Food & Drink

Meals on wheels

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  • It's almost taken for granted that a pizza place will deliver to your home. But what if you're not in the mood for pizza? Most restaurants don't deliver, but two new businesses in Beaufort County are betting that bringing meals from your favorite spot to your home is something that can work in the Lowcountry, like it has across the country.

    Within the past year, Cabbie Cuisine in Beaufort and Dinner Runners in Bluffton have started to shuttle meals in their respective areas. They join the long-established Express Restaurant Delivery that serves Hilton Head Island.

    Restaurant delivery services, as they're called in the industry, typically work in similar fashions, serving as the link to connect the diner to that plate of rigatoni he or she might want to eat but not necessarily want to go get. Customers can go on the service's website, browse menus and place an order online or over the phone. For a fee (starting at about $6 locally), the delivery service buys your meal from the restaurant and drives it to your home.

    The concept of restaurant delivery services has been around for decades, but it's seemingly catching on locally as the county's population continues to grow.

    Bluffton resident Chris Donelson had been self-employed for most of his professional life, but he found himself delivering pizzas to make ends meet after a start-up business went under. He had used a delivery service when he lived in San Diego, and all that time hauling pizza gave him an idea: Something like that could work here.

    He started Dinner Runners in May, covering the greater Bluffton area. He now delivers from 22 restaurants in Bluffton and on Hilton Head. He has everyone from busy families and retirees ordering dinner to hungry workers in doctors offices, schools or other businesses looking for a quick lunch.

    "You have a lot of people who want to eat out but who just can't get away," he said.

    Between 250 to 300 restaurant delivery services operate in the United States, said Ron Patel, president of the Restaurant Marketing and Delivery Association. The industry began with Takeout Taxi in northern Virginia in the '80s, around the same time as the rise of the two-income family and decline of the home-cooked meal. Technology bolstered the industry's growth, as ordering and viewing menus became easier to do online.

    Many services are based in major metropolitan areas but some of the most successful are in small cities, Patel said. The business is tough to stay in because profit margins are low, he said. But if developed properly, a service can thrive even in a smaller market.

    Hilton Head doesn't have a large population, but Express Restaurant Delivery has been delivering meals for about 17 years. Todd Offen took over as owner in 1997 after previously working for the company. He now delivers during dinner hours from 17 island restaurants. He's tried delivering lunches before, but without a large corporate work force on the island, he found that the business only works in evening hours. Locals give him a steady base, but the tourist crowd is what really brings in profits. He hires up to seven part-time employees in the summer, compared to four in the off-season.

    For as well as the restaurant delivery business does in the summer, Offen also runs a magazine distribution business to supplement his income. The population of the area just doesn't make it so he can do food delivery full time.

    "I hope (the other services) do well, but it's a difficult business," said Offen, who helped Donelson start his business. "I've been doing this 17 years, and I've always had a second job."

    Like Donelson, Cadell Crawford started Cabbie Cuisine during tough economic times. She was a real estate appraiser in Atlanta before the market crash, but found herself working the customer service desk at Walmart when she moved to Beaufort. She wanted to be working for herself again when she thought back to a delivery service she used in Atlanta. The Beaufort area with its large military population seemed prime for a similar venture. If anything, it's allowed her an income and a business that she can run on her own terms.

    "There's a whole industry for pizza delivery," she said. "It just makes sense to make this work for restaurants."