Columbia companies hope to be middleman for carryout food HOWARD COUNTY BUSINESS

SPECIAL DELIVERY

April 15, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

When Richie Baran thinks of Columbia he sees "fur coats and station wagons."

And that, he says, means the community of manicured lawns, handsome homes and busy office parks should prove very lucrative to his new venture, a restaurant-to-customer delivery service named Takeout Taxi.

The business, which began operations this week, is the latest Columbia entry in what are called multi-restaurant delivery services, which take carryout orders by phone from customers, transmit the orders to the restaurants, then deliver to customers.

Several similar companies have tried and failed in recent years, but the profit potential has lured more start-ups.

Takeout Taxi and another company, Mega-BITE, are currently competing for a share of the spending dollars of Columbia's workers and 75,000 residents.

"Columbia is an ideal marketplace for what we do," says Mr. Baran, who operates a Takeout Taxi franchise serving Bethesda, Rockville and Gaithersburg in Montgomery County.

"Columbia's mix of restaurants is great, and the demographics of the people who live and work here are fabulous. It could prove one of the very best markets in the country," says Mr. Baran.

James Hansen, a co-owner of Mega-BITE, says he and his partners researched several markets in Maryland before launching their independent operation in December.

"Columbia looked like it had the strongest potential with its year-around population and its higher-than-average income," says Mr. Hansen.

Demographics that Mr. Baran says drew him to purchase his franchise included this snapshot of the community provided by researchers at Takeout Taxi's corporate headquarters in Virginia:

"Median household income of more than $50,000. Large block of the population aged 35-54. College educated families, many of whom hold second mortgages on their homes."

In short, people with cash for a nice meal now and then.

The national trend toward suburban residents staying at home more -- dubbed cocooning or burrowing -- also bolstered Columbia's standing as a potentially hot market, says Mr. Baran.

Both delivery companies make money by charging food customers delivery fees, generally $3 for a single restaurant order. Additional fees are charged if the customer orders food from the menus of more than one establishment.

Also, client restaurants pay the delivery company a percentage of the total bill.

Both companies say that the prices charged for food available from their client restaurants are no different than the prices a diner would find in the restaurant.

Delivery from either company takes about 45 minutes. Delivery drivers wear colorful shirts and caps with company logos.

Client restaurants say they are hoping to increase revenue and hook diners to their establishments through the delivery companies.

"For the most part we hope that people who have never come into our restaurant will order our food from the menu and like it enough to come in and dine," said Martin Wilcox, assistant manager of McAllister's, which specializes in ribs and Cajun fare.

Mega-BITE, which delivers for six Columbia restaurants, has attempted to tap the potential market by delivering fliers and menus house to house, as well as by placing advertisements in newsletters and newspapers.

Takeout Taxi, part of a chain started in 1987 with 60 franchises now in 23 states, plans to blitz Columbia homes and businesses over the next three months with mailers listing the menus of its eight restaurants.

Mr. Hansen says Mega-BITE is delivering about 120 orders weekly, up from about 50 during the company's first week.

Mr. Baran says he expects his franchise to be making more than 1,500 deliveries weekly within the first year of operation.

Warren "Bud" Cavanaugh, Takeout Taxi's manager, operated his own restaurant delivery company, Gourmet-On-The-Way, between 1988 and 1989 in Columbia.

"There was a big demand for the service. People really liked the convenience. The problem we ran into was the restaurants didn't see the potential in the market," he recalls.

Mr. Baran plans to counter that by having his company go beyond delivering food.

Takeout Taxi will assist client restaurants with a computer system that will track who customers are, where they live, how often they order and when. The company also plans to assist restaurants with marketing promotions aimed at enticing customers to come to the restaurants to dine.

The company plans to call new customers the day after an order is delivered to ask what they liked about the service and whether they have suggestions for improvement or ideas about items they would like to see added to menus.

Says Mr. Baran, "The data base is the magic to what we do. You have to put your marketplace under a microscope and examine it every day."

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