Why Chef-Driven Delivery Is the New Frontier of Food

There's been a growing trend in the restaurant industry over the past few years. Americans want better food, faster — we're busy, hungry, and our palates have evolved. And we're looking beyond Chipotle and other fast-casual concepts for convenience, too. These days, we're demanding better delivery from better restaurants. David Chang's Maple recently launched in the financial district, and it's been widely hailed as revolutionary in the dining world. But it's just one of a growing roster of gourmet delivery services.

Maple has received the most credit and fanfare thanks to Chang, executive chef Soa Davies, and Chang's culinary board, which includes renowned chefs Mark Ladner and Brooks Headley from Del Posto and ABC Kitchen alum Dan Kluger. Yet Maple is just one new addition to this steadily growing industry. Munchery, which espouses similar principles, launched in the Bay Area in 2011. Savory was introduced to NYC three and a half years ago. All three aim to present a solution to busy workers looking to get a high-quality meal without leaving the office or home.

"Our goal is to make delivery exceptional from every touchpoint," says Caleb Merkl, the co-founder and CEO of Maple. "We looked at the online food ordering space; it's plagued with lots of problems. It's an unreliable experience with overwhelming choices and price points, and a lack of quality."

This concept falls somewhere between third-party apps like Seamless, through which you place an order to a specific restaurant, and Plated or Blue Apron, which deliver ingredients and a recipe to your door and require you to assemble them. Maple takes care of every aspect of the meal in-house, and delivers a complete meal to you.

The sourcing, menu, cooking process, delivery, and more are overseen by chief culinary officer Chang and Davies, who is formerly of Le Bernardin. High-quality ingredients are sourced from the chefs' existing roster of provisioning companies. Maple uses the same fish supplier that Davies did at Le Bernardin. Meats are hormone- and steroid-free. Beef is grass-fed. Local ingredients are incorporated whenever possible. When Merkl requested salmon, he says, Chang gave him a lecture on the detriments of farm-raised salmon and the unlikeliness of finding wild salmon within the price point. They opted for arctic char instead.

Each day, three lunch options and three dinner options are offered for $12 and $15, respectively, including tax, tip, and delivery fees. More than 200 wholesome recipes have been nailed down by the culinary team, each of which takes into account delivery time and packaging. Typically, you'll find a couple of lean proteins with a vegetable and a side of grain. Recent items have included a chorizo muffuletta sandwich and coconut green curry chicken. A vegetarian option, like veggie lasagna or enchiladas, is always part of the offerings. And you'll frequently find ingredients like bacon and brie (which was used on a grilled cheese) incorporated, too.

Everything is designed to travel well. "Something like french fries doesn't fit into the well-balanced side of it," says Merkl. "Even if it was, we wouldn't try it unless we found a breakthrough someone else hasn't."

To bring it all together, the team looked at hundreds of packaging options to evaluate for function. Does it carry heat? Does it create too much steam? The company went with the best available option, but the Maple team is already developing its own custom packaging.

Delivery time is an integral component. So far, the company is working out of its central kitchen downtown, where all the prep takes place. Each meal is fired to order, plated (or artfully packed), then sent out within a five-minute bike ride radius. The goal is to have it at your place within 30 minutes of ordering. Over time, the company plans to build out an infrastructure throughout the city, expanding to areas where it sees the greatest response or number of sign-ups on the site. "We're not going to move until we feel we've checked all the boxes," says Merkl. "When people evangelize the food, then we'll expand."

As for Maple's competitors, Savory and Maple have a lot in common. Both have streamlined the process with delivery-appropriate meals done completely in-house. And both have recruited culinary talent from renowned restaurants; Savory has assembled a team of chefs who have spent time at institutions like Bouley, Momofuku, Canyon Ranch, the Mandarin Oriental, Whole Foods, and Union Square Hospitality Group. Yet the models differ. Where Maple offers just a few choices daily, Savory serves dozens of items for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with five to seven new specials weekly. Items range from yogurt parfait ($4/$6) to cobb salad ($16) to the "Big Jerk" ($20), an all-natural, hormone-free chicken with a sweet and spicy Jamaican rub, served with quinoa and wok-fried green beans.

"Our whole thing was, from the get-go, to re-imagine delivery," says Savory founding partner Dhruv Singh. "We focused on trying to keep a low profile and figure out how to do it to the best of our ability."

Currently, Savory delivers within a 40-block range of its transparent kitchen and grab-and-go retail space (15 West 39th Street; 212-757-6100), but, Singh says, the company is looking to expand further, with similar production facilities throughout Manhattan and the outer boroughs. "We want to have all products happening very closely to customers, not food made in a central kitchen with reheating facilities," says Singh. "We want fresh-cooked food that's made to be eaten every day."

Over the past three years, Singh and his partners have seen about an 80 percent repeat rate among customers. And with new companies emerging in the space, it seems as though the trend of delivery-based concepts will only continue to grow and expand. Chang told bonappetit.com, "I don't think the future of food's gonna take place in a restaurant, in a traditional sense. To me it's very similar to when the first dot-com thing happened and people were like, 'There's gonna be no more retail stores anymore. It's done!' No, they're gonna be around, but this gives an option that is very important, particularly in New York City, where people work their asses off and get home and don't want to cook. I think they should be able to know that their food's being responsibly sourced and cooked with proper technique."

Singh agrees. He still sees traditional restaurants as the primary dining choice for Friday and Saturday nights, but his own experiences in corporate America have shown him that with increasing demands on New Yorkers and American workers as a whole, the time and place for cooking at home and eating out has evolved. "We're really here to make our customers' lives easier," he says. "Looking at how our lives have changed in the last four years — Uber didn't exist — I think our relationship with food will continue to evolve."

Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.




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