May 27, 2014
Cafe Courier is celebrating a milestone: The company has been delivering food to Columbus homes and businesses for 25 years.
It was founded on a simple business model.
The company contracts with local restaurants that don’t have their own drivers, delivering meals to customers for a nominal fee of about $4. The hundreds of participating restaurants include Bravo, El Vaquero, Jersey Mike’s, Winking Lizard, Chili’s and California Pizza Kitchen.
Customers visit the Cafe Courier website, choose a restaurant, place an order, arrange for payment and then get their food in about an hour.
Cafe Courier opened its doors in Columbus in 1989, the brainchild of Kathie and John Allen, who were looking for a business to run. They stumbled on a similar company in Chicago called Room Service and decided to give it a go in Columbus.
They opened in a small office that John Allen ran single-handedly.
“He would take an order over the phone, go to the restaurant, deliver it, then run back to the office to get the next order,” Kathie Allen said. “He was worried people were going to recognize his voice” and realize how small the company actually was.
It didn’t stay little for long.
“We only did a handful of orders the first month,” she said, “but then business took off pretty rapidly.”
Within the first few months, they were profitable.
Eventually, computers, faxes and the Internet replaced John Allen as the on-the-phone order-taker. Cafe Courier has grown to the point that it also delivers food in the Montana cities of Bozeman, Billings, Missoula, Great Falls and Helena, and in Boise, Idaho.
But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for 25 straight years.
Sure, Cafe Courier managed to survive the Great Recession with only hiccups, unlike many restaurant-industry businesses.
“It’s kind of an odd business because, when the economy is good, it’s a treat for people to order in. When the economy is poor, it becomes more of a necessity: People are busier, going back to dual incomes, and it becomes a necessity to order in because there’s no time to cook,” Kathie Allen said.
They have had some competition through the years, “but more can be better. It builds market awareness,” she said. Few of their competitors are still around, though.
“The business model is pretty simple, so people think they can easily do the same thing” but that isn’t the case.
Although competition and recession couldn’t sink Cafe Courier, the dot-com bubble nearly did.
In 2000, right before the bubble burst, the Allens sold the business to a group of venture capitalists who were trying to unite the many small, mom-and-pop food-delivery businesses across the U.S.
That company, EasyToGet.com, “planned to roll them together and create a national delivery service for food and all kinds of things,” Kathie Allen said.
The dot-com bubble burst and, less than a year later, EasyToGet.com filed for bankruptcy. Soon after that, it shut down.
The Allens were in the process of moving to Montana when all this happened. “We did move to Montana in 2001 and started opening Cafe Couriers out west,” Kathie Allen said.
They didn’t want to see their initial Cafe Courier location close and, although it technically was out of business for about two months, the Allens reopened Cafe Courier in the same 999 Bethel Rd. office it had previously occupied.
Restarting turned out to be fairly straightforward because the venture capitalists had walked away from the company, Kathie Allen said.
The Allens did have some relationships they had to re-establish, she said, in the wake of EasyToGet.com’s bankruptcy.
“There were restaurants who were burned. We all know how bankruptcy works. Those accounts don’t get paid,” Kathie Allen said.
With the reopening, they brought on Todd Morgan and Brad Hosler as owners and managers of the Columbus office.
While the business is still chugging along, “I do feel like there have been times when our name has been forgotten, so one of my goals is to get back to the point where every household knows us and knows our name,” Kathie Allen said. Then, “hopefully, we’ll be around for another 25 years. “
Off the menu
• The latest Harrison’s bar and grill, Harrison’s on Kenny, is set to open on Thursday at 4510 Kenny Rd. For more information, call 614-294-2510.
• The Jobu Ramen noodle shop and Asian street-food restaurant opened yesterday at 1439 Grandview Ave. in Grandview Heights. For more information, call 614-481-5480.
• Firebirds Wood-Fired Grill is set to open at 8760 Sancus Blvd. in June. The Charlotte, N.C.-based restaurant chain is known for aged steaks and other meats grilled over hickory, oak or pecan wood. It has about 30 locations in 12 states.
• Black Point, a steak-and-seafood restaurant owned by Hyde Park Restaurants, is scheduled to open in September in the former Sushi Rock location at 570 N. High St.
Dispatch restaurant columnist Denise Trowbridge can be reached at email@example.com.