I returned from vacation hungry, and annoyed to find no food in my fridge. What better time, I thought, to take stock of the Internet's food-delivery skills?
Of course, if the Net could really handle my food needs, it would have had groceries sitting at my doorstep in a refrigerated box. But the race to conquer door-to-door grocery replenishment hasn't reached the nation's capital yet. Streamline Inc. likely will be the first player to arrive, with plans to open a 100,000-square-foot warehouse in Gaithersburg in a few weeks and to launch a $30-a-month delivery service for food, dry cleaning and other household supplies here on Oct. 18.
While we are waiting for Streamline, Peapod, NetGrocer, Webvan and competitors to crack the electronic grocery market, I figured I'd sample some prepared-food services that are already up and running. I tried two Web sites, one to satisfy my immediate hunger and the other to plan meals for later in the week. One proved as delightful as the other was disappointing.
The letdown was Food.com, a delivery system that has hooked the Internet up to 13,000 restaurants nationally and more than 700 in the Washington area. The company's business plan seems sound--who wouldn't want point-and-click ordering from lots of different menus?--but its execution remains raw. While Food.com did get chicken parmigiana to my house within two hours, I found its lime-green Web site unappetizing and hard to navigate.
Much smoother was CookExpress.com. The California company provides elegant meals you can cook and put on your table in a fraction of the time it would take to prepare them from scratch. You do the cooking; they do the slicing, dicing and marinating before packing the ingredients in cook-by-the-letter plastic bags and shipping them to you with instructions inside a chilled, insulated box.
The result? In half an hour, a non-chef like me is serving my friends fresh salmon over sesame noodles, with snow peas, red peppers and shiitake mushrooms, all topped with a black-bean sauce. Each salmon serving costs $12.25, plus shipping fees of about $3.75 a person if you order four meals and $6.50 a person if you get two. CookExpress offers same-day delivery in San Francisco and overnight shipping anywhere else in the country.
Both services are going after a huge market. The sale of prepared meals in the United States totals nearly $70 billion annually, with takeout and delivery accounting for roughly half of all restaurant revenue. The market's growth is being fueled partly by the mounting frustration of workaholic Americans who find themselves spending less and less time eating at home with loved ones.
"This whole thing came out of wanting to help people slow the world down a little bit, plug in and connect," said CookExpress.com founder Darby Williams, a former Microsoft Corp. executive who cooked up his business on a sabbatical two years ago.
Food.com's chief executive, former Walt Disney Co. mogul Richard Frank, takes a similar view of the hunger he hopes to fill. "Our average user wants something that they can call a restaurant experience at home," Frank said. "What they are really saying is 'We want something we don't have to eat out of cardboard.' They are used to pizza and Chinese food, but they want more choice."
Okay, I admit the market is vast. But for the life of me I have trouble seeing what the former chairman of Walt Disney Television & Telecommunications--the man who brought us such films as "Dead Poets Society"--finds so alluring about takeout food.
"Michael Eisner [Disney's chairman] asks me the same question," Frank said cheerfully. "And I told him this is going to be the food channel on the Internet. Eventually we will have entertainment and education. Maybe we will have super-chefs talking about where they eat on their nights off."
While grand visions of a new media empire may be driving Food.com, CookExpress.com is focused on creating a new culinary habit. It allows people to choose from five menus. The company's six chefs do extensive nutritional planning and testing with consumers before they put a menu into their mass-production kitchen in San Francisco. Similar kitchens are planned for Washington and other major cities next year, which will allow same-day delivery at lower rates.
Unlike CookExpress.com, Food.com (whose partner in the Washington area is washingtonpost.com) is chiefly an ordering service. The Web site lets you keep a running list of your favorite eateries, browse menus, review your past orders and place a new one with a few mouse clicks.
At least that's the idea. It actually took me half an hour and at least 30 clicks to register and order food, mainly because the site design is so confusing. Also, because I live in nearly restaurant-free Takoma Park, my delivery choices were limited to Papa John's pizzeria and Pizza Italia.
I was surprised when someone from Pizza Italia telephoned my house four minutes after I clicked "place your order" to confirm that I wanted chicken parmigiana and say it would arrive within 45 minutes. My doorbell rang exactly 44 minutes later, and I forked over $8.95 in cash, plus the 45-cent delivery charge and a tip.
Some participating restaurants say they consider Food.com's fees high-- restaurants are supposed to pay $400 to set up the service, $50 a month for maintenance and a 5 percent commission on each order. But more than half the Washington area restaurants aren't paying because they were enrolled through Takeout Taxi Inc., which is absorbing the fees.
Even Takeout Taxi isn't paying commissions until Food.com completes its electronic ordering system. So far, Food.com takes orders via the Internet, then sends them to restaurants either via fax or old-fashioned voice telephone calls. A more efficient system of transmitting orders directly to restaurants' computers is in the works, along with credit-card processing and an ambitious plan to take reservations for sit-down restaurant dining.
"Like everyone on the Internet, we are all babies just bumping along," Frank said. "But there is still no one else doing this, and by the time anyone else comes along we will have already figured out all the things we are doing wrong."
And you know what? As messy and frustrating as Food.com is now, I do believe he is right. Somewhere inside its comically complex lime-green Web site is a billion-dollar business trying to be born.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
TechThursday columnist Leslie Walker will host a live Web chat today at 1 p.m. with Robert Wrubel, president and chief executive of AskJeeves, a leading search directory. To participate, go to www.washingtonpost.com.
CAPTION: CookExpress.com, based in California, offers elegant ready-to-cook meals by kit via overnight delivery. A Washington kitchen is planned.