Living NYC ARCHIVES Technology

Has Our Delivery Culture Gotten Out of Hand?

I’ve always maintained that a great thing about New York is that, theoretically, you can get anything you want whenever you want it. Need milk at 2 a.m.? Pad thai and BBQ on the same block? Weed brought to you by models? The city provides.

New York’s delivery culture is something the tech industry has been capitalizing on for some time now. Most recently and topically, it’s resulted in the British sex toy company MysteryVibe launching an “on-demand vibrator delivery service” in New York for Valentine’s Day. That’s right: Today and tomorrow, the company is delivering vibrators in under an hour, complete with chocolates and a “tech-savvy Kama Sutra,” whatever that means.

The service certainly raises more questions than it answers. Are the delivery people being trained in discretion, or will they be like your weed hookup who sort of lingers until you relent and offer him some of the product? Who has a vibrator emergency so bad that they need one brought by in less than an hour? Who can’t just use their hand for a day?

“These days in New York City you can pretty much get anything delivered same-day … except pleasure. Which is a real shame, as when you order pleasure products online you’re really excited to try them!” says Stephanie Alys, co-founder of MysteryVibe. Apparently, it’s a growing concern: “We know from customer feedback that while people do a lot of research before ordering, they often order when they need it the most.”

MysteryVibe is hoping to expand to other cities, as well as making this a more permanent option in New York. It’s a PR gimmick, for sure, another example of the tech industry’s incredible ability to solve problems nobody actually had. But by launching it in New York City, they’re also capitalizing on our culture of delivery. New Yorkers thrive on delivery. We define ourselves by it. But it’s turning into a classic horror tale: What if we had delivery, but too much?


A friend who moved to Seattle from New York recently told me a horror story. She was home alone one night, and desired dinner. Not having many groceries, and not wanting to drive to the store after a long day at work, she tried to get delivery. But (shines flashlight under my face) nobody would come to her house. Instead, she could drive to a restaurant to pick up her order. The one place that would deliver was a pizzeria, which would charge her a $15 minimum and a $10 delivery fee.

A hallmark of my childhood was the folder of delivery menus by the phone. When my mom worked late, when my dad’s mini-fridge was too small for groceries, there was still dinner to be had. New Yorkers work hard, have small kitchens, and don’t own cars. Many of us also have a hard time carrying bags up and down stairs, or using stairs at all. That we can get full meals, groceries, and anything else you can get at the bodega delivered to our doors for little to no fee isn’t just a convenience. It’s a necessity.

Most New Yorkers tend to understand this, and act out of kindness accordingly. Certainly some of the kindness is out of self-preservation — there were longstanding myths of favorite takeout places that refused to deliver to demonstrated assholes — but also out of a sense of appreciation. What luck that we got to partake of this piece of New York, this thing that we couldn’t get elsewhere. I’m romanticizing a bit: New Yorkers have stiffed delivery guys and harassed service workers, too. But for a long time, you at least had to look them in the eye while you did it.

Apps like Seamless were originally the next logical step in delivery innovation. Instead of having to yell your credit card number over the phone, or make sure you had enough cash for delivery, you just fill out a form online and get the same service you’ve always gotten. New Yorkers were quick to adapt. After all, this is what we had always done.

But most New Yorkers also sensed the stakes had been raised, especially with the boom and bust of the first dot-com bubble. In 2011, Jon Stewart joked on The Daily Show about an early iteration of the delivery tech boom — UrbanFetch, a company that would bring you literally anything in about half an hour, with a T-shirt and free cookies. He told a hypothetical story of two stoned roommates ordering, separately, Scarface and two pints of cookie dough ice cream, and “Goodfellas, two pints of Cherry Garcia, and a dildo that glows in the dark.” UrbanFetch, as you may have guessed, was not a sustainable operation. “My point is this,” said Stewart. “I miss these fucking guys. But we all knew this thing was not going to last.”

But the bubble grew again, and now, among Amazon Prime, Seamless, Postmates, and now MysteryVibe, it’s hard to imagine anything you can’t get delivered. And that’s wreaking havoc on businesses. In a recent article for the New Yorker, Elizabeth Dunn outlined how delivery apps are killing restaurants, with one restaurateur describing them as “an income stream that his business had become dependent upon but that might ultimately be running them into the ground.” Amazon Prime deliveries are made possible by atrocious working conditions. It’s not sustainable, and if it is, it’s because we’re sacrificing too much and too many.

Alys argues that, instead of things like pints of ice cream, instant delivery is actually better suited for luxury products. “There are a lot of hidden fees, especially at the lower end of the market,” she says, “So the economics might not work for a pack of condoms or an energy bar, but they can for a luxury product like a Crescendo.” So sure, it might work. It doesn’t seem like mom-and-pop sex toy shops will be put out by this innovation, cajoled into providing a service they can’t maintain.

Unfortunately, most of New York relies on delivery of that small, nonluxury stuff, and it’s become a problem. It’s too easy to just blame greedy corporate overlords or lazy millennials who don’t like making phone calls. As with most significant cultural shifts, it’s everything’s fault. A desire for convenience based on existing cultural norms, plus an increasing acceptance of doing business through middleman-run apps, multiplied by how much harder it is for most restaurants and stores to build their own online order forms instead of just signing up for Seamless or Postmates, equals a current reality in which convenience is king, and can often be instantaneous. And once that dam has been broken, who wants to go back?

A New York without delivery would look completely alien to me. But I’m starting to see a future in which something has to give, and I’m not sure what to do about that. Maybe the only restaurants that’ll deliver will be the ones that already have the capital to pay Seamless fines, perpetuating the suburbanization of the city. Maybe we’ll all be paying $10 delivery fees like a bunch of Seattleites. Maybe that was what we should have been doing this whole time. But, you know, tip your delivery guy. And maybe remember that waiting two days for a vibrator isn’t the end of the world.


Will the Growing Meal-Kit Industry Satisfy Fickle New York Foodies?

We all know that for New Yorkers, the takeout industry is king. Even in winter, stalwart deliverymen are out there braving the elements on their bicycles. But here’s something you might not know: According to GrubHub Inc., the biggest food-delivery platform on the market, New York City customers are 98 percent more likely than the rest of the country to search for the category “grocery items.”

The reality is that people don’t want to do their own shopping anymore, which is exactly the window of opportunity the burgeoning meal-kit-delivery business is looking to pry open. Consulting firm Technomic suggests the food industry space (including restaurants, retail, suppliers, and distributors) will grow to more than $2 trillion in annual sales by 2025 — a staggering figure — and the meal-kit business, as a portion of that, will increase sales 13.5 percent year over year.

These are numbers that invite envy. With an ever-increasing array of options, New Yorkers can satisfy their inner foodies, vegans, and locavores alike. In addition to the three nationwide leaders in meal kits — HelloFresh, Blue Apron, and Plated — you can sign up for weekly dinner plans from smaller, regional services such as Quinciple, the Purple Carrot, and Mise en Place.

Ingredients from Purple Carrot to make chickpeas in their own broth (with lots of extras)
Ingredients from Purple Carrot to make chickpeas in their own broth (with lots of extras)

No one seems to doubt that this relatively new category is poised for growth, but how many players will we have? Will consumers want Amazon-style service, or something more akin to shopping at their local indie bookstore?

The New York culinary scene as portrayed on Instagram is one of the best ways to keep up with our rapidly changing dining landscape, which is how we discovered NYC-based startup Mise en Place. An image we spied one day was of a parmesan-crusted chicken with a radicchio, fennel, and arugula salad. All that user @kevmasse needed to do was turn on an oven and toss the salad. Mise en Place vows to surmount the very last hurdle to cooking — all that laborious prep work. According to founder Vicente DyReyes, the problem they’re looking to solve for customers is the wiggle room between “deciding to cook and cooking. Our goal is to get people cooking more and sitting down at the table,” he says.

Instagram user @kevmasse cooks up a meal from local startup Mise en Place.
Instagram user @kevmasse cooks up a meal from local startup Mise en Place.

Andy Levitt, founder of the Purple Carrot, the Boston-based vegan delivery option that wooed Mark Bittman away from the New York Times, tells the Voice, “We’re not preaching veganism. We want people to appreciate a plant-based diet: healthy for yourself and the planet.” Meanwhile Quinciple, based in Brooklyn, gives New Yorkers the chance to discover a wealth of local foods sourced within a hundred-mile radius, all from producers they know intimately.

As meal-kit companies tinker with what they offer and how they offer it, they’re also fine-tuning their unique value propositions. Not only do they deliver food, they bring a halo of emotional attachment for customers to latch onto as they go about crafting their “made at home” dinners. In today’s demanding era of transparency, in which every millennial needs a reason to give a damn, it seems our food options are arriving with increasing amounts of backstory.

David Robinov bought Quinciple from its founders in 2015 after they ran out of their startup money. Located in the Pfizer building (which was also home to Good Eggs, a fresh-food-delivery company that recently closed down its East Coast operations for lack of funds and customers), Quinciple is paying close attention to the bottom line. When HelloFresh filed its IPO this year — one that was later postponed — Robinov reviewed his competitor’s now-public documents. “Their food margins are much better than ours,” he says. “I think it’s a combination of scale and quality — they’re not working with small-scale farms. They’re using generic meat and not sourcing grass-fed meat. There’s a big qualitative difference.”

Plated co-founder Nick Taranto doesn’t want to be the biggest, he just wants to be the best: for his customers (millions of meals delivered to date), employees (over 400 and counting), and communities (four fulfillment centers across the country). The market Taranto is after is made up of what he calls “evolved eaters.”

“These are folks who tend to shop at farmers’ markets on the weekend. They care about what they’re putting in their bodies,” Taranto says. According to Taranto, there are over 31 million evolved eaters. And the company wants to help reduce waste by delivering perfectly portioned meals to users’ homes for their own cooking pleasure.

For each of these new and established businesses, there are three main challenges that — if solved — will make the margin for success wider: packaging, logistics, and sourcing.

Plated, which is also based in New York City, is leading the way with respect to the packaging dilemma. It still ships weekly meals in a cardboard box, which customers can recycle, but the inner layer of insulation is made from 100 percent recycled jute that can be composted. Gel packs, used to keep foods cold, are made of cornstarch and can be cut open and poured down the drain. With these changes, Plated was able to cut its carbon emissions by 95 percent, taking each box from four and a half pounds of CO2 down to a quarter-pound.

Mise en Place meal kits arrived pre-chopped in an easy-to-carry insulated tote.
Mise en Place meal kits arrived pre-chopped in an easy-to-carry insulated tote.

Although all the founders say they are aware of the packaging problem, they also say it’s a part of the business. “It’s the tradeoff for getting the convenience, for having everything solved for you,” says Levitt. Quinciple delivers a box with similar packaging, or you can pick it up at various locations throughout the city. Mise en Place is the only one delivering something different: an insulated tote that it hopes members will want to continue using. When we asked DyReyes about a recycling or return program, he said he was “thinking about” it. 

The logistics — how you get your box each week — are also complex. Do your members pick their box up? Do you have your own fleet of drivers, or do you outsource? Most do a hybrid of these, save for Mise en Place. “Everything is delivery right now,” says DyReyes. Totes come via Zipments or Uber Rush, and if you order by noon you can get it delivered the same day. Flexible delivery options are something everyone wants to offer but none do perfectly.

Sourcing, while nail-biting, is where we can ultimately see each company’s commitment. Plated delivers organic produce and antibiotic-free meat (steak dishes are their bestsellers). But Plated has muscle to deliver that. “At our scale now, we’re able to go to vendors and tell them what we want and they will grow it for us to meet our standards,” says Taranto.

At Quinciple, Robinov admits that “a lot of our money goes into food, probably too much.” They let their customers know what to expect each week, but this can backfire, like when brussels sprouts go out of season or the arugula gets hit by a frost (customers get wild spinach instead). “These last-minute changes give you gray hair. It’s really up to nature,” says Robinov.

Purple Carrot has seen the same types of complexity, like when it ran a Cyber Monday promo and ran out of tofu. Bittman has made it clear that the company’s first priority is to deliver food that is healthy and clean, with the second being to work on sourcing domestically. Organic? It’s not even in their top three yet.

According to an article by Adam Ozimek in Forbes, what meal-kit businesses have wrong is their business plan. Ozimek claims that the concept simply needs a platform, one that would allow it — along with restaurants and supermarkets — to present their wares and allow consumers to pick and choose as they please. What this idea seems to ignore is that these companies need their customers to forecast their food needs. It’s why they’re all subscription-based, demanding that you select how many meals you want each week. But will you want to cook next Tuesday? That’s hard to predict.

While some may think the meal-kit companies have it wrong, the investment community appears to feel otherwise. Plated closed on $35 million in Series B funding this past July (Blue Apron raised $135 million), and the company is tracking for another successful year. But before you start to think that these boxes are only being sent to the East and West coasts, Taranto reveals that “less than 10 percent of our customers are in San Francisco and New York. It speaks to how much demand there is across the country.” And this is where the competition is heating up.

With all of these factors to consider, we haven’t even touched on the weekly recipes and menus that are required from this business model. Let’s face it — we New Yorkers are a fickle bunch, demanding an ongoing cycle of tasty creations. Some companies have in-house recipe and test-cooking experts, or reach out to well-known chefs for their favorite items. Still others hire people like Bittman, whose sole focus at Purple Carrot is writing recipes and sourcing. In a story about the challenge of sourcing domestically, Bittman told FastCompany, “We will need to constantly think six months or more likely a year ahead to determine seasonal recipes, project customer numbers and preferences, and discuss quantities we need way before we’re sure of them.”

For some time, what we’ll continue to see is a growing list of niche companies in this category, all homing in on their preferred segment, praying for enough customers to make a profit and enough bandwidth to grow beyond their means. Mise en Place, the newest of the bunch, could find room in the pack by keeping things small and local. DyReyes is hopeful: “The food spectrum is large, and New York is large. I think there’s space for a lot of different players.”


Meet the Woman Behind MilkMade; She’ll Make You ‘Scream

Gleaming freezers hum in the glass-partitioned kitchen at the back of the new MilkMade Tasting Room (204 Sackett Street, Brooklyn; 347-422-0879). This is the first brick-and-mortar location of Diana Hardeman’s popular ice cream delivery service, which hands off two pints of crafted frozen treats every month, directly to New Yorkers’ doors.

With her bubbly, bright smile, Hardeman is almost too perfectly cast in her role as “‘scream” maker. During a Voice visit to the store a few days before opening, people were already popping their heads in the door hopefully, no doubt lured by the promise of frozen strawberry shortcake or pretzel peanut butter.

The new kitchen is something of a game-changer. Previously, MilkMade was operated out of a commissary kitchen in Long Island City, and more recently, as part of a kitchen share with Melt Bakery.

Not the Tasting Room’s ice cream counter can offer samples fresh out of the freezer, no subscription necessary. “It was wonderful serendipity — a great chance to grow our business and share our ice cream with more people,” Hardeman says.

“I only began making ice cream for the first time when Häagen-Dazs shrunk its pint size but kept the price the same,” she recalls. “I was so mad! I started looking for more local ice creams, and more interesting flavors — this is back in 2009 — so it was pretty different then. And I just thought: Why don’t I make my own? So I bought a $50 Cuisinart machine, took it back to my apartment in the East Village, and that was that.”

Hardeman’s personal passion project soon spread beyond the confines of her kitchen. “I fell in love with experimenting and trying new flavors, going to the farmers’ market and getting inspired. Ice cream is just such a great canvas,” she explains. “I was making so much ice cream, I had to give it to my friends.”

It took one Williamsburg party to change everything, after a fellow guest wrote about Hardeman’s ice cream in the New Yorker. “I put up a link just seeing if anyone would sign up for a monthly subscription, and by the end of the week, over 1,000 people were on the waitlist.” Just like that, she found herself making ice cream (she limited the list to 50 people), eventually delivering it all around the neighborhood on her bike.

Now, Hardeman is the proud owner of a fifteen-gallon pasteurizer. “The law in New York is that you have to pasteurize everything, so we’re certified for that. We heat the ingredients to 160 degrees and keep them there for 30 minutes. That’s how we make the base. It gets chilled in that giant tank, then it goes into the fridge to infuse overnight.”

Many “homemade” ice creams, it turns out, are built on a premade, pasteurized base. “We could do that. There’s nothing really wrong with that,” Hardeman says. “But I don’t want to add to things, I want to create new things.

“I went to business school, and I always had entrepreneurial plans,” she goes on. “I worked in healthcare, then I worked in solar energy, but all the time I was going home and having a bowl of ice cream, just like when I was a kid and would sneak a bowl after school. Looking back it seems obvious, but I didn’t see ice cream’s potential as a business for me.”

Hardeman is equally adept at another aspect of the business: networking and social media. She has more than 1.5 million followers on Tumblr. “While I’m packing pints, I’m trying to take photos on my DSLR. We try to post every day and respond to people. It’s important to share the process. The visual is huge, I think. But the ice cream makes it easy. I mean, seriously. Ice cream always looks delicious!”

If you’re wondering, the list has reopened in New York City (and soon, nationally). Two pints of ice cream cost $30, one of each Flavor of the Month, which in the past have included delights like cinnamon buttered toast, double-cream Brie with cabernet caramel, rose with Mast Brothers milk chocolate swirl, and plum crumble. “We’ve done 130 flavors so far, and we’ve never repeated,” notes Diana. “That’s the really fun creative part for me. I’m always trying and experimenting and testing out new ideas.”



You Can Now Have Glatt Kosher Meal Kits Delivered Via Kitchn Synch

Over the past few years, meal kit delivery service like Plated and Blue Apron have revolutionized cooking at home — the companies deliver all of the tools for assembly of a recipe, plus said recipe, and promise that even if you’ve never used your oven for anything but storage, you can put out a solid meal in your own kitchen. Both companies launched in New York, and, as testament to their success, both have spread nationwide (and if you’d like to see a comparison of the two, we’ve tested them side by side). What they don’t offer, at least not in any expansive way, is meal kits for people with extensive dietary restrictions. You may be able to say that you don’t eat meat, but you can’t specify that you’re Paleo, for instance. And if you build your diet around religious strictures, forget it. That leaves the door open for companies like Kitchn Synch, a glatt kosher meal kit delivery service that launched this week.

Douglas Soclof, the company’s creator, built his entire career around glatt kosher food. His first restaurant was a glatt kosher barbecue restaurant that grew to fourteen locations, including outlets in Miami, upstate New York, and New Jersey. He dabbled in the kosher-coffee business. And then, he says, “I saw the trend in the non-kosher world in the meal kit industry, and thought, hey, what a great way to start servicing the kosher market.”

While the philosophy of servicing is the same as with Blue Apron or Plated — you order a meal, the components show up on your doorstep — Kitchn Synch is abiding by the very strict guidelines of the glatt kosher diet. Ingredients are painstakingly sourced from contacts Soclof has made over his years in the business, and you’ll never find, say, dairy and meat in the same box.

Soclof is finding global inspiration for his recipes, so you can expect to see items like sangria chicken, cauliflower fried rice, and an umami-dusted burger with fries. “We’re introducing a lot of unique dishes to the kosher consumer that they may not have had the opportunity to experience,” says the owner. “We might try to create as a kosher item something in the non-kosher world. Or bring things back from a nostalgic time. Or use old restaurant recipes, and culinary trends.”

As with Plated and Blue Apron, recipes are designed so everyone, from an inexperienced home cook to a seasoned kitchen pro, can learn something to add to their repertoire, and Soclof hopes to build an online community from people excited about the experience. “The past fourteen months of my life [were] committed to getting this project to where it is today,” he says. “The feedback has been unbelievable.”

You can order Kitchn Synch meals for two or four people, or opt for a family plan, which includes enough food for two adults plus three to four children under age fourteen. “Kosher trends usually follow non-kosher by years, not months,” says Soclof. “The meal kit business has not been around for business for a long time. It’s so exciting to be able to introduce this.”

Head to the Kitchn Synch website to order.



Katz’s Deli and S’Mac Now Delivering

Delivery just got a little more delicious on the Lower East Side.

Now you can satisfy your pastrami sandwich craving without braving the lines at Katz’s Deli. In the past delivery orders from the Lower East Side classic had an $80 minimum and a $20 delivery price tag tacked on, but the Times reports that Katz’s joined Seamless and Grubhub. There the minimums are just $15 and $10 respectively, and the delivery fee has been reduced to $2.95 in the East Village. In under an hour you can have what she’s having in your pajamas.

The mac and cheese gurus at S’Mac will now deliver to the Lower East Side from their kiosk outpost at First Park. An employee said delivery starts at 3:30 p.m. and the delivery radius spans from Grand Street to Houston, and from Broadway to the FDR.


Get Thanksgiving Delivered

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Why Does Everything Taste Like Chicken?

Blogger Wore Afro Wig to Fried-Chicken Party

For those of you too lazy to bother with making a turkey and unwilling to haul produce from your local farmers’ market, Local Roots NYC is offering Thanksgiving for delivery.

The organization is delivering fresh produce and dishes from local farms to homes in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. Turkeys are going for $4.95 per pound, and other selections include apple cider and beer bread.

Local Roots NYC is accepting orders up through Friday, October 26. Orders are submitted via an online form. You can have your feast delivered, or you can pick it up at any of its five locations.


Get Your Duck Schmaltz Fries Delivered! Kutsher’s Launches Delivery

Kutsher’s, the Jewish-American bistro in Tribeca, will now offer delivery service.

Delivery items are those that travel best from the restaurant like sandwiches, grilled skirt steak, and a roast chicken for two. For more about Kutsher’s, check out Fork in the Road’s recent interview with Zach Kutsher.