The pandemic drove many operators to using third-party delivery platforms, but Mark Tarbell, chef and owner of Tarbell’s in Phoenix, took a different route: he created his own in-house delivery service.
Tarbell’s, which opened in 1994 and is known for its contemporary fine-dining and classic comfort food, didn’t work with any of the third-party delivery companies before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020.
However, Tarbell’s had a small catering operation.
“We already had one van, equipment and experience in how to get hot food hot to a guest,” Tarbell said. “We also understood how create experience and hospitality ‘at home.’”
Tarbell’s eventually added three additional vehicles: two Toyota Corolla hatchbacks and one Nissan small work van.
“Our first goal was to safely serve our friends and guests in a difficult time where dining out was not an option,” Tarbell said. “Then our goal was to create a sense of high service and normalcy to the delivery and pick-up business.
“We are control freaks and we wanted to ensure that our food was getting to our customers in the way we wanted,” he said. “Using our highly trained servers was the best way to do this. The greatest benefit was that we were able to retain our team. Pivoting to to-go and delivery-only was scary and exciting at the same time. But we dove in and loved it.”
Tarbell’s closed March 16 because of the pandemic and had preliminary plan within hours. Eventually, staff members had to use their own automobiles to augment delivery demand.
Tarbell’s initially did not add additional charges for the deliveries and did not raise menu prices. However, it later began charging a $5 delivery fee.
“I will say it’s expensive and complicated,” Tarbell said. “What we did is rightfully think of it as a brand-new business, and then after that, how we could add on some service touches. I think it really works best when you can cross-utilize your team in the kitchen and service staff. Also, having a higher check average helps cover the expense.”
Tarbell said the self-delivery has one distinct advantage over a third-party provider. “The advantage is that our guests know well who is coming to their homes,” he said. “There is a comfortable relationship and connection there.”
Tarbell said his team had talked about doing delivery in fall 2019, before COVID-19 hit.
“We were not excited or focused on it,” Tarbell said. “On that Monday, we flipped the switch and got very excited about it. Tough times have a way of getting your team real focused.”
— Ron Ruggless