Restaurants Go Where the Customers Are: Home!/Sahlins to Consult at Court?/Steve Edelson Gets Tough | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants Go Where the Customers Are: Home!/Sahlins to Consult at Court?/Steve Edelson Gets Tough

Paul Tumberger of Chef's Express and Brian Keil of Room Service represent the latest wrinkle in the restaurant biz: meals on wheels for upscale stay-at-homes, at little or no charge over regular menu prices.

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Restaurants Go Where the Customers Are: Home!

Restaurateurs may not be doing the big business they were a couple of years ago, but the savvy ones aren't waiting for customers to show up again; instead they're taking the food to their customers where they seem to want it--in their homes and offices. While new restaurant openings have slowed to a snail's pace all over town, Room Service and the recently inaugurated Chef's Express, the city's two largest restaurant delivery services, are in a growth mode. Each offers a range of restaurant choices, in abbreviated versions of the same menus (and at the same prices) customers would see if they were sitting in the establishments themselves. Customers phone or fax their orders in, and in 60 or 70 minutes their food arrives ready to eat.

The powers that be behind both Room Service and Chef's Express believe the service they offer will grow more popular for a couple of good reasons: people are working longer hours, and for many yuppie couples with young children, going out to dinner is more of a bother than eating at home. That suits the operators of these services just fine. At Chef's Express, an arm of the Levy Restaurants chain, as much as 20 to 35 percent of the total cost of a delivered dinner can drop to the bottom line, versus 12 to 20 percent of the cost of a dinner ordered in a restaurant. "When customers order through Chef's Express," explains manager Paul Tumberger, "we don't have to add extra waiters, bartenders, or cooks." When the weather is bad and Levy restaurants are empty, use of Chef's Express shoots up accordingly. Room Service, an independent delivery service that contracts with the restaurants on its roster, pockets between 25 and 35 percent of the total cost of each order, plus a $4 delivery surcharge for each restaurant from which food is ordered. Room Service, which started approximately three years ago, has had more time to perfect its operation; Chef's Express has the advantage of charging no delivery fee. Convenience rather than cost, however, seems to be more of a concern to those using the services. According to Room Service CEO Brian Keil, research indicates that his customer base is affluent, well-educated, and surprisingly young, almost three-quarters between the ages of 25 and 44. About 72 percent earn more than $50,000 a year, and 58 percent have some sort of postgraduate degree.

Both Room Service and Chef's Express are actively investigating ways to improve their services and increase revenues. Room Service continues to add new restaurants to its roster, while Chef's Express is putting in a computer to speed up processing time and keep track of customer preferences. Because trucks are banned from Lake Shore Drive, Room Service is working on a modified automobile transport system that will enable them to deliver food farther and faster. Even so, there are some obstacles that may be impossible to overcome. "It's tough to deliver food in the Wrigley Field area when the Cubs are playing," says Tumberger.

Will the growth of Room Service and Levy's entry into the delivery business bring other major players in? Rich Melman's mammoth Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises says it has no plans at the moment to follow the Levy organization into the home delivery business. But LEYE already offers food from three of its restaurants through Room Service. And if the business continues to grow, LEYE could be convinced it pays to deliver.

Sahlins to Consult at Court?

It now appears that Bernard Sahlins may be getting close to a consultancy position with the Court Theatre at the University of Chicago. Several sources close to the deliberations say that Court's board of directors will meet on October 20 to decide whether Sahlins and an associate, Pam Marsden, will become well-paid consultants at Court, which is devoted primarily to classical theater. Sahlins confirms that there have been discussions about a consultancy. Previously he and Marsden were named as potential candidates for the vacant position of producing director at Court, but Nicholas Rudall, Court's longtime artistic director, has apparently decided the theater does not need a full-time staff member with that title. "We are considering several internal promotions to handle management of the theater," says Rudall, but he has told board members he could use the consulting services of Sahlins and Marsden in a variety of ways. "Bernie has national and international connections that could be valuable to Court," says Rudall, adding that Marsden's role, if any, is still under discussion. Taking on both Sahlins and Marsden as consultants does not appeal to all Court board members. "How do you know who to pay for what?" wonders one. Another feels Sahlins, a Court board member himself, should volunteer his expertise rather than accept a consultant's fee. "It's a mistaken notion all the way round," says this board member. Sahlins is a very visible and well-known member of the theater community, having founded Second City and then gone on to start up the short-lived Willow Street Carnival, which folded abruptly with thousands of dollars worth of bills unpaid. In recent years Sahlins and Marsden have worked with Sahlins's wife, Jane, at the International Theatre Festival of Chicago.

Steve Edelson Gets Tough

Steve Edelson doesn't give up. His plans for a club at Halsted and Superior fell through, so now he has turned his attention to the former Rhythms on Wells at 1531 N. Wells, aiming to transform it into a restaurant-nightclub that he plans to call the Tough Club. "It will be classy with a dark twist," says Edelson, referring to such festive decorations as "a hanging Harley" and a fishtank full of piranhas. "I like a feeling of danger," explains the veteran nightclub operator. Edelson is planning to bring in Dimitri Alexander, formerly of Alexander's in River North, to create a menu; he hopes to open by Thanksgiving.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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