Shawn Darragh is in the thick of planning a Fishtown offshoot for his perpetually packed Cheu Noodle Bar. Among the key considerations was one he and partner Ben Puchowitz had barely considered when Cheu opened three years ago: how to manage the ever-surging tide of delivery orders.
"When we're designing the kitchen and front-of-house, we're thinking, 'How can we make takeout easier?' " Darragh said. "Because, in the scheme of things, it's the easiest money you can make as a restaurant."
As a variety of new Web-based delivery services - Caviar, GrubHub, Postmates, and more - gain a foothold in Philadelphia, they're affecting the restaurant industry in surprising ways. Owners enjoy new revenue streams and unprecedented access to customer data, but also face logistical headaches and hefty service fees.
The bicycle couriers and double-parking drivers clogging the city's streets of late are delivering more than just food. They're also bringing a transformation of how it's consumed, and how restaurateurs are willing to serve it.
"There's a casualness that has penetrated the food world in the past five, six, or seven years. This kind of adds to it," said Valerie Safran, who does brisk delivery business at Little Nonna's and Lolita.
"I resisted it for a long time," she said. "I never wanted to confuse the customer, as we're a restaurant that you'd go out to dinner for vs. something as casual as takeout."
But one day, traveling, tired, and hungry, she tried it. It was ridiculously expensive - and totally satisfying. "So I said, 'This is real, and we need to pay attention to it.' "
It's a realization that has dawned on Silicon Valley execs and local entrepreneurs alike. Philadelphia's food-delivery wars now pit giants like GrubHub - which provides online ordering for 1,600 local restaurants and delivery for about 100 - against start-ups like Ardmore's Main Line Delivery and Blue Bell's Menu 123.
Some services, like Caviar, are rebranding delivery as a luxury option. It now works with 160 restaurants here. It sends a photographer to each to take beauty shots of dishes, and provides a tablet for taking orders.
Scott Steenrod, director of operations at Garces Group, said the service was one reason he was offering delivery not just at taco shop Buena Onda, but also at upscale Amada.
"In the past, if you asked a higher-end restaurant to offer their food for delivery, the answer was always an unequivocal 'No way!' " But, he said, the quality of these services has really improved the experience, making these restaurants more take-out-friendly." These additional sales have come without additional staff or space.
"If you get a solid delivery or takeout stream going," Steenrod said, "it generally just produces efficiency."
But, in subtle ways, it is changing how he does business. For one thing, he's able to analyze a new stream of data on customers: where they live, what they order.
And for new restaurants, handling deliveries is now a critical consideration. At the Amada offshoot opening in Manhattan, they'll go out through the bar, around the corner from the main entrance. It's all part of a novel calculus restaurant operators must consider.
People like Jeff Benjamin, who helped curate guest experiences at Vetri restaurants including Osteria, Alla Spina, and Amis, are now spending an unaccustomed amount of time contemplating take-out containers, seeking the right balance of heat retention and ventilation.
And they're weighing the fees delivery services impose. That can include a service fee to the customer and a cut of each order, often about 20 percent.
Greg Dodge, who owns Zavino in Center City and University City, said that delivery did boost revenue. But after the fees and to-go supplies, he says, "it's a sale that almost makes no profit." He sells about $500 worth of food daily through Caviar. But he's not sure how long he'll continue.
Yet, in planning his Bryn Mawr Zavino location, he's setting up a delivery entrance and a system for handling orders through Main Line Delivery. There, he figures, demand will be too high to ignore.
Besides, deliveries happen - whether restaurants sign on or not.
Safran said she'd never offer delivery from her popular restaurant Barbuzzo, but it's listed on the site Postmates, which promises delivery from almost anywhere. (At least, she said, there's no Postmates fee.)
Darragh, of Cheu, said he had spent hours trying to curb Postmates orders, which often caused confusion due to how they were placed - and that sometimes were not picked up. Since he had never signed up for the service, he had no one to call for help.
"It was a little bit of a nightmare," he said. "I have shut down service with them multiple times."By contrast, using Caviar, he can easily spike a dish that's running low or turn orders off altogether.
Still, even when restaurateurs do sign on, there are trade-offs.
"You're leaving it in someone else's hands to get the food there so it's not jostled, it presents well, it's still hot," said Ellen Yin, who owns Fork and High Street on Market.
(Orders placed through GrubHub and Caviar last week arrived in the promised time in impressively presentable shape.)
Yin minimizes the risk by offering High Street's breakfast and lunch menu, but not dinner, through Caviar. Fork is not on the delivery menu at all. To Yin, it's not worth it.
"The experience of Fork is the entire package. It's the experience of sitting in the dining room, having a really great wait staff, having the food delivered on a beautiful plate," she said. "It's not just convenience."