To an onlooker, the scene may have looked suspicious. A Hyundai Santa Fe pulled up at Queen and Yonge and the driver rolled down the window. "Are you Colin?" he asked a man on the sidewalk. When the man nodded, the driver handed a paper bag through the window. Inside the bag was not an illicit substance, but a warm smoked-meat sandwich from Caplansky's Delicatessen.
Like other tech-savvy workers in the downtown core, Colin Rogers decided to try UberEATS when it launched earlier this month in Toronto. Within minutes of ordering through his smartphone, he had lunch delivered to him on the sidewalk outside his office.
Uber, the company best known for its on-demand car service (and currently in a legal dispute with the City of Toronto), now wants to feed hungry and harried office workers with an extension of its app that aims to deliver meals in 10 minutes or less. It is the city's first service to promise such a quick turnaround time – but it's just one of nearly a dozen local delivery options now available to offices and homes.
UberEATS is driving into a city where people are increasingly interested in food trends and restaurants are seeking innovative ways to reach these hungry foodies any time, anywhere. They believe having their menus available on demand through apps and websites satisfies that need.
Mr. Rogers says he welcomes the increased options. Prior to UberEATS, he never considered food delivery for lunch but sees it as an easy way to get out of the noon-hour rut.
"It's a First World problem to be like, 'I don't know what to have for lunch today,'" he says. "After three or four years at the same office, you end up going to the same places."
Mr. Rogers, who works for an accounting company, says he was pleasantly surprised by the quality of food delivered. His sandwich was appropriately warm and a reasonable size, but it was the ease of ordering that most impressed him.
"I think the expectation is that delivered food is generally limited to a few categories," he said. "'What do you want to do for dinner? I don't know, let's just order a pizza.' You set your standards low."
A few years ago, delivery options were limited to Swiss Chalet and uninspired pizza chains. Now, with a few clicks or taps, Torontonians can have their favourite curry, sushi or slow-cooked barbecue, usually within an hour.
Take Just Eat, for example: The majority of restaurants that work with the largest delivery service in Canada have their own drivers, but they use the company's technology to take orders and reach new customers. Many restaurants don't charge a fee for delivery through Just Eat, but have a minimum spending amount required to get dinner on the table.
Another service called Hurrier dispatches a fleet of cyclists and a smattering of cars to deliver food from some of Toronto's more hip establishments, such as Grand Electric, Hey Meatball and Banh Mi Boys. The company charges a delivery fee based on the distance travelled and a 5-per-cent service fee for purchases made on behalf of the customer.
"I think the idea of convenience with regard to food service and food delivery is something Toronto is waking up to," says Zane Caplansky, owner and chef of Caplansky's.
On the restaurant's website, Just Eat, Hurrier, Foodee and Order It are listed as companies that will get meals from the deli to your doorstep.
There are challenges that come with delivery, Mr. Caplansky acknowledges. Some foods, such as French fries, just won't taste as good as they do in the restaurant.
His main challenge has been co-ordinating incoming orders: While one company may send an e-mail, another may send a text or call. During a busy dinner rush, orders are more likely to slip through the cracks. Still, he sees value in all of the companies, each offering another way to get his sandwiches into the hands of new customers.
Of his newest delivery partner, Mr. Caplansky believes UberEATS is a "game changer."
"It's impulse orders of food," he says. "The food menu pops up and in 10 minutes you have lunch."
There are bound to be at least minor hiccups: One week into his UberEATS experience, Mr. Caplansky had one order where a driver failed to give a customer mustard and a pickle with his sandwich.
UberEATS also operates in Chicago, New York, Barcelona and Los Angeles. In L.A., the service has expanded to delivery of not just weekday lunch but also dinner and weekend brunch – something Bowie Cheung, general manager of UberEATS Toronto, hopes to replicate here.
"The biggest challenge is a good problem to have, which is that demand has been huge," says Mr. Cheung. Neither he nor Mr. Caplansky would share sales figures, but both said they have exceeded expectations.
While UberEATS is the new kid in town, dispatching lunches through car windows, Just Eats is a relative veteran of the food-delivery scene. The Britain-based company, operating in 13 countries, launched in Canada seven years ago and features 5,000 restaurants, of which 2,200 are in the Greater Toronto Area. It says it doesn't see UberEATS's arrival as a threat to business.
"There's lots of room in this space for others to succeed," says Todd Masse, Just Eat's Canadian managing director.
The lunch business that UberEATS covets is "growing quite rapidly" for Just Eat, Mr. Masse says, especially in urban centres like Toronto. Food delivery isn't just for nights when families are too busy to cook a meal; it's also for corporate clients and deadline-driven workers who are too busy to venture out of the office in search of sustenance.
"Let's face it, people are working 24-7. There are no traditional hours any more," he says.
Mr. Masse predicts improved technologies such as driver tracking and slicker mobile apps will only help the industry develop quicker. Eighty-five per cent to 90 per cent of takeout food is still ordered over the phone, he says. The challenge and opportunity is to move those orders from over the phone to online.
In its first week in Toronto, UberEATS waived the $3 delivery fee and restaurateurs such as Mr. Caplansky offered promo codes to reduce the cost. With the promotions factored in, Mr. Rogers says he paid around $7 for the sandwich and delivery. Without promotions, meals cost $8 to $12, plus the delivery fee. Although he was impressed by the ease of the experience, Mr. Rogers hesitated when asked whether he would order from UberEATS at the full price.
"I'd probably have to see," he says. "Right now, while the weather is nice, I'm happy to take a longer lunch and stroll around to get my own food."