurants to develop a delivery program to match their brand. Couriers have specially designed thermal bags to keep food warm, and the average delivery time is 18 minutes after an order is placed.
Mr. Chang is also the face of a new food-delivery startup, Maple, which allows diners to get chef-created meals cooked in non-restaurant kitchens. So far, the restaurant group plans to continue working with Caviar.
Making food taste fresh after 30 minutes is challenging. Mr. Russin, of the Culinary Institute, suggests reheating liquids in a microwave, combining dressings at the last minute, searing meat or anything crispy on the stove and re-sautéing fish or seafood, adding a spoonful of water to the pan.
To-go containers are more humid than a plate and can create sogginess—which means it is best to get food out of containers and into serving dishes or saucepans as soon as possible. “I would look into transferring it as fast as I could,” Mr. Russin says.
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