It’s not even noon yet, and Sal Pozzuoli is so slammed with orders that there’s no time for small talk. In near silence, he orchestrates activities in the small kitchen like a conductor, sliding between two employees topping pizza at the counter, a refrigerated room towards the back, and the odd early lunch customer at the cash register. Occasionally he pauses to slide a pie out of the large brick oven.
A grandson to the original Joe of Joe’s Pizza, Pozzuoli has been orchestrating more or less the same routine for 11 years. But recently, he started working on a pizza recipe that required writing some new scores. This pizza is 14-inches wide, not the usual 16-inches. And it goes into the oven—cheese-less and naked—for a mere 90 seconds. Then comes the cheese, some time in the freezer, a vacuum seal, a pizza box, a Styrofoam-lined box, and dry ice.
What's the fuss about? Well, Joe's Pizza now delivers to new neighborhoods, some over 2,000 miles away. The future of food delivery has arrived, thanks to intrepid restaurants like Joe's Pizza and a company called Goldbely.
Special delivery requests are themselves not new; the magic is in the fulfillment. Kevin Spacey once asked Joe’s Pizza to ship a pie from New York City to a film set in London, and Joe’s Pizza said no. Or at least that’s the legend. "This story dates back a while, so I can't promise 100% accuracy," Ian Lafkowitz, a Joe’s Pizza business partner, explains. But like much folklore, the point stands regardless: Joe’s has never before bothered shipping its pizza to any of the transplanted New Yorkers who asked for it, no matter how famous they were.
Shipping something like a homemade pizza is a lot more complicated than delivering a book or a coffeemaker. Freeze the pizza too much and it might break in half on the way there. Make it the wrong size, and it will cost extra for shipping. Cook it too much or too little, and it won’t be crisp after you warm it up in your home oven. When Joe's did once last year try to send a pizza to a longtime customer who had relocated to Texas, the initial cost for shipping eight pies was $500. After Lafrowitz modified their containers (cutting up the pizzas, individually wrapping slices in plastic wrap) the price dropped to $250. Still, though, it wasn't an ideal solution: The slices got soggy, and Sal does not serve soggy pizza.
Figuring out exactly how to ship pizza perfectly didn’t seem worth it. That is, until Lafrowitz met another Joe, Joe Ariel, who had made shipping all sorts of foods from small local purveyors—New York hot dogs, Philly Cheesesteaks, Maine lobster rolls—his business. A transplanted New Yorker himself, Ariel very much wanted New York pizza delivered to his office in San Francisco.
"I like to think of myself as a food explorer," Ariel tells me as he orders a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s, a famous Jewish deli in New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood. "There’s a pompousness associated with foodie."
Ariel has been eating a steady diet of iconic foods since he founded Goldbely, a site that sells specialty local food items, last year. His office freezer is stuffed with Lou Malnati’s Pizzas from Chicago, and he tries to go to the gym three or four times a week to avoid a growing belly that would betray the fact that many of his business development efforts involve eating pizza, cookies, cakes, and hot dogs. Both the workouts and the business development have paid off. And from Salt Lick Bar-B-Que in Texas to Rappahannock River Oysters in Virginia, he has 324 food partners in 45 states. You can use Goldbely to order four different cities’ takes on pizza (including one from Missouri, who knew?) and eight cities’ attempts at barbecue. Since launching, Goldbely has received orders from more than 100,000 customers. Of those who have ordered more than once, 18% order monthly.
With Goldbely, Ariel says, "food explorers" don’t need to rely upon what their grocery stores carry in order to buy the foods they want. And small food purveyors don’t need to rely on a national chain picking up their product in order to develop large retail businesses. It’s a democracy.
The mission may be well timed. Chefs are celebrities, specialty food stores cause "frenzy," and people are spending more money on food experiences. Even as the percentage of disposable income Americans spend on food has declined steadily since 1960, the percentage they spend on food away from home has remained steady.
Meanwhile, it has become acceptable to order everything from mattresses to toothpaste online. Shipping sandwiches and baked goods and oysters and cheese across the country like it’s local Chinese takeout might just be the last frontier of e-commerce.
Pioneering is never particularly easy, however, and with food from small local shops, the biggest problem is logistics.
When the Katz’s pastrami sandwich arrives at the counter, for instance, it is a tall unwieldy heap of perfectly preserved meat that seems difficult to eat (at least, politely), let alone pack neatly into a box.
Starting last week, after a year of testing shipping methods, Joe’s Pizza became available for a limited amount of time through Goldbely.
It coasts $20, the same price as in the store, for the initial promotion, but Joe’s is finally planning an e-commerce business.
Most foods that Goldbely ships, like cakes, cookies, pastries, coffee, maple syrup, don’t require as much fuss as a New York City pizza. The process for packing them to ship is almost the same as packing them to sell in the store. But there are a few foods, like Joe’s Pizza, in which matching the shipped product’s quality to a chef’s standard involves a little more work. Cronut creator Dominique Ansel initially insisted there was no way to ship the dessert without ruining it. "We literally tried 15 different shipments in over six months," Ariel says. In the end, the bakery instantly flash froze and about 250 cronuts that it packed in dry ice and shipped to the handful of Goldbely customers who were lucky enough to catch the brief sale.
Katz’s Deli, on the other hand, has been mailing meat since World War II, when it launched a campaign urging citizens to "send a salami to your boy in the army." It’s pastrami sandwich, which seemed like such an unlikely candidate for FedEx when it was sitting on the counter, arrives in a kit, with the frozen sliced meat, a quarter pound of mustard, and rye bread fit together like a jigsaw puzzle inside the box. Pickles require a packaging routine that would make any environmentalist cringe (Ariel says Goldbely eventually plans to develop more planet friendly shipping materials). They arrive in a plastic tub that is placed in another plastic tub that is sealed with packing tape. And the whole shebang goes into a plastic bag—just in case. "You have to make sure the inside of the box is a world in itself," says Jake Dell, whose family has owned Katz’s for three generations, "and that the outside world isn’t going to damage it too much."
Neither Katz’s or Joe’s Pizza needs Kevin Spacey’s endorsement, let alone Goldbely’s endorsement. Both are famous enough to get cast in major movies on their own. Goldbely takes a percentage from each order. So why bother joining the site?
Most answers to that question, again, come down to logistics. One of them is that, by aggregating different specialty foods on one site, Goldbely also aggregates their fans—which exposes event he most famous food purveyors to new customers. As we tour Goldbely’s New York customers, eating as we go, it becomes clear that Goldbely’s newsletter, in particular, has a reputation for driving sales. Everyone has a new promotion idea for Joe to run in the email. Jake at Katz’s Deli suggests a Hanukkah special. Wayne Rosenbaum, the president of hot dog restaurant Papaya King, has an idea for a New York special box that could be collaboration with a few different iconic brands (Papaya included, of course).
Rosenbaum used to take orders by phone for shipments of Papaya King hotdogs, which have been made with the same recipe for the last 80 years. "I’d tell them the overnight shipping costs," he says, "and they would cry."
A six-pack of hotdogs cost $7, but to ship it overnight guaranteed cost about $25, which, I guess compared to the $55 pickle Katz’s Deli once shipped to California, still seems economical.
Shipping costs are a significant barrier for Ariel’s vision of democratizing food. Charging $79 for a dozen bacon, egg, and cheese cragels from Brooklyn does not a democracy make.
But Goldbely’s most meaningful logistical win is simply that its vendors all use the same FedEx account. Together they have so many orders that even small retailers like Cape Whoopies, a one-woman operation in Maine, get a 70% discount. Ariel expects that to be a 90% discount by the end of next year. Eventually, he hopes that ordering a Katz’s deli sandwich when you’re in Florida or Oregon will cost about the same amount as it does to order one in New York. "Everything starts premium," he says, citing Uber’s initial niche of luxury cars. "Then the economies of scale kick in and it becomes normal prices. Can you imagine getting anything in the country for normal prices? That’s truly democratizing food."
There’s a long way to go. Depending on the item, shipping costs and packaging still add between $5 and $50 to a Goldbely order. Many of its vendors can only handle a limited number of orders at one time. And most vendors, even some with big names like Papaya King, still count e-commerce as a small portion of their businesses. When we stop by the hot dog restaurant, Rosenbaum plies us with hot dogs and coconut champagne before leading us to what he calls "the inner-sanctum of the king," It’s a small cinder-block basement office where Wayne and Papaya’s marketing manager have desks. On one wall sits a stack of yellow T-shirts. The other has Papaya’s new shipping supplies.
Joe has brought a shipment of Muffuletta sandwiches from a deli in New Orleans to share, and when he opens it, Wayne fingers the crumpled brown paper that sits on top of the order. "This is the stuff we need," he says. He’s impressed with the fully assembled sandwich, and he’s equally impressed with its packaging, which wraps the disc-shaped sandwich inside plastic paper, deli paper, and a plastic bag, much as it's wrapped in the store. "It’s perfect," he says. "It’s packed so tight."