Each afternoon, Ben’s Chili Bowl Shipping Manager Mike Kipp spends a few hours preparing large orders of the U Street restaurant’s signature smoked sausage and chili con carne.
These orders aren’t for Washington residents. Instead, they’re packed into plastic foam boxes lined with dry ice packs to be shipped across the country to people who crave dishes only found in the District.
Many of these orders are made through Goldbely, a San Francisco-based Internet start-up helping foodies discover famous dishes from across the United States. Goldbely’s 12-person staff selects restaurants to feature on the site, and, for a small fee, takes orders for them online. Restaurants do their own shipping and receive payment from Goldbely after orders are fulfilled.
Featured items include deep dish pizzas from Lou Malnati’s in Chicago, black-and-white cookies from William Greenberg Desserts in New York, crab cakes from Angelina’s of Maryland in Brooklandville, and cooked crabs from Harbour House of Crabs in Eastern Shore, among others. Goldbely has partnered with 115 restaurants.
Reddit.com co-founder and start-up investor Alexis Ohanian, who grew up in Columbia, said he uses the site about once a month to order food for himself or to send gifts to friends and family, he said in an interview. He shares Redskins season tickets with his father, and often orders from Ben’s Chili Bowl for tailgate parties.
Though Ohanian said he enjoys ordering from his favorite restaurants far from his New York residence — Ben’s Chili Bowl, or a Memphis barbecue restaurant Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous, for instance — he often orders food he’s never tried before.
A graduate of Mountain View, Calif. start-up accelerator YCombinator, Goldbely is backed by $3 million in an early-stage financing round led by Intel Capital. Though Goldbely declined to share specific revenue figures, founder Joe Ariel estimated the start-up has taken in about $1 million in orders since it launched a few months ago.
Goldbely is a valuable way to reach customers outside the Washington area who might never walk past the store, said Ben’s Chili Bowl owner Nizam Ali, and the site attracts people interested in trying new dishes. Ali is willing to pay a fee to be on the site because it brings new customers, he said.
Since joining, the restaurant has had about 100 orders through Goldbely, usually for packs of 16 half-beef, half-pork smoked sausages for about $80, or six-pack pints of chili con carne for the same price. Kipp makes sure to include instructions in the box — how to heat up the food, and suggested preparation. Recipients are expected to provide their own buns.
Ben’s Chili Bowl also runs its own Web site on which fans can buy memorabilia and place large orders, but people mostly use the site to buy T-shirts, he said.
E-commerce is “something that we always feel like we could be doing more of. It’s kind of like, ‘How do you market it to the whole country?’ We have a decent number of sales, but we know we could always do so much more.”
But even for Goldbely enthusiasts such as Ohanian, ordering online is no substitute for going to the restaurants when he can.
One late night about a month ago, Ohanian stopped by Ben’s Chili Bowl again and noted, “[Goldbely] isn’t a replacement, it’s more a supplement — [usually] I can’t get it in the way I know it and I’ve grown accustomed to it, but I can get it and this will suffice, because I’ve had the experience in person.”