The temperature falls below zero, a snowstorm rages outside, your Netflix queue is stacked deep, or, you just don't feel like cooking tonight and lack the energy to go out.

Faced with such circumstances, a growing number of Region residents are simply reaching for their phones, summoning up an app, and having a carryout restaurant meal delivered straight to their door.

Restaurant delivery apps have been available in Chicago and larger cities for some time, but are relatively new to largely suburban Northwest Indiana. Chicago-based Grubhub has served the Region since 2011, but Uber Eats and DoorDash, two of the larger national services, only launched in the Region last year.

The research firm NPD group estimates restaurant delivery sales nationwide jumped by 20 percent between 2012 and 2018, with digital orders accounting for 52 percent of all delivery, an amount that nearly doubled over the last six years. Online delivery services make it possible for consumers to order food from restaurants that don't traditionally deliver, and allow smaller independent restaurants to offer delivery without having to hire drivers.

Local restaurant owners said popular delivery apps help them reach new customers and drive sales.

"It gives customers more convenience," said Syed Pasha, CEO of Porto's Peri Peri, the spicy Portuguese chicken chain that recently opened in Shops on Main in Schererville. "In Chicago, the weather isn't always pleasant and you see a spike in orders when people don't want to be outside."

Quality a concern

More and more people are used to ordering things online and having it show up at their doorstep, but the arrangement hasn't worked for every local restaurant. A few have asked to be removed from delivery apps because of repeated problems with outdated menus, mixed-up orders, or cold food showing up late. Even restaurant owners in Northwest Indiana who gladly use third-party online delivery services have some reservations about the 25 percent to 30 percent cuts they take, and that late arrivals of lukewarm food or incorrect orders will reflect poorly on their restaurant and not on the delivery driver or online platform.

"We had a big issue with it," said Brent Brashier, co-founder of Doc's Smokehouse & Craft Bar. "We put so much effort into creating a high-quality product that we're proud of, but have no control over how it's treated after it leaves the door. If they have multiple deliveries or stop at a gas station and the food is cold once it gets to you, you'll get angry. You'll be angry at the restaurant."

DoorDash did not respond to requests for comment by deadline. Uber Eats said it has an average delivery time of 31 minutes, that it screens drivers based on driving and criminal history, and that service fees vary by market and reflect increased traffic and sales.

"At Uber Eats, we are focused on getting reliability down to a science and keeping our promises to customers," Uber Public Affairs' Charity Jackson said. "We're excited to be operating in Northwest Indiana and are continually working to improve our technology behind the scenes to create a seamless process for both customers and our restaurant partners."

Grubhub said it seeks professional and experienced drivers, does extensive background checks, and requires the use of hot/cold delivery bags.

"We always aim for our diners, restaurants, and drivers to have the best experience possible, and we've designed the delivery process to be easy and straightforward," spokesman Demarquis McIntyre said. "Our contracted drivers and restaurant partners receive detailed order information through our driver app and restaurant tablet or point-of-sale integration to help ensure order accuracy. In any situations when we miss the mark and the ordering experience doesn’t go as planned for diners or restaurants, our dedicated customer care team works hard to make things right, and we appreciate hearing feedback."

Online delivery remains a huge growth area despite its issues, especially because millennials are used to using their phones to get anything they want on demand, Brashier said.

"It's a reflection of the culture," he said. "And when it's the newest thing, people will try it."

But online delivery is much better suited to some types of restaurants than others, Brashier said.

"We slice your barbecue to order and get the food out of the kitchen to the table in a minute or a minute and a half. It's not the same if it gets there half an hour or an hour later. When they mess up an order, it's on us," he said. We'll ask the drivers if they want sauce, they will say no, and then the customer will call us asking why there's no sauce. Another factor is that they take 25 percent to 30 percent when this is a low-margin business."

A boost to business

Online delivery services have helped establish a customer base for Foody's in Gary that specializes in healthy fare like salmon burgers, turkey burgers, veggie stir fry, and sweet potato fries. Grubhub, DoorDash, and Uber Eats have marketed the eatery across Northwest Indiana on their apps and reach customers outside of the Midtown neighborhood, owner John Allen said.

"You see business immediately," he said. "On the first day, you're getting orders. They get your name out and give you legitimacy."

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Allen signed up for the three largest online delivery services because he had trouble finding and retaining drivers for his carryout eatery. He said it now accounts for as much as 10 percent of his overall business.

"We get customers who are really customers of the delivery service and find our menu on there," he said. "Our customers also can order us when they don't want to go out. People in an office might want to save on the travel time if they only have so much time for lunch and some people in the neighborhood don't want to leave the house after 7:30 at night. The orders really start coming in then."

Sip I and Sip II coffee houses in Crown Point and Highland have seen a boost in business from Grubhub and DoorDash.

"It's blown up in the community, although I'd personally be leery of having a second person pick up your food," owner Rhonda Bloch said. "It's like buying a steak out of the trunk of a car."

Though the 28 percent Grubhub takes is steep, Bloch said it results in a lot of sales volume.

"It's nice to receive that check at the end of the month," she said. "A lot of the people who order the food just want convenience. These companies are really profiting. They charge us 25 to 30 percent and the customer a 30 percent delivery fee. They're getting 50 to 60 percent margin. They're making beaucoup bucks."

Bloch said she's still testing the services out and wants to see if delivery sales will be as strong in the summer.

For customers, the service poses some issues like having to sometimes wait more than 40 minutes to get one's food or the difficulty of returning items, since the customer has to get a hold of the company to send someone back out.

"It's a good concept if you don't mind getting what you get," she said.

Growing demand

Burgerhaus in Schererville and Valparaiso asked to be removed from one of the delivery services that had listed it on its app using an outdated menu with old prices.

"It put a bad taste in our mouths when they listed us without consulting us first," Burgerhaus Director of Operations Brian Susoreny said. "They put our menu on their website and their app without reaching out to us or seeing if we were interested in participating.

"Our food is not made to be served as carryout," he said. "There's a degradation of the food when you pick it up and transport it."

He also expressed concerns about quality control since drivers have shown up to pick up orders while reeking of cigarette smoke or with children in their cars.

The service works better in dense cities, where customers are just minutes away, than in spread-out suburbs, where the food goes on longer journeys to cul-de-sacs in sprawling subdivisions, Susoreny said. But online on-demand delivery is only likely to grow, so Burgerhaus recently rolled out online ordering for carryout and is testing different disposable packaging products if it does choose to eventually partner with an online delivery service.

"A lot more customers order online on Sundays, Mondays or Tuesdays," he said. "It helps augment our business more when the traffic is down. People are more likely to come out on the weekends."

Grindhouse Cafe in Griffith also got listed against its will and without advance notice on an online delivery service app, but owner Gabriel Mauch decided not to protest. Customers have since used the service to order everything from meals to a few cups of coffee.

It's been an adjustment because the kitchen will prepare the meals in a few minutes, only to have the driver show up 35 minutes to 40 minutes later, Mauch said.

"We started not making the food until the driver showed up," he said. "Now we check with the company and if they say the driver will be there in 15 to 20 minutes we'll start making it in 15 minutes. It's definitely a struggle for us because we're so focused on the quality of our food and coffee.

"My wife and I order Instacart a few times a week because we're busy," he said. "People are ordering both groceries and restaurant food from the couch, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's sweet to be able to order food that's not pizza from any restaurant you want."


Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.