Food Matters: Delivery service à la Car looks in rearview in rolling forward in crisis
à la Car
Phone orders begin 3 p.m., for 5 p.m. pickup
TOM ENGELMAN’S QUARANTINE CRAVINGS
“People always ask, and I don’t have a favorite restaurant, I have a favorite dish at every restaurant,” says the à la Car founder. Here’s what Engelman chooses from six partner restaurants open currently:
Bangkok Happy Bowl: Summer rolls, green curry
Bok Choy: Dumplings, Mongolian beef
Brunelleschi’s: Pizza, lasagna, salad
Hickory House: “The ribs! And their grill makes great steaks.”
Jing: Thai basil chicken
Mezzaluna: Calamari—and more pizza. “I like ’em crispy.”
And then there were six. That’s the number of Aspen restaurants—out of a regular roster of 30 to 35 partners, not counting those in Snowmass—Tom Engelman says remain open for delivery through his à la Car service as of April 14.
After founding à la Car in 1996, Engelman has seen the local restaurant scene ebb and flow up close during two dozen spring offseasons, multiple business closures, and now three recessions. While it’s too soon to predict how the global downturn of 2020 will affect the Aspen economy long term, clearly the hospitality industry is on thin ice.
Engelman has mileage on his side. Similar to old-guard restaurants offering new services (in-house delivery, takeout) or selling gift cards en masse to collect instant revenue, à la Car is bolstered by regular customers with established accounts.
Though food options have shriveled up, Engelman notes that folks who call to place an order over the phone (versus using the mobile app) may still order dishes from as many restaurants as preferred. That might mean a sushi appetizer, steak entrée, and side salad, each from a different eatery in a Choose Your Own Adventure request that satisfies various cravings. (Find Engelman’s picks at right.)
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Engelman describes the current Aspen foodscape as a bizarre combination of Super Bowl Sunday and Groundhog Day: “There’s nobody on the roads and restaurants are empty.” Delivery is running smooth and fast, but business has dropped to the point that à la Car staff—up to eight delivery drivers during winter holidays—has shrunk to a single driver.
“We were having the best winter ever until March 15,” says Engelman, noting that the company earned more during this truncated first quarter of 2020 compared with the same time through March 31 last year. Now, just three Asian restaurants, two Italian spots and one barbecue joint remain on board.
Lack of visitors, particularly second-home owners, spells trouble for the à la Car model, but Engelman plans to keep idling through spring without the standard offseason break. Already, Tiziano Gortan of L’Hostaria has been in touch about reopening early, in May, to serve locals. New collaborators are welcome, no upfront cost required.
Engelman is fueled by this kind of synergy: building relationships with owners; publishing 20,000 copies of the annual, 80-page à la Car menu guide distributed to nearly all property management companies and hotels that lack room service; coordinating delivery of multiple orders on a high-season evening. “The busier we are, the more fun it is,” he explains. “Life right now has no momentum. Nobody is having successes. Everybody is in neutral.”
Looking back to the last major dip, à la Car took a 20-plus-percent hit in 2009, but rebounded by fall 2010. “People started traveling again and spending money,” Engelman muses. “For our community, it’s imperative that restaurants open again by June. It’s all dependent on whether we have tourism in July.”
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