Byte To Bite

Want fast, accurate takeout or delivery? Fire up a Web order via Seattle and enjoy.


Bill Leahy has a busy job, a bachelor's lifestyle and a bottomless stomach. When you put it all together, he says, it's a recipe for trouble.

"I mean, I know how to open a can," says the 30-year-old contracts manager at TEKsystems in Rockville. Still, he confesses, "I don't do a lot of cooking at home."

That's why, before he leaves the office, Leahy likes to surf over to Food.Com, the fast-growing online takeout and delivery service. A few mouse clicks later, he's got California Pizza Kitchen or Hamburger Hamlet whipping up his dinner. Then he breezes in and picks it up on his way home.

If you haven't heard of, chances are you soon will. The San Francisco-based company this week is kicking off an advertising blitz in the Baltimore-Washington area to make sure you know that if you've got a modem, you've got a meal. More than 200 restaurants in the Baltimore area -- and 12,000 nationwide -- have quietly joined the service in the past few months, from Bertha's in Fells Point to Matsuri in Federal Hill.

Ordering from Food.Com is a snap. Visitors to register at no charge by typing in their address and telephone number (company officials say 500,000 have signed up). Food.Com then displays a list of restaurants that offer takeout or delivery to their area. Clicking on a restaurant's name calls up its interactive menu. Once visitors make their choices, the computer totals the order and sends it to the restaurant.

So what can a PC do that a phone can't?

"Find something different," says Kari Beims. "I like to eat stuff other than pizza."

The 39-year-old Baltimore graphics designer, who prefers sashimi and seaweed, likes being able to browse cuisines. Since the menus are online, she can find exactly what she wants and prevent misunderstandings that can occur during a rush-hour phone exchange.

"If they don't remember to ask whether you want mayo, mustard or lettuce," says Beims, "you're going to get whatever they give you."

Greg Cangialosi, 25, uses Food.Com to order lunch from One World Cafe in Federal Hill -- even though he works right down the street. A busy music promoter, he prefers to do things online. "I can take three phone calls and order my lunch at the same time," he says. "It's pretty cool."

Food.Com was born in 1996 when Seattle entrepreneur Tim Glass saw the Sandra Bullock flick "The Net." The movie was a critical disaster, but one scene stayed with him long after the credits rolled -- the one where Bullock's character orders a pizza over the Internet.

He thought somebody must be offering that kind of service, but when he looked around, he discovered he was wrong.

So, in December 1996, Glass and several friends launched CyberSlice, recruiting Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs to order the first pie. The company renamed itself CyberMeals and began recruiting restaurants all over the country. In March, the company changed again, bringing in a former Disney Studios executive to take charge and rechristening itself Food.Com.

From the start, one of the toughest challenges was getting the order out of the PC and into the oven, says Food.Com spokesman David Gilcreast. Most of the nation's more than 600,000 restauraunts are mom-and-pop shops. Fewer than half have fax machines and only a handful have computers.

"Restaurants are notoriously technologically backwards," says Ken Cassar of Jupiter Communications.

The company decided to rely on the one thing nearly every restaurant does have: a phone. It created a sophisticated text-to-voice computer system. Orders are routed from the customer's computer to Food.Com's computers in Seattle, where they're converted to speech and delivered by a computer phone call to the restaurant.

"There's a woman who works for us that spends most of the day in a recording studio saying thing like, 'pepperoni . . . mozzarella . . . sushi,' " Gilcreast says.

After the restaurant acknowledges the order, computers send the customer an e-mail to confirm. The ordering process, Gilcreast says, takes about seven minutes.

At least that's how it's supposed to work. But foul-ups occur. The company monitors each exchange closely and will call the restaurant or customer if it sees a break in the chain. Some would-be customers grumble that coverage can be spotty. Towson residents, for example, have just a handful of choices for delivery.

Food.Com recently lowered the fees it charges restaurants to encourage growth. Restaurants are charged $400 to sign up and $50 a month after that, plus a 5 percent commission on orders. Slowly, more restaurateurs are signing up.

"This is kind of a big step for us," says Christine Bass, sales and marketing manager for That's Amore, which specializes in southern Italian cuisine.The restaurant, with locations in Towson, Columbia and Rockville, had few orders at the outset. But now that is advertising, Bass says, "they're starting to roll in."

The chain's owners are convinced the system will pay off. "I don't care if it brings in six extra customers a month," Bass says. "That's still six new people who have never tried us before. I think it's worth it."

Pub Date: 05/31/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.