“I was terrified that my favourite restaurants were going to disappear”

Haute cuisine at home

Food-e delivers gourmet dishes to your door


December 2020 Business Spotlight / Text by Toby Waters / Photos by Michael Holmes

Tokyo’s fine dining restaurants are suffering. Due to the spread of Covid-19, residents of the metropolis have cut back significantly on going out for quality meals this year in order to stay safe. As people have increasingly turned to fast-food delivery to sate their appetite, many are questioning how the city’s best eateries can survive. The answer has come in the form of the new food delivery service, Food-e.

Seth Sulkin, founder and CEO of Food-e, has been working in Japan for more than 35 years, primarily in the real estate development space. Through the hotel and retail projects he has taken on, Sulkin has gained extensive insight into Tokyo’s food and beverage sector. And he has been unimpressed with the standard of meals offered by the major food delivery companies, which boast overwhelming variety but provide predominantly low-priced, low-quality fare.

“Some of their apps have more than 30,000 restaurants in their database, meaning that fine dining delivery is almost impossible to find,” he says. “One of the major apps has a special section for high-end restaurants, but it requires advance orders of two days, which really isn’t very convenient. If you like good food, and you wanted to order on the spur of the moment, you basically didn’t have any choices.”
When the pandemic began, Sulkin worried about the continued viability of some of the restaurants he frequented. If they went out of business, he realised it would not just mean there would be fewer places to eat, but it would damage the city’s very identity as a fine-dining mecca. It was this concern that pushed him to create Food-e, Japan’s first gourmet food delivery service.

“One of the best things about living in Tokyo is the quality of the food, so I was terrified that my favourite restaurants were going to disappear,” he says. “I would ask their owners, ‘Do you do takeout? Are you doing delivery?’ And they all told me the same story: if they did takeout, it wasn’t a significant part of their business. They were lucky to get one or two orders a day. Most had considered and rejected delivery because the existing delivery apps didn’t meet their needs.”

Given the boom in deliveries seen in the fast-food sector in Japan — and food delivery businesses announcing record sales this year — Sulkin thought that introducing a service to deliver food for these established, high-end restaurants would be an obvious way to help them compensate for fewer diners. But after interviewing owners and head chefs, he identified two obstacles to making this a reality.

“One is that the commissions charged by delivery companies to pay their drivers and create their own profits are far too high,” Sulkin says. “Restaurants make little profit on their food. Typically, they make 30% to 60% of their sales from the alcohol they sell, which customers don’t usually buy through delivery. Without that profit, their margins are quite thin.”

To address this concern, Food-e asks its customers to pay ¥1,000 for each delivery, which helps to offset a major part of what the delivery driver is paid. It also has a minimum order amount. As a result, the commission charged by Food-e is much lower than that of its competitors, making it viable for restaurants to prepare meals specifically for delivery. The second obstacle is the inability to control the experience of the deliveries themselves. According to Sulkin, since most other services use part-time, amateur delivery drivers, the order is sometimes damaged on arrival, or it can take a long time for a delivery to be made because the drivers are unfamiliar with certain areas.

“The quality of our delivery is different. We encourage our restaurants to use environmentally friendly packaging, and all of our drivers are full-time, insured, professional, and uniformed,” he says. “They know the roads, they’re fast, and they’re motivated. Our average delivery time is less than 10 minutes from the collection of the order.”

Having put fine dining establishments’ worries to rest, Sulkin set about teaming with some of the biggest names in Tokyo. Among the growing list of restaurants customers can order from are The Oak Door at Grand Hyatt, Nobu Tokyo, Elio Locanda Italiana, La Bombance, and Chungking Azabu Pavilion. Like all of Food-e’s restaurants, they have partnered exclusively with Food-e for delivery.

Food-e’s web app, rapidly developed over three months, differentiates itself from those of its competitors by giving detailed information about the restaurants listed. In addition to pictures of the dishes, it allows users to see the interior of a restaurant, its staff, and the chefs. This gives customers a clear sense of the place they are buying from and allows them to understand why it is worth paying Food-e’s premium prices.

While this is the first time that a service like this has been attempted in Japan, similar models have thrived in the UK and the US, proving diners are willing to pay extra to enjoy gourmet cuisine in their own homes. Sulkin believes that Food-e will be a success — not just in central Tokyo, but beyond.

“At the moment, we have a delivery area of a five-kilometre radius around Nishi-Azabu. We deliver to Ginza in the east, and out to Meguro in the west, but we want to expand into areas of Tokyo like Kagurazaka and Nihombashi, as well as Shinjuku and Setagaya,” he says. “We hope to be in Yokohama next summer, and in the cities of Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto by late next year.”

It is inevitable that, when the pandemic eases and life returns to some semblance of normality, the food delivery sector will see a drop-off in popularity as people start eating out once again. Nevertheless, Sulkin believes that not only will Food-e itself grow, but the restaurants it has paired with will continue to reap the benefits of its service.

“Our long-term goal is to give good quality restaurants a sustainable business in addition to their in-house dining. We see this as a partnership with the restaurants,” he says. “Delivery was a big business in Japan before the pandemic, and when it goes away, we’ll still be giving high-quality restaurants a revenue source.”

At last, we can get the best cuisine Tokyo has to offer delivered to our own homes — and help our favourite restaurants at the same time. •

“The quality of our delivery is different”