Beyond the 1993 declaration that brought the Jaguars to town, or the proclamation in 2000 that the city would host a Super Bowl, or even the 2015 bombshell that everyone’s favorite Swedish-based purveyor of Allen wrenches and meatballs (oh, and cheap furniture, too), IKEA, had plans to open a store in the 904, there is one announcement that, more than any others in the history of Northeast Florida, elicits the kind of self-reflective nostalgia that transports a person back to a time, place, and state of mind where they can say, “I remember where I was when … ”
That moment came in June 2015, when grocery-delivery service Shipt declared it had developed the extraordinary ability to deliver Publix submarine sandwiches (affectionately known as “Pub Subs”) directly from the hands of the sweet little hair-netted sandwich artists directly to customers’ mouth-holes (or at least to their front doors).
And the entirety of Northeast Florida rejoiced.
In all seriousness, the expansion of Shipt’s services to include a popular local fave is representative of a growing market for food delivery services beyond the borders of the First Coast. Out West in Silicon Valley, food delivery startups have become one of the hottest sectors of startup activity. Between 2014 and 2015, investors poured more than $730 million into delivery firms like DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates, up more than 1,100 percent from the same period a year-and-a-half ago, according to an article in The New York Times. When looking at prevailing trends in food from the last decade or so — real foods, farm-to-table, specialty diets like Paleo and gluten-free — as well as larger societal trends — technological advancements that offer instant, or more protracted access to, gratification — it’s easy to see why food delivery services are so popular in 2016.
Chef James Phelan saw the writing on the wall when he started his meal delivery service in the Riverside neighborhood of Jacksonville in 2011. His company, J. William Culinary, is booming, cooking up more than 3,000 restaurant-quality meals each week (half of which he says are delivered to customers). Though Phelan, who was once the executive chef at fine-dining favorite Matthew’s Restaurant in San Marco, may have had the foresight to get in the game early, he says it wasn’t always easy to explain his vision.
“Five years ago, I was constantly having to explain the concept to people,” Phelan said. “A lot of them didn’t really understand why people wouldn’t just cook for themselves or go out and get this stuff.”
Some of J. Culinary’s early acolytes came from the fitness world, says Phelan. “We had a lot of health-conscious, or ‘gym-rat’-type people; people who want to eat quality food, but may not have the time to do it themselves,” he said.
J. Culinary has an ardent following among the Paleo community, who inundate his kitchen with orders for lean beef meatballs over brown rice pilaf and Texas-style (no beans) turkey chili.
Phelan says he’s been amazed at the growth of his business. In the last two years, he’s noticed a marked increase in the number of orders from young professionals. “I think there are just more people who want to eat healthy. They exercise and work all day, but they can’t be Martha Stewart and do it all,” he said.
Kathy Godwin’s meal delivery service, Kathy’s Table, off Philips Highway on the Southside, shares some DNA with J. Culinary. Like Phelan’s, Godwin’s customers tend to be health-conscious, working professionals. And as Phelan has, Godwin’s seen her business undergo a tremendous growth spurt in the last two years or so.
Godwin, whose background is in nutrition and personal training, began cooking for herself as she battled Crohn’s disease — a digestive illness with special dietary implications. Godwin shared the recipes on her blog and soon after began preparing meals for her personal training clients. As demand increased, she moved the operation into a small warehouse space. Godwin says her decision to offer delivery was borne out of necessity.
“The first warehouse space was just so sketchy; we didn’t even have a front door,” she said. “I didn’t really want my customers seeing the place.”
That was three years ago. Today Godwin employs 12 full-time staffers in her kitchen and 10 part-time drivers deliver food from her new Philips Highway digs, which is also a retail store (with a front door!). Meals, which can be ordered as meal plans or a la carte, are cooked on Sundays and delivered to customers on Mondays.
Godwin says her typical client is a “25-to-40-year-old working professional, who is busy, enjoys working out, has little time to cook, but still values quality food.”
Godwin also has a large following within the allergen community, as all the food prepared is gluten- and dairy-free, including the popular vegan protein bars (nuts, dried fruit, cacao plant protein) and Kathy’s classic meatballs (ground chuck, garlic, onion, and almond flour instead of bread crumbs).
As the market for the services Godwin and Phelan offer expanded, it was only a matter of time before corporate America threw its proverbial hat in the ring. With Amazon and Walmart broadening their grocery delivery services and Groupon buying up meal delivery services across the nation, the competition to provide (or at least convey) convenience and quality will be as stiff as ever.
“That’s OK. How could they not try?” said Phelan of the proliferation of new delivery services. “I think we’ll have the advantage, in that we know our customers, and nobody can match our quality.”
He may be right.