When pharmaceutical rep Andy Knopfmeier needed lunch for a 29-person obstetrics office he was calling on recently, he made it happen without picking up a phone or idling in a drivethrough lane.
Instead, Knopfmeier-who provides lunch to doctors as a way to get in the door-went online two days before the meeting and ordered sandwiches, chicken nuggets and waffle fries from a Noblesville Chick-Fil-A.
He prepaid the bill with a credit card and entered instructions on when he'd pick up the food. It was ready when he arrived.
"I wish I could say it was more complicated than that," Knopfmeier said of his experience with Indianapolis-based Menuplicity.com, a new online restaurant ordering service. "But it wasn't."
Menuplicity provides a way for patrons to search and order from a variety of casual-dining restaurants, then pick up their orders. It is owned by locally based Take Out Food International Inc., a restaurant technology firm that plans to roll out another division later this year to sell its Web-based ordering software to chain restaurants.
Since the Indianapolis service went live in May, nearly 50 mostly north- and northeastside restaurants have paid the $395 set-up charge and a $50 monthly hosting fee. Restaurants also fork over a 4.8-percent service fee when diners use Menuplicity, most of which the company uses to make contributions to local charities on customers' behalf.
Diners, who pay regular menu prices, choose a participating not-for-profit when they place their order. Slightly fewer charities than restaurants have signed up.
Other dot-com dining establishments have come and gone locally, but Menuplicity founder Bryan Anderson, an entrepreneur who spent about $1 million launching Take Out Food International, says his company is doing things differently.
"The charity piece sets us apart right off the bat," he said. It's passive fund raising for them and a way for parents to help fund that new auditorium at their child's school. "Nobody really wants their kids to go out and sell gift wrap."
IBJ polled about half the Menuplicity restaurants, and while most say they've had few to no orders so far, they also agree it's too soon to make any claims of success or failure. About 170 orders had been placed through the system by the end of September.
And the idea seems to have potential.
Take the group-ordering feature, like the one Knopfmeier used, designed to appeal to business-lunch organizers. Anderson is targeting office parks, multitenant buildings and drug companies as a primary market.
Menuplicity also can send invitations to meeting attendees who order from a preselected restaurant. Orders are sent to the restaurant via fax, listing who wants what, including who ordered extra pickles.
The online system eliminates the need for photocopied menus with items circled and often indecipherable scribbles. And diners don't have to worry about being put on hold, language barriers or mistakes by restaurant personnel taking orders over the phone, said Mark Gallo, vice president of business development for Menuplicity and a restaurant industry veteran.
Another possible market: visitors staying in local limited-service hotels. Menuplicity is working with hoteliers who provide access to the online site-through custom home pages that automatically display nearby restaurants.
If the restaurant delivers, that option is available to the customer. But Menuplicity does not deliver, eliminating a potential pitfall, Gallo said.
"Everyone told us, 'Don't deliver,'" he said. "It's just too big a risk to restaurants to put their quality product in the hands of an hourly employee with no way of knowing how it will get to the home. Bad food will be blamed on the restaurant, not the delivery person."
But Menuplicity's biggest advantage may simply be timing, said Wesley Loh, vice president of business development for California-based consultant eRestaurant Services.
Loh, who spent seven years consulting with Silicon Valley companies during the dot-com boom, acknowledges Menuplicity.com is off to a slow start. But if the company waits it out, consumer demand may catch up, he said.
"If you'd asked me about movies five years ago, I would have told you I'm a Blockbuster customer," he said. "I use NetFlix now and haven't set foot in a video store in years."