Get our free newsletter
If you’re too time-pressed for a French press, plenty of machines will brew a coffee at the push of a button. And if you don’t want a robot making your morning cup, a growing number of baristas are trained in the art of the pour-over. And if that’s too fancy, there’s always Starbucks (and the Starbucks across from the Starbucks). And if you’re not caffeinated enough to walk the three blocks, surely there’s a bored intern around?
But in case all that is just too much, there will soon be an even lazier way to get your morning buzz. For $3 plus the price of the drink, a new service called Fetch Coffee will deliver coffee to you on-demand or in advance from the nearest coffee shop or the cafe of your choice. The service aims to launch later this month.
Montgomery County native Tony Chen, a 24-year-old engineering graduate from Cornell University, quit his business strategy job at Capital One to start his own company, which eventually became Fetch Coffee. “Walking over to Starbucks, it’s annoying,” he says. He spent a morning watching people come and go from the chain and noticed that about 80 percent of customers were getting coffee to-go. What if they didn’t even have to get in line in the first place?
Chen believes there’s a market for Fetch Coffee in large part because of the growing food delivery scene in D.C. After all, there are now sites and apps for every level of laziness and craving. Relay Foods and Peapod will deliver your groceries, while ScratchDC will drop off pre-chopped and -measured meals that you assemble yourself. Caviar joined the likes of GrubHub and Seamless in restaurant delivery in April, but with a trendier set of previously unavailable options like DGS Delicatessen, Mockingbird Hill, and Kaz Sushi Bistro. Need some beer with that? No fewer than three alcohol on-demand delivery services—Klink, Ultra, and Drizly—launched in D.C. within the past year. Meanwhile, Postmates, new to the city as of Dec. 2013, will send a courier to pick up just about anything, although 90 percent of the orders are food.
And Chen is not the only one who thinks delivering coffee is a good idea. Starbucks is looking to launch a delivery service for loyalty program members in select (yet-unannounced) markets in the second half of 2015.
These options didn’t even exist five years ago when delivery food typically translated to kung pao chicken and pizza. Taylor Gourmet co-owner Casey Patten remembers a huge delivery disparity between D.C. and delivery mecca New York when he opened his first hoagie shop here in 2008. “You have no problem with delivering a lobster in New York. You can get McDonald’s delivered,” he says. “And then I come back to Washington, D.C. and I couldn’t even get a pizza from the corporate guys delivered to me.”
So Taylor Gourmet set up its own delivery operation, which now has about 30 drivers and makes up 10 percent of the business. But when it started, Patten says, he didn’t even have the option to outsource or partner with a delivery service, as many others do now.
With a growing population of professionals with disposable incomes and a booming food scene, D.C. has become a magnet for food delivery companies, just as it has for celebrity chefs and national chains. “The D.C. population as a whole is younger and more tech savvy in that space of being open to new things,” Relay Foods spokeswoman Sarah Yates says. Between 50 to 60 percent of Relay Foods’ customers in D.C. request delivery rather than pick-up. That’s significantly more than the company’s first two cities—Charlottesville and Richmond, Va.—where only 10 to 20 percent of business comes from delivery.
Of the 18 markets where Postmates has launched, D.C. is among the top five, says spokesperson April Conyers. Meanwhile, Caviar founder Jason Wang says local delivery orders have increased six-fold since the San Francisco-based company launched here last year, also making D.C. one of its top five markets.
Pizza and ramen—or really any kind of Asian noodle soup—are among the most popular orders from Caviar. Similarly, noodle and sushi spot Nooshi was the top delivery destination on Postmates in 2014, followed by Sweetgreen and Chipotle. Conyers says the courier service sees a lot of healthy orders, like Sweetgreen, at the beginning of the week and then more pig-out orders like Burger Tap & Shake and Five Guys as the weekend approaches. And when it comes to alcohol deliveries, wine dominates, says Klink co-founder Jeffrey Nadel. In fact, wine delivery in D.C. is much higher than he’s seen in other cities. Meanwhile, whiskey deliveries outnumber gin, and Bud Light is the most popular beer for Klink.
The fact that people are increasingly willing to pay an extra fee to get Bud Light delivered may come off as a symptom of laziness. But Nadel suggests the rise of Amazon and other on-demand services like Uber mean everyone is simply accustomed to the convenience and instant gratification of summoning what they want when they want it. Why not booze?
When Nadel and his fellow founders launched the company, they thought the service would be used predominantly by people who had run out of alcohol and didn’t want to leave their guests for a liquor store run. But they’ve since found a lot of their customers plan their orders in advance. Many of those customers are companies—not frat boys—who use the service for office events and happy hours. “We have quite a few that order every Friday or every other Friday,” Nadel says.
Online platforms also tend to offer more transparency: With Postmates and Caviar, you can use GPS tracking to see exactly where your delivery is. Relay Foods shows shoppers extra background about what’s in their products or how they were grown. You can’t click for more info on a grocery store shelf.
Aside from the utility, companies see more of an emotional appeal, too. Ice Cream Jubilee owner Victoria Lai initially launched her ice cream business exclusively through bike delivery and retail in July of 2013. But as she prepared to open her own shop in Navy Yard this summer, she stopped delivery. The demand was persistent enough, though, that she brought back a three-month ice cream subscription delivery option this winter (albeit not on bike anymore). “There’s something exciting about walking to an ice cream store,” Lai says. But when ice cream appears at your door and you can stay in your pajamas? “There is a special level of exuberance.”
Likewise, Nadel says delivery makes an otherwise mundane thing—walking into a shop and buying something—an exciting moment. “It’s better than a liquor store and it’s more accessible than bottle service,” he says. And whereas courier services used to be expensive and relatively inaccessible, the new generation of delivery services charge nominal fees. “It’s an indulgence that’s not an indulgence,” Nadel says.
On a side note: Because many of these services are so new, there’s not always a social norm for tipping. Everyone knows that the standard gratuity at restaurants is 20 percent. But what do you pay the alcohol delivery guy? Or the woman who drops off your groceries?
Most food delivery services placed average tips around 15 percent. But others are doing away with gratuity altogether. For safety reasons, Relay Foods actively discourages people from tipping its delivery people so that they’re not carrying around a lot of cash as they’re driving around late at night. Caviar also doesn’t allow tips, preferring a service charge that’s automatically added in. “Instead of a variable tip, everything is done through a seamless way. There’s no awkward handing the delivery driver cash or fumbling around for coins,” says Caviar’s Wang. “We want to make it as easy as possible for the consumer.”
As the competition between delivery services gets more fierce, each is looking for new ways to step up the “easiness” factor and set themselves apart. Relay Foods, for example, is in the process of creating a meal planning service where shoppers can pick specific dishes and then automatically add all the ingredients they need to make it into their virtual carts. The company recently hired a nutritionist to create recipes, and customers will be able to enter their own recipes as well.
At the end of the December, Postmates began allowing companies to build on top of its platform and tap into its courier network without having to go through its app. Going forward, a restaurant could offer a Postmates delivery option directly from its own website.
And Klink will often send cocktail recipes based on what someone ordered. It’s also offered a bunch of promotions, including sending customers a mixologist if they ordered more than $300 worth of booze.
“It’s one thing to give people exactly what they ask for,” Nadel says. “But the next stage of that is being able to deliver to people what they want but they didn’t even know to ask for.”
UPDATE: This story initially stated that Caviar delivers Toki Underground. It not longer works with the ramen shop.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery