City Life “You’ve Got Food”

The new online grocery services are full of whizbangs...and pitfalls.

After a long day, 1 walked into my house only to be knocked over by reality. Once again I had failed to get my clothes to the cleaners, forgotten to return the rented video sitting in my VCR, and couldn’t cross off one item from my ever-expanding “honey-do” list. And I don’t have a honey to blame.

Starving, 1 opened the refrigerator to find six different varieties of mustard (including two Grey Poupons), a wide assortment of salad dressings, pickles, and a half jar of Paul Newman’s Bombolina sauce crusted with brown fuzzy spots. I would have rather gone to a Mavericks game than to gel back in my car and go to the grocery store.

Historically, going to the market has meant more than just picking up supplies; it’s been a community event. My mom always geared up for her one big day a week at A&P where she ran into all her friends and swapped stories while they waited for their roasts to be weighed and their coupons to be counted. She always returned with a car full of brown bags containing enough groceries to feed our family of five for a week.

Over the last decade, we have broken away from the “stock up” mentality and we now shop more like Europeans by buying fresh items from specialty bread and produce boutiques and consuming them the same day. That’s really just a romantic way of admitting that we don’t have enough time to think a few days in advance, much less plan and buy our weekly food supply. Now we think in terms of meals, not weeks.

In an effort to keep up with the changing pace, grocery stores have remade themselves into one-stop centers with mini-banks, pharmacies, bakeries, and take-out counters under one roof. I still have trouble gearing myself up to shop at these giant stores. Once inside, you have to be willing to walk the length of several football fields if your list includes apples and aspirin. Nobody is ever around when you need help to find bread crumbs (they are never with the bread). Just trying to find a parking space is enough to make you opt for the drive-through at the inevitable Wendy’s next door.

Enter the Internet. In 1995 Tom Thumb debuted in cyberspace with Peapod.com. I remember getting a floppy disk in the mail, and laughing at the idea. Who would buy groceries from a service that sounded like a maternity store? The idea of buying Hellman’s Mayonnaise via my computer was just too foreign. And cruising the information highway back then was about as easy as Central Expressway at rush hour,

Apparently many people got on the road. Albertson’s is now in the game with an online shopping service, albertsons.com. The newest online grocer is GroceryWorks.com with big plans to revolutionize how we shop. Founded by 29-year-old Dallasite Kelby Hagar, Grocery Works is a sophisticated “virtual store” stocked with more than 10,000 items-from Fruit Loops to fresh fish, meat, and produce along with gourmet products supplied by the same wholesale vendors who cater to upscale restaurants. And if baking a potato stretches your culinary skills, you can order prepackaged meals through the service from Eatzi’s.

While the other online services pull orders from one of many stores {Tom Thumb pulls from five) Grocery Work s fills orders from its 90,OCX)-square-foot warehouse, concentrating inventory that would fill 15 grocery-stores into one location.

Talk about changing the world. Hagar’s mission, he says, is to make food shopping easier and faster-the mantra of the day. Count me a skeptic. Even though I’m comfortable ordering books, airline tickets, and cameras on my computer, I’m suspicious about purchasing my dinner with a mouse, So I decided to see what went on behind the icons.

Corporate headquarters in Carrollton was hard to miss-a row of 45 shiny tan and green refrigerated trucks were backed up to the rolling doors of the mammoth warehouse. Once inside. Hagar steered me through the large receiving area where staffers in ski suits fill the huge walk-in refrigerators and freezers. Long tracks of conveyor belts weave in and out of aisles stocked nearly to the ceiling with thousands of name-brand staples. Employees walk beside the moving lime-green containers filling orders by, in Hagar techno-speak, “putting the light” or scanning the orders. After the plastic “totes” have been filled, they eventually line up behind a pre-assigned delivery truck. Theoretically, it works like a clock; in real life, it looks like an industrial version of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory.

It’s not like Hagar started out as a stock boy and worked his way to [he top of a potential grocery empire. After he graduated from Harvard Law School, he joined the Dallas office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “I specialized in mergers and acquisitions. But I quickly realized that what I really loved was the deal-making that happened in the meeting room, not the documentation that followed. I wanted to get into business-especially a business that offered the opportunity to explore e-commerce potential. I’ve been an enthusiastic user of on-line research since college,” said Hagar from his small office cluttered with pictures of his high school sweetheart and wife Brenda. and their 18-month old son, Trenton. The affable Hagar looks more like a friendly neighborhood store manager than the man whose prototype for online shopping could be the model for future virtual shopping services.

At the time of my visit. Grocery Works was still ironing out the kinks. Their multi-media web site was in place, but deliveries had only been made to employees or fellow guinea pigs. Back in his office. Hagar pulled up the site and walked me through the process. Of course he made it look easy. 1 gave him my usual shopping list: Grape Nuts, milk, bananas, apples, paper towels, and toilet paper. Within three minutes my cart was full and I was proceeding to check out.

After filling out a short form (yes, another password to remember) and credit card information, I scheduled my delivery time within a guaranteed one-hour window. 1 sat back to imagine what life would be like having some cute deliver)’ guy show up every Saturday morning with my selected list of goodies. Who doesn’t like room service?

Hagar has done his homework. His marketing studies show that 85 percent of our grocery purchases are repeat buys, making webpage selections easy. It’s an unemotional purchase to click on Tide, Blue Bell, or Pampers because you know what you’re getting. But he’ll have a hard time getting me to buy a tomato that I can’t eyeball or a cantaloupe 1 can’t sniff. After all, food is a passion of the senses, and the connection is strong between feeling, smelling, and touching what we are eating. Still,I bought Hagar’s logic that 1 could save time by ordering my “usual suspects” online, and have more time to chew the fat with Craig the butcher or cruise the Fanner’s Market for melons,

GroceryWorks is full of all kinds of bells and whistles for people who really get into the whole computer mentality. I’m talking about the list makers and the planners who actually understand computers and adapt easily to new software programs. GroceryWorks offers “List Minder”-a section that enables you to compile running prep lists for parties, adding details as you plan. Lists can be stored for two years, so when the yearly Christmas party rolls around, you have a reference point. (No more excuses for forgotten cocktail napkins,) “Community Cafe” is a section full of upcoming food events, entertainment ideas, and recipes-just point to a lasagna recipe and the listed ingredients are automatically added to your order. A running total on the left keeps you informed of how much you’ve spent.

There are some other neat tricks. Anyone on a low-salt diet can preset how products are pulled up: every item selected is ranked by salt content. Allergic to peanuts? A “pro-hibitors” warning lets you know when you’ve clicked on anything containing nuts.

Inspired by Hagar’s sales pilch,1 decided to give it a try. When I got back to the office, I planned to go online and surprise my coworkers with a free lunch, and at tile same time, show off my computer skills, which are currently less than legendary.

Since GroceryWorks wasn’t fully operational, I started with . For the next 55 minutes. I struggled through a series of prompts, lists, and icons of talking apples. When I finally made it to the delivery schedule screen, a perky message flashed on the screen directing me to “Select a Drive-Up” store location. What? Now 1 have to go pick it up? Of course. I was asking the impossible-downtown delivery. 1 tried to go back into my profile and change to m; home address, but the program just kept spitting me back to the same page. I documented my progress (or lack of) by printing every step it I took to order six items. Frustrated and gro-ceryless. I went to the printer and picked up 27 pages.

Switching over to the GroceryWorks test | system, I tried to buy the same items. The prices were the same and so was my frustration level. Going back and forth through different categories and lists of brands is confusing when you are used to brainlessly pulling something off the shelf because you like the picture on the label. Like any new software package, online shopping takes time to master (in my case lots of time).

The prices at albertsons.com, Pea-pod .com, and GroceryWorks are comparable to regular grocery stores. The major differences among these online services are the costs of delivery. Albertson’s delivers free on orders exceeding $60. but is restricted to two six-hour windows. Peapod has more times to select from, but charges $9.95 perorder,plusa$4.95 monthly maintenance fee which is automatically charged to your card whether you order or not. The new kid in town, GroceryWorks, boasts that orders over $75 are delivered free, within a one-hour window, with no sign-up or monthly fees. “Grocery Work s is going after the downtown loft market, and we are in the process of working out an agreement with apartment buildings to provide a concierge service so that working residents don’t have to be home to accept delivery,” Hagar assured me.

I offhandedly remarked, “All I need now is someone to pick up my dry-cleaning.” Without missing a beat. Hagar replied. “We’re starting with groceries, but eventually we will add pharmacy delivery, photo processing, dry cleaning, and garden supplies.” Just like my local Tom Thumb.

As I considered the coming grocery revolution, I admit I got a little emotional. I began to feel sentimental about my pharmacist who greets me by name, the flaky teenager with tattoos who bags my groceries, and the crabby woman who loses my starched shirts. Would I miss them if I pointed and clicked my errands away? It would be a radical change, but who knows, maybe the regular .com delivery guy could tackle my honey-do list.

NOT ONLINE? TRY THE TELEPHONE.

You don’t have to be a computer whiz to get groceries delivered to your doorstep:

Marty’s Cafe Tugogh, 3316 Oak Lawn, 214-526-4070, fax: 214-526-332. Orders accepted by phone or fax. They will deliver from their gourmet-to-go items, along with any order placed from their extensive catering menu. Delivery ranges from $ 10 to $30, depending on distance. They require at least 24 hours notice. Eatzi’s, 3403 Oak Lawn, 214-526-1515, fax: 214-559-2502. Orders accepted by phone or fax. Eatzi’s delivers produce, ready-to-cook meals, products from me store, and items from their catering menu. Minimum orders of $85 are delivered with 24-hour notice with rates beginning at $35 and based on ZIP code. City Cafe to Go, 5757 W. Lovers Ln. Phone: 214-351-3366, fax: 214-351-9388.0rders accepted by phone or fax. Delivery charges depend on the size and the distance of the order. They also have a service for parties where they will deliver and set up the order in the home. Ralph’s Fine Foods, 6901 Snider Plaza, phone: 214-368-0931. Phone in only. Ralph’s will deliver to most of East Dallas, Park Cities, and Preston Hollow. There is a $20 minimum order and a $5 charge regardless of the size of the order. Orders placed before 10 a.m. are delivered first, while orders received after 12:30 p.m. are delivered later the same day. Minyard’s. 714 Preston Forest Center, phone: 214-691-4529, fax: 214-361-8422, Orders accepted by phone or fax. They deliver minimum orders of $25 within a 10-mile radius of the store. Orders placed between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. will be delivered on the same day. Store to Door, phone: 972-774-0854. fax: 972-774-0865. Accepts orders by phone, fax, and email-wfdelivery@mindspring.com . Delivers orders from any Whole Foods location in Dallas. Deliver}’ charges range from $5.95 to $ 14.95. depending on the size of the order and the distance from the store.

-Nancy Herbeck

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