The manapua man and the milkman could be considered two of Hawaii’s food delivery specialists in the early to mid-20th century, when few people had cars and the vendors could count on housewives being at home to buy their wares.
Door-to-door service trickled off in the post-World War II commuter age, although neighborhood pizza shops did step up with delivery drivers to take care of occasional bouts of laziness.
For a long time that was enough. But technology has ushered in a new era in home delivery, with everything from ramen to couscous available via a few clicks on your computer or phone to services such as Bite Squad, Postmates and Uber Eats.
Experiences vary, and whether the services work for you often depends on your personal situation and temperament.
Linh Owen, business manager for Fighting Eel and busy mother of two daughters, said she tried Bite Squad the first time last month when her car was being serviced.
She took the leap with an order from Sumo Ramen. It arrived on time, with the noodles separated from the broth to create an experience close to eating at the restaurant itself.
“My girls were like, ‘Wow, it’s more than pizza now. We can get anything!’”
Still, Owen said she wouldn’t order delivery from an upscale restaurant.
“Those are the places where you want to get the full experience and be waited on, but for casual food I love the convenience. I don’t mind paying a $2.99 or $3.99 delivery fee if I don’t have to get the kids into the car, drive to a place or a parking lot I hate.”
Some nationwide services have been in business six to seven years but are relatively new to Oahu.
Bite Squad got its start in Minneapolis in 2012. It entered the Hawaii market in 2016, absorbing its local predecessors Room Service in Paradise and Aloha2Go to gain an advantage in driver numbers and restaurant partners. Room Service in Paradise had been the granddaddy of delivery services on Oahu, in operation since 1996.
Uber Eats, an extension of the on- demand ride-hailing service Uber, launched in 2014 and capitalizes on its established network of drivers for hire. It introduced Oahu service in November.
Postmates has been around the longest, having launched in San Francisco in 2011. It also became available on Oahu in November. Beyond food, the company advertises an ability to deliver anything, from alcohol to groceries to toiletries.
The companies are reluctant to talk about their local strategies for competitive reasons, but they will say how optimistic they are about the market.
“With a really vibrant food scene, a large and diverse population and — at times — traffic-constrained dense areas, we thought Postmates would be a good fit for the market, and we’ve seen really strong growth since we’ve launched,” said April Conyers, senior director of corporate communications at Postmates.
With the expanding services have come growing pains, including restaurant partners ill-equipped to deal with extra demands. This can be reflected in inaccurate posted menus, inadequate takeout packaging, and delays during lunch and dinner rushes.
“If the phone order comes in the middle of the lunch or dinner rush, it might be behind five or more in-house orders,” said Ed Morita, a pastry chef at The Modern Honolulu, who dealt with drivers while at Highway Inn, Kakaako. “At that point you have to decide whether to let the driver wait or move that order to the front of the line at the potential detriment of service for your dine-in guests.
“Whether dine-in or takeout, all customers are equally important. The drivers don’t necessarily think that way.”
With more experience on both sides, services should improve. “They have to,” said Henry Yoon, a founding partner of DB Restaurant Group, owner of DB Grill and Cafe Duck Butt. Yoon has tried the services from a customer’s perspective and found much to be desired, considering how lucrative they are for the companies that run the services.
What diners don’t know is that some of the services charge restaurants initiation fees as high as $500 and often require discounts of 25 to 30 percent on food, cutting into the restaurants’ profits.
“My issue is not the initiation fee, but how much they’re charging us as vendors,” Yoon said. “Restaurateurs are going to have to decide whether a potential 5 to 10 percent increase in business is worth it.”
The extra exposure is a plus for smaller, unknown restaurants. Conyers said merchants in other cities typically see their revenue quadruple after joining the platform, which allows them to reach new customers.
Yoon just signed up his Kakaako restaurant, Duck Butt, with Bite Squad, but the service has not yet reached Kapolei, so he plans his own lunch delivery service for DB Grill, to serve customers within a 2.5-mile radius of Ko Olina Resort.
He considers delivery the wave of the future, given Hawaii’s aging population and a younger audience accustomed to paying for convenience.
“There are growing pains on both sides, but for restaurants you’re either in it or you’re not, and we plan to be in it.”
For local entertainer Catherine Fong, delivery was a godsend for her 78-year-old mother living in Spokane, Wash.
“She wasn’t able to cook for herself, so I started looking for companies that could deliver something healthy.”
Fong said she used food delivery services for about eight months before her mother moved into an assisted-living facility.
She ordered the food by phone for her mother, noting that many who need such services may not be able to do so on their own.
“Older people may not have a phone — or not the right kind — or a computer,” she said.
“She would also tell me she wanted to call and get the menu and talk to the people to make special requests. I had to say, ‘Mom, it doesn’t work that way.’”
Able-bodied singles can have a harder time justifying the cost of the services.
With taxes, fees and tip, a $20 order can easily reach $35, more than the cost of eating in. Bite Squad charges an extra fee that goes toward compensating drivers who are company employees, not independent contractors.
“I’m still trying to figure out what works,” said Mitchell Dwyer, a writer for the University of Hawaii Foundation. “Postmates has a $9.99 monthly plan for unlimited deliveries, so if you place an order four times a month, you’re ahead.”
Dwyer said the services let him enjoy food from restaurants he’s uncomfortable dining in; for example, “I don’t like bars but I like bar food,” he said.
He was also curious about Ethiopian Love, a downtown restaurant that specializes in large platters intended to be shared. Families and couples are encouraged to feed each other by hand in the Ethiopian tradition.
Dwyer said it looked like a date restaurant, always full of couples when he peeked in.
“I was happy to get to try it without the social awkwardness.”
>> Restaurant delivery success requires patience, attention to detail
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.