How Food Delivery Apps Have Changed L.A.

They're making food miracles happen.

LA Food Delivery
Photo: © Getty Images

I play in a weekly poker game, which makes me, the father of two toddlers, worry about the future. I’m not concerned about compulsive gambling. And the weekly banter about Teslas and whirlwind trips to Vegas really doesn’t make me anxious about car infatuations or stripper poles or tequila-fueled benders. No, what scares the bejeezus out of me is what’s going to happen when my kids, who at three already can navigate YouTube on an iPad better than I can, learn how to use Postmates.

The guys at the poker game spend many hundreds of dollars each week using delivery services to order from all over town: ramen from shops in Little Osaka, pizza and pastas from Milo & Olive, trendy doughnuts and specialty pastries from various artisanal bakeries, Starbucks coffee, even Baconators from Wendy’s that I sampled on a dare (pretty good, actually). One player tells me that a huge struggle he’s had as a parent is explaining to his daughter that Postmates isn’t room service, that she can’t just wake up and order a Jamba Juice when he’s not home, but also that it’s a better value if you order multiple Jamba Juices at a time. (Parenting is complicated and involves many different kinds of lessons.)

This is really troubling, imagining what could happen with two children who have a father as food-focused as I am. Especially because I have no moral high ground on which to stand with them. But, whatever, my children won’t be able to read for a while, so I’m just going to declare this: Food delivery via services like Postmates, DoorDash, UberEats and Caviar, which can bring you dishes from great distances and from restaurants that don’t deliver themselves, is amazing. Not just for me but for the Los Angeles dining scene in general.

Here are five reasons why:

1. You can avoid tiresome lines.

Did you know that Sqirl, the café most responsible for LA’s avocado toast trend, is on Postmates? Sqirl delivery is also perfect for those days when you want Jessica Koslow’s sorrel pesto rice bowl and “famed ricotta toast” (yes, that is actually what this scenester-chic East Hollywood café calls its ricotta toast) but can’t stand the idea of standing behind dozens of people who would be willing to stand in line for a sorrel pesto rice bowl and toast with seasonal jam and housemade cheese.

Are you a downtown resident who’s unable to muster the fortitude to shove past the crowds inside Grand Central Market? Just use Caviar to order the best-in-town Sunday gravy from Bruce Kalman’s Knead or falafel from Sara Hymanson and Sarah Kramer’s Madcapra.

Sugarfish, an excellent and extremely popular LA restaurant chain that recently opened a New York outpost, is known for its omakase-for-the-masses sushi feasts. Instead of enduring an hour-long wait to sit down, I’ve used DoorDash to order from Sugarfish in both Marina del Rey and Studio City. Sugarfish is a favorite at the poker game in Brentwood, too.

2. The speed and convenience can be unbelievable.

UberEats has a whole section of restaurants that are available for door-to-door delivery in under 30 minutes, which is often less time than it would take you to get dressed, drive to the restaurant, park and walk inside. And even when you order from spots with longer timeframes, something wondrous can happen and your food shows up much more quickly than anticipated.

My favorite neighborhood restaurant in Studio City is The Bellwether. It’s the kind of globally influenced modern-American bistro that has food you crave over and over. The Bellwether is two-and-a-half miles away from me, about 10 minutes once I’m in my car. I once ordered via UberEats, and chef Ted Hopson’s perfect big-eye tuna crudo with a raw puttanesca-style sauce and Calabrian chiles showed up at my door in 16 minutes. I swear, I timed it.

What makes this even more astonishing, beyond the fact that my building has a really slow elevator, is that UberEats only tacks on a $4.99 delivery charge for this kind of miracle. Tips aren’t expected. And even when you use Postmates for one of those orders where you end up spending more than $20 on a delivery charge plus other fees plus tipping your driver, you might still win overall—because there’s no server to tip, you can drink your own booze at home, and you didn’t have to pay for valet parking or take a surge-priced Lyft to a hot restaurant. Postmates, BTW, just started alcohol delivery in LA too.

Note: This piece was written before the #DeleteUber movement started. So, now is a good time to stress that the beautifully diverse Los Angeles food scene is great because it celebrates the cultures and cuisines of immigrants and refugees. Starry Kitchen, which we mention later in the piece as an example of a business that benefited from the existence of UberEats, is a minority-run enterprise with a chef/owner who grew up in America after being born in Vietnam to Chinese parents. If you’re feeling conflicted about UberEats, you can always ask your favorite restaurant to sign up with another service. Maybe DoorDash, where founder/CEO Tony Xu offered free food to immigration lawyers over the weekend.

3. The delivery ranges can be hilariously broad, so you can try restaurants you wouldn’t otherwise patronize.

I had long wanted to try Kaya Street Kitchen, a fast-casual operation with Southeast Asian influences. But I live about eight miles away, on the other side of a scary hill, and it’s not worth it to drive or call a car for a 45-minute ride to a quick-service dinner. Then one night I noticed that for a $2.99 delivery charge, plus a nominal fee that would be largely offset by a 75-cent coupon, Kaya Street Kitchen could be delivered to my home.

After tipping 20%, my wife and I spent $28.92 to enjoy a coconut-lime rice bowl and a fresh green salad, both topped with shrimp-and-pork meatballs. It would have cost more than $30 just to take a car to the restaurant and back. Again, food delivery in LA is about making miracles happen.

It’s not just Kaya Street Kitchen. I’ve taken advantage of $2.99 delivery charges to regularly order dandan noodles from Lao Sze Chuan in Glendale (at least a 30-minute drive during rush hour, when I’ve ordered) and to order pork-collar ragu from Spartina on Melrose Avenue, several neighborhoods away from me, on New Year’s Eve.

4. It can be a lifeline for restaurants that have closed.

Starry Kitchen, which shuttered in February 2015 after unsuccessfully mounting a $500,000 Kickstarter campaign to save the restaurant, was resurrected on UberEats in July 2015. The crew made 250 orders of the restaurant's beloved tofu balls for what they thought was a one-evening-only offer. But they sold out so quickly that the UberEats system crashed several times, and hundreds of people who wanted balls in their mouth were denied.

Starry Kitchen proprietor Nguyen Transays says the experience has been unbelievable. “It opens at 5:00, and Uber tells me at 5:05 that they had 90% of their inventory booked. I was having to deal with two sets of emotions: People were elated that we were back, then people couldn’t get through and they were angry. There was a lot of action on Twitter that evening.”

Tran, who runs Starry Kitchen with his wife, chef Thi Tran, is a boisterous frontman who likes to make a ruckus. He’s long been known in LA for showing up to events carrying a bullhorn and wearing a banana costume. For UberEats, he put on one of his banana suits (yes, he has more than one), rode along with a driver and made some deliveries himself.

“I didn’t know if we’re relevant anymore,” says Tran, who signed up with UberEats as an experiment. “This was really a test. We are a very fickle city, whether it’s food or entertainment. When you go away, you’re gone, you don’t come back. You’re out of everyone’s mind.”

But it turns out that there was still a huge appetite in LA for Starry Kitchen’s aggressive brand of Asian food. Starry Kitchen kept delivering on UberEats every week. And in October 2015, the Trans opened Button Mash, a restaurant/bar/video arcade with food that can be delivered via Caviar, UberEats and Postmates. Starry Kitchen has a book coming out in June and expects to partner with a delivery service to celebrate.

5. It’s great advertising for restaurants.

When I tell Tran about some of the ridiculous things I’ve gotten delivery services to do, he tells me that it all makes sense. We both understand that well-funded startups are burning through their marketing dollars to subsidize deliveries and grow their customer bases. But Tran also points out that in the low-margin, high-difficulty food business (where restaurants are battling a rising minimum wage and a workforce that’s shrinking because would-be waiters and dishwashers realize they could have more flexible schedules being, well, Uber drivers), delivering food is an efficient form of marketing.

When he had Starry Kitchen in Chinatown, Tran’s business spiked after he started doing deliveries: “I would ask customers how they heard about us, and they would say, ‘I found you because of delivery. It’s great advertising; they’re paying for the delivery meal, and then they’re paying again.”

Tran has seen this process work as a consumer, too.

“I think delivery actually makes me go out more because I get to try places I’ve never heard of,” he says. “Then when it’s good, I’m like, I gotta go to the restaurant—because it’s going to be better there.”

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