Service is a dying art in this country," the pundits moan, and there's a lot of evidence to back them up.
The family doc who made house calls, the grocer who delivered your weekly order to the kitchen door, and the old-fashioned gas station attendant (who cheerfully pumped your gas and gave you free glassware, to boot) all seem like the stuff of Frank Capra movies. And the younger generation has never known the sinful pleasure of riding home with the milkman the morning after a really wild party.
However, in the midst of today's do-it-yourself ethic there are glimmers of change.
Retailers and others in the service sector are beginning to realize that in a highly competitive recessionary economy, the best service will win the most devoted customers. The department store that devotes personal attention to its customers' needs, the hardware chain that staffs its stores with real home-renovation experts instead of bored teens . . . not only will they do good, they will make money.
And Domino's and other pizza-delivery chains prove that there is considerable profit to be made by catering to our need to feed.
For a host of reasons, notably the growth of the two-career family, most of us can't have a hot meal waiting when we get home from work. And for another host of reasons, it's not always practical to spend a few post-work hours in a restaurant. Hot food delivered right to the door can be a godsend. Even if it is just pizza.
Happily, full-service restaurants are beginning to catch on to the idea, too. Some individual restaurants now make "house calls" (and office calls, too), and a whole new variety of service industry is taking shape: the delivery business that represents a broad selection of restaurants. As the trend spreads, and more customers realize they can order a variety of complete nutritious dinners -- from ribs to sushi -- restaurants should claim an ever-larger slice of the home-delivery pie.
Scott Brennan, co-founder of Any Dish You Wish, a delivery company that handles restaurants and customers in western Baltimore County, spotted a trend-in-the-making while reading a business magazine. The story concerned Take-Out Taxi, a Virginia company that offered home delivery of restaurant meals.
"I decided to get a few of my friends together to do something like this before they moved into this part of town," Mr. Brennan says. It took time and lots of research, but Mr. Brennan and his three partners, Mike Scrivener, Randy Valenstein and Tommy Mayo, got Any Dish You Wish on the road last December. They now represent 17 restaurants.
In Baltimore, Sandi Reddick and Keith Hall had a similar inspiration.
"We thought how nice it would be if we could have something delivered besides pizza -- the same quality food you go out to eat delivered right to your home," says Ms. Reddick, vice president of the new Dinner Deliveries, which began service Sept. 3.
The partners set to work making their pleasant idea a reality: They set up a delivery service that would whisk meals from a selection of moderately priced Baltimore restaurants to residents gentrified downtown neighborhoods. When the customer places an order, Dinner Deliveries faxes the order to the restaurant, then sends a driver to collect the meal and deliver it to the customer.
The Fells Point-based company has five restaurants in its stable, offering Chinese, Japanese, Indian and American food. Two Little Italy restaurants and a French place are signing on in October, and an even greater diversity should be available in the future, according to Ms. Reddick. Like Any Dish You Wish, Dinner Deliveries offers a tabloid-style menu guide.
The delivery-service scheme has benefits for all concerned: Customers get fine dining without cooking, parking hassles, traffic, inclement weather or the necessity of finding a baby sitter. The restaurants gain customers who wouldn't ordinarily be eating out. And the services collect a percentage of each meal's cost.
Still, Ms. Reddick says, some restaurateurs were slow to warm to the scheme.
"Getting people to accept a new idea can be hard," she admits. "They had to trust us with their reputations. But when we explained the advantages to them, we didn't have any problems."
The menu, portion size, and quantity of delivered food is virtually identical to those found in the restaurants themselves. There is a difference, of course, in presentation; customers can expect no-frills foam containers.
Customers should remember several points when dealing with either individual restaurants or services. First, ask about delivery times. Some restaurants will fill your order as soon as possible, and get it to you within 45 minutes or so. Others require customers to call early, and to specify a time of delivery.
When dealing with a service, prospective diners should remember to check the hours of the individual restaurants as well as delivery hours. In other words, a service may theoretically make deliveries until midnight, but if your favorite restaurant's kitchen closes at 10 p.m., that late-night craving for curried lamb may go unsatisfied.
A minimum order requirement is the norm, but the amount can vary from nominal to expensive. Dinner Deliveries recently reduced their $20 minimum to $12. "We found that there were a lot of single people who can't eat $20 worth of food," says Sandi Reddick.
Tipping is a potential etiquette problem. Some customers mistakenly believe that the delivery charge covers the driver's tip. Others pay the 15 percent they would ordinarily give a restaurant waiter. If the phenomenon spreads, a consensus will eventually emerge. But be sure to, as both Any Dish You Wish and Dinner Deliveries urge, "consider the efforts of our drivers."
Restaurants generally provide delivery service to a limited territory, determined by neighborhood, mileage, or ZIP code, in order that the food always arrives hot and fresh. This can be frustrating to would-be diners less centrally located. But both delivery entrepreneurs can visualize the day when restaurant delivery services, like pizza places, can be found practically everywhere.
"I'd like to see that," Ms. Reddick says. "The response has been really good. We have restaurants calling us and wanting us to take them on. Maybe someday we can franchise."
"It's what society wants: convenience, convenience," Mr. Brennan adds.