Curb appeal

Wade Spees/Staff

On a busy night, QuickFoxes driver Bridges Williams glides through an unceasing sequence of pick-ups and drop-offs. But at 8:11 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, Williams was briefly stuck at George and St. Phillip streets, idling behind a scruffy Kickin’ Chicken delivery car. A roundish young man, who had picked up a Tasty Thai to-go order at the same time that Williams was there fetching dinner for a stranger, ambled down the sidewalk with his bagged Styrofoam box. Food was again on the move in Charleston.

There’s no question that Charleston is one of the best cities in the country for eating out: Its place in the pantheon is so assured that The Washington Post is in the midst of a yearlong project to determine exactly which spot it occupies on the list of the nation’s top 10 food scenes.

Eating in is something else entirely. For reasons ranging from suburban sprawl to prevailing cooking techniques, it’s nearly impossible for stay-at-home diners to take advantage of Charleston’s culinary prowess. Nobody has yet figured out how to bump up the quality of food available to lawyers working late hours, parents tending to sick kids and “Mad Men” fans who want to have their wood-roasted triggerfish and watch the show too.

“Delivery,” says Robert Berry, chef of the forthcoming Pancito & Lefty, “is the next realm.”

Berry isn’t the only kitchen pro who thinks so. Dozens of new food delivery services have emerged lately in U.S. metropolises. If you’re hungry for sushi in San Francisco, your ordering choices include Postmates, which has lately transitioned from being a courier service to a major player in the $70 billion food delivery industry; Caviar, featuring a fully illustrated website underscoring its mission to ferry meals from “the city’s best restaurants” and, on certain days, Sprig and SpoonRocket, which showcase daily set menus.

In Los Angeles, Uber is experimenting with food delivery. In New York City, David Chang last month launched Maple, offering dishes from a former Le Bernadin chef direct to doorsteps. But in Charleston, beyond pizzerias and a few Chinese restaurants, the only option is QuickFoxes.

That situation has exasperated plenty of local eaters, including nearly half of the Yelpers who’ve posted their thoughts about the 4-year-old company: QuickFoxes is often criticized for long wait times, mixed-up orders and pricey fees. QuickFoxes charges $4.99 for delivery from its 130 partner restaurants, which turn over about 25 percent of each tab to QuickFoxes. Customers can order from any area restaurant they choose, but a fee equal to 20 percent of the total bill is tacked onto orders from nonpartner restaurants.

For many Charlestonians, the cost isn’t a deterrent. Williams’ first delivery on his Tuesday shift consisted exclusively of a green lemonade, driven from The Daily to a house near Race and Rutledge streets. The transaction cost $15.45, before tip.

“There are people in town that have to have that exact meal,” QuickFoxes founder and owner Mark Schwartz says. “We have people ordering three times a day.”

On the way to drop off a pair of tacos at a Wagener Terrace home, Williams talked about the customer’s interior decorating sense and described his dog before pausing: “It’s unbelievable how much I know about this guy just by delivering food.”

QuickFoxes handles 7,000 orders a month, and Schwartz says demand is growing. “The month of March was insane,” he says. “We went up 1,000 orders.”

To fulfill orders, QuickFoxes keeps about a dozen drivers on the road during its weekday hours of 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (weekends run until 2 a.m.) Williams, 23, applied for the job on the advice of a friend. “It doesn’t take much convincing for a college kid,” he says. “You’re making 70 bucks a night, listening to your own music. It’s like a food-and-beverage job, but you’re not tied to one particular place, and no one’s yelling at you.” The only requirements, he adds, are a reliable car, mobile phone and phone charger.

From a command center on upper Meeting Street, QuickFoxes’ dispatchers direct drivers through a phone system that functions like a walkie-talkie. It’s one of the high-tech ways that QuickFoxes, which receives 70 percent of its orders online, tries to compensate for the logistical challenges posed by scarce downtown parking, hard-to-find addresses, hostesses who fail to pick up the phone and cooks who prioritize dining room orders over pick-ups.

Schwartz likes to point out that Amazon, celebrated for its speed, has two or three days to fulfill an order. “We have 45 minutes.”

“It’s a very rushed business,” he continues. “Just like a restaurant, but even more so, because in a restaurant, when you walk in, you see the restaurant is slammed. On the website, you don’t see that.”

In response to lateness complaints leveled against his company, Schwartz says, “A lot of people don’t understand sometimes it’s not because of us: It’s usually because of traffic patterns or weather conditions. Downtown Charleston is growing so fast that just being able to maneuver is difficult.”

Williams spends a good portion of his shift trying to sneak into spots around Market Street without riling up parking attendants or police officers. But the compact dimensions of downtown may not impair efficient food delivery as much as the low density of residential areas beyond touristy corridors.

“Specifically, we have to service a larger area in order to do the same revenue,” explains Kenan Hopkins, founder and president of Valet Gourmet, which operates in Asheville and Knoxville.

Valet Gourmet, which started in 2003 as Blue Ridge to Go, is statistically very similar to QuickFoxes. According to Hopkins, the service works with 125 restaurant partners and handles about 7,500 orders a month. And like QuickFoxes, it’s bracing for increased competition.

Schwartz says he’s rebuffed inquiries from GrubHub and Seamless, online directories that rely on restaurants or third-party services to handle delivery. “The whole industry blew up and they all want our contacts,” says Schwartz, who’s introduced QuickFoxes to North Charleston and Charlotte, and plans to launch the service in Columbia this year. “Why am I going to share?” But if other independent services can puzzle out how to make food delivery work in a low-density market, they’re likely to consider expansion to smaller, food-focused cities.

To differentiate itself, Valet Gourmet stresses Southern hospitality. That means drivers send handwritten thank-you notes to customers. “We spend a lot of money on flowers just to give them away for free,” Hopkins says. The company also is very picky about its partner restaurants.

“We found our niche was to partner with mom-and-pops that are really reflective of hometown cuisine, or franchises with a local focus, like Farm Burger or Mellow Mushroom,” he says.

The current Valet Gourmet roster includes Chai Pani, Cucina 24, King Daddy’s Chicken & Waffles and King James Public House. “We don’t try to force ourselves into anybody’s business plan,” Hopkins says. “It’s either for them or it’s not. Really busy, small restaurants don’t work for our concept, and that’s mutual.”

Hopkins says the company has ditched a few partners for not honoring customer requests or taking too long to fulfill orders. Because delivery drivers aren’t allowed to open a box to make sure a burger isn’t topped with mayonnaise, they’re reliant on restaurants to help maintain Valet Gourmet’s reputation by producing orders precisely.

Of course, it’s not just the delivery service’s reputation at stake. Schwartz describes QuickFoxes as “a huge advantage to restaurants that need that extra cash flow.”

“They need the way to advertise,” he says. “The more the food is in front of the customer, they more likely they’re going to come into the restaurant.” The cost of insurance and complexities of scheduling are just two of the reasons lesser-known restaurants would want to outsource delivery.

Charleston, though, is home to many restaurants that aren’t hurting for exposure. Owners of those successful restaurants are often wary about entrusting their dishes to a service with middling online reviews.

“I mean no disrespect, but you’re putting your food in the hands of a stranger,” says Steve Palmer, managing partner of Indigo Road, the restaurant group behind Oak Steakhouse, O-Ku, Indaco and The Macintosh. “So I have no idea how it’s going to show up. We’ve been approached, and we’ve politely said no.”

Palmer says Oak Steakhouse packs up plenty of takeout burgers, but that’s only because the restaurant has more of a neighborhood presence than any other in the portfolio. Indigo Road kitchens aren’t designed for to-go orders, even though they specialize in the kind of dishes that eaters often want at home.

“The one we’ve gotten the most flak about is we don’t do pizzas to go,” Palmer says of Indaco, explaining that the thin crust is intensely fragile. Even at the restaurant, “if you get up and go to the bathroom, it’s ruined. I, on principle, hate saying no. The hospitable answer is yes. But we’ve had to say no: Some of the more quality dishes may not travel.”

Until someone devises a more innovative way to lift the caliber of delivery food locally, Palmer says, “I think you’re better off calling a restaurant and seeing if you can pick up something.”