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2016 TASTEMAKERS

Food-Focused Apps and Services Curb Hunger In a Hurry

Convenience-driven food services have surged in popularity – and profitability – across the country in the past few years.

  • 8 min to read
Tastemakers Culture of Convenience

Food Pedaler will deliver food from some of St. Louis' best restaurants right to your door.

At Zoomin Market in Olathe, Kansas, you can do all of your grocery shopping without ever getting out of your car.

The online-only grocery store is the brainchild of John Yerkes, who, after working in the grocery industry for years, noticed an opportunity to offer a new type of shopping experience – one that was popular in Europe and Asia but had yet to catch fire in the U.S. Yerkes, in partnership with Matt Rider, opened the first location of Zoomin Market in 2014, in the Kansas City area, selling roughly 10,000 items.

Zoomin Market follows the typical e-commerce model: Online shoppers visit its website, zoominmarket.com, where they can browse by aisles or products, as well as specials. There is no minimum dollar amount for orders, and shoppers can pay online when they submit their order or in person when they pick it up from Zoomin Market’s store in Olathe. Shelf-stable products, produce and meat are sourced from many of the same wholesale grocers used by traditional grocery stores, with locally produced products also available.

“When your order has been placed, you’ll get a text or email, and then it usually takes us somewhere between 15 to 30 minutes to get an order together,” Yerkes says. “You’ll get a second text when your order is ready with a five-digit confirmation code. When you arrive on our lot at the kiosks outside, you type in the code, and it assigns you one of our covered parking stalls and lets someone inside know you’re here, and we bring it out. There’s no tip [and] no upcharge, and most people are only here two to three minutes on average.”

In Europe, it’s estimated that online grocery shopping will grow to more than €80 billion by 2018, with the U.K., Netherlands, France and Germany leading the charge, according to Syndy, an international product content-distribution platform.

“We love that it can create efficiencies inside the store and that’s passed along to our consumers, as we’re doing the shopping for them and they save a lot of time and don’t have to be in the grocery store,” Yerkes says. “Just from a pure operations standpoint we love that we can narrow it down to the most efficient way to order, pick and price products with a really thin staff. Compared to a traditional store we’re [much more cost efficient].”

Yerkes describes the process of developing Zoomin Market as “really thinking about a whole new way of shopping for the American consumer.” Proprietary software was created for the online store, and consumer education about how the process works has been a critical part of promoting the business. “We went into it somewhat blind,” Yerkes says. “People are used to shopping online, but… consumer education and changing habits have been some of the biggest challenges. We never set out to take over the main grocery experience – we don’t need to – but it’s an option.”

When the store first launched, Yerkes says the target market was primarily busy working families and professionals, but over the past two years, he’s seen unanticipated demographics flocking to the concept. “We’ve been more surprised with the millennial customers… it’s how they shop and how they do things,” Yerkes says. “The technical side is easy for them because they’ve grown up with it. Another surprise was elderly people, which makes sense. They don’t want to drag heavy items through the parking lot. Another segment has been people with disabilities, including veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who don’t like shopping in a store.”

Yerkes has also seen growing interest in the Zoomin Market model from one of the biggest retailers in the country.

“Wal-Mart doesn’t want to do it right now, but they see the writing on the wall; they’re testing it in Bentonville, Arkansas, right across from their corporate headquarters – and it looks remarkably like our store,” Yerkes says with a laugh. “They visited us and wanted a tour, and we said no… they admitted that they’ve seen the [international models] and they recognize the value of it.”

As Zoomin Market approaches its second anniversary, Yerkes says the company is poised for expansion in the Kansas City area as well as across the country, although he’s not yet sure how it will come together.

“Our goal is definitely to grow this… we’re looking at possibly expanding in the Kansas City market in the next year, and [our other] partner is talking about taking it out of state after that,” Yerkes says. “We’ve got several people interested in licensing the franchise, which we’re not quite ready to roll out yet. Hard to say. The freight train starts slow, but it could go very fast.”

The growing interest in models like Zoomin Market is just one example of how convenience-driven food services have surged in popularity – and profitability – across the country in the past few years. Like Yerkes, many sources attribute millennial consumers with creating an increasing demand for fast-casual concepts, which focus on serving affordable, convenient and quality fare, and the same tenets form the basis for many convenience-driven food-and-drink services.

Some are geared toward home cooks, like the ready-to-cook meal kits sold through Blue Apron and Plated, both based in New York City, which deliver recipes and preportioned ingredients right to your doorstep. Others aim to enhance the dining-out experience, like the cloud-based seating management app, NoWait, used in St. Louis-area restaurants such as Milagro Modern Mexican, Pastaria and Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co., which allows users to add themselves to a waitlist at restaurants that don’t otherwise take reservations. In December 2014, Boston-based Drizly launched in St. Louis in partnership with local liquor store chain Randall’s, allowing users to buy wine, beer and spirits through its app and then have orders delivered with no markup. And in 2015, an even more specialized food app launched in Kansas City – New York City-based Pearl, which helps users discover daily oyster offerings at restaurants such as Ça Va, Jax Fish House and Jarocho Pescados y Mariscos.

Many of these services have been made possible by new technology, but even established convenience services are undergoing changes to become more specialized. Ten years ago, if you wanted to order food and have it delivered to your doorstep in St. Louis, pickings were pretty slim – pizza, Chinese food, maybe Thai in the right zip code. A wave of local food delivery services have changed all that, though; now options range from quail with boudin, local mushrooms, rice grits and persimmon saba from Juniper in the Central West End neighborhood and crispy pork belly carbonara from The Libertine in Clayton, Missouri.

It’s not the restaurant owners who are investing in delivery services of their own, though.

Case in point: On a busy Saturday night, an order for Italian-style ramen is up at Pastaria, St. Louis restaurateur Gerard Craft’s Italian eatery in Clayton. A chef carefully transfers a delicate soft-cooked egg atop perfectly cooked spaghettini noodles with pieces of chicken and basil and a sprinkling of Grana Padano cheese – and then snaps the to-go container lid in place. In a second container, double-stocked chicken broth is packaged separately to ensure the noodles remain the perfect texture. The two containers are then bagged and transferred to the food pickup window, where a Food Pedaler delivery person is waiting to transport them via bicycle to one lucky customer in the neighborhood.

“When we deliver that to our fan, and the egg is just right and the noodles are the perfect texture and they have this amazing stock made with love… we’re just as particular about this food as the chef who made it and the crew who took the time to package it up just right,” says Tim Kiefer, owner of St. Louis-based Food Pedaler.

Since launching the bicycle delivery company in 2013, Kiefer has grown its coverage area in St. Louis from the Central West End to University City to Clayton, and built up a network of 50 restaurant partners, including popular spots such as Pi Pizzeria, Five Star Burgers, The Libertine and Juniper. Kiefer plans to expand Food Pedaler Downtown in the next few months, and hopes to serve all of St. Louis city by summer.

“We’re growing, but really, we’ve grown from 1½-mile-wide area to like a 5-mile area in three years, so that’s remarkably slow expansion,” Kiefer says. “That was intentional: It’s been slow so we could get all the right pieces in place. We’ve got our systems together, and we’ve really taken the time to own what we’re doing.”

For customers, the service is easy and familiar – simply visit foodpedaler.com, search for your address to confirm that you’re within its coverage area, select and place your order, and wait for delivery, which, according to Kiefer, takes around 30 minutes.

Food Pedaler isn’t the only online bike delivery service roaming the streets of St. Louis: Bike Waiter, formerly known as Griffin Delivery, got its start in St. Louis before being acquired by a company out of San Antonio (the service now operates in Kansas City, too), and Postmates, headquartered in San Francisco, launched in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas earlier this year. Kiefer isn’t terribly concerned about the two-wheeled competition, though – he believes Food Pedaler offers a specialized and unique service to its customers through the close relationships it has with its partner restaurants.

“We have direct and positive relationships with the restaurants we work with, we know their menus and we all love the food we deliver,” Kiefer says. “When a special is offered, we make sure we have it [on our site]. We have restaurant owners who are very particular about how they want their menus listed on our site, or how they want to be represented to other people.”

Kiefer and Yerkes both launched their businesses to offer people different kinds of experiences. The same is true of Ann Marie Lemcke, who opened her company, The Art of Entertaining, in the St. Louis area 21 years ago to expand catering options beyond large-scale events. She was raised in the catering industry – her family owns Butler’s Pantry, a full-service catering company in St. Louis – and it was the only work she’d ever known.

“People would call all the time and say, ‘I just want chicken tetrazzini,’ or ‘We just want to get a platter to send over to somebody who’s had a death in the family;’ all those little things people need, and we didn’t do that [at Butler’s Pantry],” Lemcke says. “So we would have to say, ‘Sorry, we can’t just do one platter for you.’ I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there were a place that could?’”

Lemcke founded The Art of Entertaining as a way to offer smaller-scale catering services for lunch and dinner, as well as corporate, party and event catering. Since launching two decades ago, the company has undergone a lot of change to accommodate food trends and changes in how people eat – the business now offers meals that are gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, low-sodium, light or lower calorie – as well as expanding its offerings to include a range of prepared and convenience-driven meal options.

“I think there will only be more of a demand for this in the future – now you see more convenience stuff and prepared foods in the grocery stores,” Lemcke says. “I’ve noticed more restaurants are offering carryout, as well. The great thing about us is that we have been working with this for so long that we know what does reheat well, what saves for the next day, versus their food, which is good in the moment.”

Newer meal offerings in the past few years include grab-and-go expense-account lunches, which are designed for larger groups and business meetings and include salads and sandwiches, and care packages, or individual meals like chicken with lemon, artichokes and rice and cannelloni intended for gifting to friends or family. In the past decade, The Art of Entertaining has also vastly grown its refrigerated and grab-and-go items, including an increased focus on party appetizers and dips such as Brie with caramel and Buffalo chicken wing dip with housemade chips or crackers. All items are made from scratch at the company’s kitchen and retail store in Webster Groves, Missouri.

While specialty meals and dishes are big sellers, The Art of Entertaining also offers weekly dinners for customers who either just don’t have the time to cook or who don’t want to cook. Every Monday, family-night meals are offered for pickup at the retail store, which include your choice of two casserole entrées – think vegetarian lasagna, steak fajitas with black beans and rice or sautéed shrimp with lemon and basil – plus a salad, bread and butter, and dessert, which is intended to feed four for $27.50.

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, nightly dinner specials are offered for $11.95 for a single serving (although Lemcke says some customers stretch it for two), which includes a salad, entrée, side dish and roll and butter. Meals change each night and every week, but past menus have included a harvest salad, grilled flank steak with a Gorgonzola sauce and a twice-baked potato, as well as creamy apple slaw, barbecued ribs and Asiago mac ‘n’ cheese.

“I have people who tell me they eat our food every night because they can’t go to the grocery store and make the same food for the amount of money we charge,” Lemcke says. “That’s really true; I go to the store, and I can’t believe how much ground beef costs – chicken, things you grew up on that were staples, are so expensive now. I feel like we are way more reasonable in that we can fit into a budget.”

Reflecting back on her career and how much she’s seen in the food-service industry evolve, Lemcke isn’t at all surprised to see a spike in convenience services: “They’re made for people on the go, which is our society these days.”

Food Pedaler, 314.329.1213, foodpedaler.com

Zoomin Market, 12203 S. Strang Line Road, Olathe, Kansas, 913.210.1495, zoominmarket.com

Art of Entertaining, 8796 Big Bend Blvd., Webster Groves, Missouri, 314.963.9899, theaofe.com

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