WATERLOO — Rockets Bakery on East Fourth Street has been a popular stop for doughnuts, coffee and other treats since it opened earlier this year. The only issue, it seemed, was owner Jaden Ludwig’s customers have to come to her.
That’s because hiring a delivery driver, even part time, was out of the question for her small business.
“We’ve looked into delivery before, but the insurance cost was way more than we wanted,” Ludwig said.
Turns out, she just had to wait for the delivery companies to find her.
Rockets Bakery is now serviced by not one, but two restaurant delivery companies — Straight To You, a Waterloo-based start-up, and Uber Eats, an internationally known company based in San Francisco.
The delivery companies generally contract with local drivers who use their own vehicles to pick up customers’ orders at local restaurants and drop them off. Both customers and restaurants themselves are charged for the go-between service, though pricing varies.
Ludwig pays 30 percent of each order through Uber Eats, for example, for the benefit of having drivers pick up customers’ orders and drop them off at homes directly. But that’s far less than she’d otherwise have to pay a full-time driver, gas and insurance — and the company gave her an iPad to track orders.
“It really doesn’t cost us a whole lot,” she said. “I thought it was a good opportunity.”
Straight To You and Uber Eats are just two of at least five food-delivery companies that have popped up in the Cedar Valley recently, along with Minneapolis-based Bite Squad, Chicago-based Grubhub and Cedar Falls start-up Cedar Valley Food Runner, the latter of which got started in August 2016.
For his part, Cedar Valley Food Runner co-founder Russel Karim welcomes them all.
“I think it’s good for the city for competition to come in,” Karim said. “Overall, it’s probably going to help all the restaurants.”
Karim said the restaurant delivery business has been good, with 35,000 orders placed with Cedar Valley Food Runner in the last year, 60 participating restaurants and 25 independent-contractor drivers who work through his service.
When he got started, with assistance from the University of Northern Iowa’s Venture School, he realized the only options for delivery in the Cedar Valley were “Chinese or pizza.” He thought he could open up the delivery market to everything from fast food to fancier fare, most of which is not usually able to be delivered.
“We found out there was a gap between what kind of food (customers) wanted delivered, and what time it was available,” Karim said. “We wanted to be the bridge that closed the gap.”
Because the bigger companies weren’t yet offering their services in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metropolitan area, Cedar Valley Food Runner’s website stood alone. It’s only in recent months others have started in the metro area — and two of Karim’s competitors have mobile apps. (Karim hopes to offer his own app for Food Runner by early next year.)
One of those is Uber Eats, perhaps the most recognizable of the apps due to the Uber branding: It’s the company that has operated its international ride-sharing platform in the Cedar Valley for the past two years.
Ridesharing technology powers the food-delivery side too — allowing customers to see exactly where their food is at any given time, said Kiran Vinta, head of launch and expansion in the U.S. for Uber Eats.
“It’s a service you can count on — we actually let you track the order live as it’s coming to you,” Vinta said, noting Uber Eats delivers in “as quick as 35 minutes.”
Since Uber Eats just opened Oct. 30, it doesn’t have much in the way of selection yet: Rockets, Red Lobster, Perkins and Wishbone were available when logging on to the app earlier this week, about the same as Grubhub’s offerings, which only lists Gyro Hut, two East China locations and Mirch Masala Grill.
Compare that with Minneapolis-based food delivery company Bite Squad, which boasts 30-40 restaurants users can order from on its app, depending on location. (Bite Squad allows a seven-mile radius, so the number may vary depending on location of the user.)
“We have a good selection from both cities,” said Craig Key, Bite Squad’s chief marketing officer. He said some of the most popular restaurants so far have been China Express, Blue Barn BBQ, Gyro Hut and Amigos Mexican Restaurant. “The area seems ready for restaurant delivery.”
Waterloo-based Straight To You, currently a website-only operation, offers a selection of 29 local restaurants, has a tracking feature like Uber Eats and lets customers order by phone, said owner Courtney Leitzen, who drives full time for her business along with two others.
“Customers can call that if they have problems, or some elderly people who don’t have a computer can still place an order,” she said. “I think that sets us apart.”
She said she began Straight To You after previously driving for special-needs clients and those who relied on public transportation — people who might not be able to drive to get dinner at night. And she said she’ll drive all over the area, delivering to Hudson, Evansdale, Janesville and even Dewar, where the other companies might not serve.
Leitzen began in July with 90 orders and this month is on track to get 300, she said. Straight To You doesn’t have an app yet, but their platform, Ontray, is building one that should be online by the end of February, Leitzen said.
She has at least one exclusive contract — Greenhouse Kitchen, with locations in both Waterloo and Cedar Falls — but said it’s natural that restaurants will want to partner with as many food-delivery companies as they can.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “Then you’re getting your menu out to different people.”