Urban independent restaurants turn to suburban deliveries

Around the country, operators are organizing large-order food drop-offs at suburban sites to reach far-flung diners in quarantine.
Frontera Grill
Photo courtesy DwellSocial


Rick Bayless, the award-winning celebrity chef and restaurateur whose Chicago dining rooms had long waiting lists pre-COVID, held a staff meeting recently. He told the assembled crew that just one thing was keeping business alive during these brutal pandemic winter months:

a newly launched operation to deliver large numbers of orders to suburban drop-off points.

“Without [that], we’d be having a lot of different conversations right now,” he told the staff. “That’s really keeping us afloat right now.”

“That” is a working relationship with Chicago-based DwellSocial, a tech platform launched in 2017 with the goal of aggregating neighborhood demand for home services, such as contractors and plumbers.

But when the pandemic shut down restaurants, DwellSocial CEO Allen Shulman had a different idea.

“The concept of aggregating demand for great food was this bug in my brain,” Shulman said.

So he reached out to one of his favorite Chicago spots, Pequod’s Pizza, and asked whether they would deliver up north, to suburban Northbrook, Ill., if he could get 10 orders at once.

“We became a home services platform with a fun feature to help people get Pequod’s Pizza,” Shulman joked.

Then, he contacted cupcake shop Sweet Mandy B’s. A group order for 25 sold out in  less than four minutes, he said.

“Immediately, we started realizing, there’s power in food, there’s joy in food, there’s excitement in food,” Shulman said. “We said to ourselves, ‘We have to leave home services behind and focus on restaurants.’”

Today, DwellSocial has 60 Chicago restaurants on its platform, with more joining every day, he said.

DwellSocial appears to be one of the few services aggregating multiple city-based restaurants for suburban pickups. Around the country, though, a number of independents are trying to extend their reach by bringing their food to the suburban masses.

Philadelphia-based Fork restaurant launched a “Fork on the Road” program to bring dinner to the surrounding suburbs. The restaurant’s offerings, such as a Lemon-Braised Chicken Dinner Box and a Porterhouse Steak Dinner Box, are available at several suburban pickup points seven days a week, with a day’s advance notice. Orders are placed via the Tock pickup and delivery platform.

Multiconcept operator One Off Hospitality is running a Supper Club subscription package. Under the program, which costs $170 to $285 depending on add-ons, diners get one family-style meal each week for three weeks, to pick up at a location in various Chicago suburbs. Orders are placed via Tock.

A recent menu included gem Caesar salad, roasted broccoli, meatballs and coconut panna cotta from the Publican one week; a squash salad, tamales, brisket taco and horchata rice crispy treats from Dove’s Luncheonette the second week; and crackers with roasted beet muhammara, fattoush salad, roasted chicken with Persian rice, pita, and chocolate cheesecake brownies from Avec Rotisserie the final week.

Dinners are available for two to four people, with optional add-ons such as cocktails from The Violet Hour or baked goods from the Publican.

DwellSocial’s Shulman said his service is the “middle player” between third-party delivery platforms such as Grubhub and Uber Eats and Goldbelly, a nationwide shipper of restaurant food.

“It’s a marketplace that’s been ignored,” he said.

To participate in one of DwellSocial’s drop-offs, diners pay a $5 reservation fee. That money goes directly to the platform. A restaurant’s offering must meet a minimum group order to get the go-ahead. If not, customers get their $5 back.

Currently, restaurants pay nothing to participate.

“We went into this to support restaurants in crisis,” Shulman said. “That’s the reason our business is here.”

By spring, however, DwellSocial will likely charge operators a 10% administrative fee, he said.

Restaurant meals are picked up cold, with reheating instructions. Pickups were taking place in school and park district parking lots. But Shulman is now looking to partner with complementary businesses, such as local breweries, to use their drive-up space.

“We are poised to grow and grow quickly,” he said. “We’ve been contacted by restaurant groups around the country who are interested in our model. My guess is that, within six months, we’ll have a much bigger team.”

Bayless and his team started doing one delivery a week through DwellSocial, renting a truck to transport Frontera Grill taco fixings and more to the suburbs. He’s now doing two suburban drop-offs per week.

On a recent day, his crew was preparing 160 orders headed for Downer’s Grove, Ill., about 20 miles west of Chicago.

“We start working on it the day before and pack everything up the morning of,” he said. “It’s actually really great for us. We can do it all in down times.”

Bayless, though, is unsure whether he’ll continue with the program once the weather is more friendly to outdoor dining and when indoor dining capacity restrictions ease. For one thing, it becomes more complicated to transport cold taco fillings during the height of summer, he noted.

But Bayless has been heartened by the number of new stomachs he appears to be reaching.

“A lot of these people eating our food in the suburbs have never been to our restaurants,” he said. “They say, ‘We’ve always wanted to try your food and now you’re bringing it to us.’”

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