Dude, Where's My Lunch?

When it comes to workaday dining, downtown doesn't deliver.

Downtown dining
Timely and tasty, Tomaydo Tomahhdo is hard to beat. - Walter  Novak
Timely and tasty, Tomaydo Tomahhdo is hard to beat.
The weather usually sucks, gas costs have soared, and good luck finding a cheap parking space near your favorite downtown eatery. Given the hassles in going out to lunch, you'd think that restaurateurs would be falling all over themselves to find ways to deliver to downtown's ravenous workers.

Fat chance. It took more than a dozen phone calls and nearly an hour of online research to find just four spots that would deliver lunch to the Scene office in the Warehouse District on a recent Friday afternoon. (See "Special Deliveries," right.) While most downtown restaurant operators agree that the demand exists, meeting it isn't always cost-effective.

"For me to deliver two sandwiches and a salad across town at noon, for maybe $17, it's just not worth it," says Tom Szoradi, chef-owner of downtown's Juniper Grille. "It's like throwing money out the window."

Then there's the issue of customer perception. For mid- and upper-tier spots, packing a signature item into a styrofoam box just doesn't jibe with their image. "I have a nice place here," Szoradi says. "I want people to come in and experience the restaurant, not judge us on a salad wrapped in plastic."

Others, like Tastebuds chef-owner Bridget McGinty, embrace the idea of providing lunchtime delivery, but simply don't have the time or staff to handle it. For Tastebuds, the solution has been to contract with a small, private courier service.

Increasingly, though, restaurants are meeting the demand with the help of food-delivery services like DeliverMeFood.com. According to founder and owner Dave Umina, the Cleveland-based online ordering site and delivery service -- already the largest in the Midwest -- is poised to double its downtown presence from approximately 30 to 60 restaurants during the next few months.

Launched in 1996, DeliverMe currently serves more than 138 restaurants in Cuyahoga and Lake Counties, and covers a territory that stretches from Painesville to Westlake to Brunswick. And business is booming: Since starting in 2001, the company has received more than 90,000 online orders and nearly 1,500 daily hits from people cruising its collection of online menus. That adds up to as many as 200 delivery orders per day and sales that reached $1.4 million in 2005. (DeliverMe makes its money charging "advertising fees" to client restaurants, amounting to 20 to 35 percent of the restaurant's total deliveries.)

Of course, even this sophisticated system has its limits. A dinner-only joint still won't do lunch, for instance. And to meet the company's claim that orders will arrive within an hour, delivery regions are somewhat restricted. Nonetheless, it does offer an impressive array of menus, price points, and food styles, thanks to partners that range from chain-operated fast food to upper-echelon independents such as Flying Fig, Sergio's, and Moxie.

Most of those places wouldn't offer delivery on their own, says Lake County franchise owner Quentin Piotrowski. "But by working with us, they reach a whole range of customers they might not usually serve."

Among downtown spots, that includes Dave's Cosmic Subs, Ginza Sushi & Steakhouse, and Sushi Rock, which uses DeliverMe for lunch and dinner. "They probably deliver 5 to 10 meals for us daily," says assistant manager Nick Coe. "It's definitely been a moneymaker."

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