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New O.C. Firm Takes the Effort Out of Takeout

March 11, 1995|HOPE HAMASHIGE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Takeout Taxi, hoping to succeed in Orange County where others have failed, is taking aim at busy parents who are too tired to cook or eat out--and who certainly don't want fast food.

For a $3.50 delivery charge, Takeout Taxi will bring the food home from one of 15 sit-down restaurants in Huntington Beach that don't have delivery services of their own. Residents of Huntington Beach and parts of Fountain Valley can get complete dinners from such eateries as Marcello's, Baci, Pasha, Market Broiler, Sammy's Bistro and Chili's.

Takeout Taxi, operating only three weeks, already is getting repeat customers and delivers up to 100 meals a night, said co-owner Lou Buchieri. "Some people already have used us eight, nine or 10 times," he said.

Buchieri and partner Susan Jahn, who met as co-workers in the furniture business, are following in the footsteps of others who have tried to serve those who prefer to stay home in their cocoons.

Restaurant Express, for instance, sent tuxedo-clad waiters to deliver pricey meals to its weary customers in the wealthy enclaves of Newport Beach in the late 1980s. But the company went out of business.

Buchieri and Jahn figure that they may have a leg up on other start-up delivery services. Their Takeout Taxi, like one in Marina del Rey, is part of a Herndon, Va., chain with a track record in delivery services.

The affiliation helped to bring down their start-up costs, though the pair still needed to put up $100,000 of their own money to open for business. And with group insurance for their 11 drivers, the franchise operators expect to save $70,000 in premiums this year.

More important, though, the franchise gave them use of a computer system that stores all the restaurant menus, automatically totals orders, directs drivers to restaurants and points out the quickest routes to their customers' homes.

"It is an amazing computer system," Buchieri said. "The technology is so sophisticated. It really makes our lives easier."

Catering to cocooners goes beyond meal deliveries.

Grocery stores such as Vons Pavilions offer home delivery of groceries to customers who don't have enough time to shop. Vons' home delivery service has had steady growth, becoming brisker since 1991, when customers were given the option of ordering via personal computer, according to spokeswoman Julie Reynolds.

Likewise, more and more dry cleaners are offering pickup and home delivery.

But making it in restaurant delivery can be difficult. Many have come and gone because there is more to the business than driving from one place to another, said Michael Rhodes, president of the Orange County chapter of the California Restaurant Assn.

"The trick is getting the orders correct and ensuring the quality level of the food," Rhodes said. "If the food gets there and is lesser quality because of the delivery time, it could actually hurt the restaurant."

Still, there are some Southern California successes. Gourmet Courier, started six years ago by Mark Esslinger and Glen Steel in Beverly Hills, delivers cuisine from some of the finest restaurants in the priciest part of Los Angeles.

Co-owner Brett Harmon said the key to his company's success is using the restaurants that its affluent client base would normally go to for dinner.

Charging $3 to $5 per delivery, Gourmet Courier delivers food from California Pizza Kitchen, Tribeca, Kate Mantilini, Sushi on Sunset and Da Pascuale. It now generates more than $2 million in revenue and has expanded to deliver meals from 150 restaurants in Studio City, Brentwood, Encino, Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena.

The single biggest event in the company's short life was the Persian Gulf War, Harmon said. During those days early in 1991, many people, their eyes glued to CNN and other televised reports, discovered Gourmet Courier.

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