A thought floating through many adult minds around 6 p.m. is: “I want dinner delivered to my door, but not pizza.” When I Googled “Who delivers in Ann Arbor?” I got several options: EatBlue, EatStreet, GrubHub, and Yelp’s Eat24.

Eenie, meenie … hmmmm … EatBlue … is that a local thing? According to a 2013 article in AnnArbor.com, EatBlue was invented “ten years ago by U-M students,” though it doesn’t name them. Holy 2003, Batman! That was before smartphones and “there’s an app for that.” So what’s going on with EatBlue now? And how does virtual dinner delivery, via any of these interfaces, work?

I chose EatBlue out of loyalty to those nameless inventors. Its website looks like a 2003 Internet time capsule, with its eye-hurting maize-and-blue graphics and large photos of food, but I wasn’t there long–once I chose a restaurant, Shalimar, and put an order in motion, I was handed off to EatStreet’s much more elegant website. Turns out that EatBlue is now owned by EatStreet.

From there, my dinner slid into motion with a startling rapidity. I was working from my laptop, so I didn’t try the EatStreet mobile app, but once the order was in, EatStreet handed me off to another app, Zoomer. I switched to my phone and followed the texted instructions to download it.

Zoomer is like Uber for food delivery–it locates a driver, picks up your food, and gives your phone a honk when it’s at the door, in my case thirty-four minutes after I ordered it. And because EatStreet had already collected my payment on a credit card and added a tip, the driver handed me the bag and sped away–no shuffling around on the doorstep waiting to see if more dollar bills would drop.

In the bag was exactly what I had ordered–but there was one small problem. I had typed in my order at 2:26 p.m., curious about where in the process I could specify that I wanted it later, not now. The comment box was the only place, so I typed in “deliver at 6 pm today, thanks.” It was now 3:00.

For me, this early delivery was not a real problem. I was working at home, and chicken tikka masala and saag paneer reheat well. Good thing, though, I didn’t use that comment box to say something like “I’m allergic to peanuts. If you cook this in peanut oil I will die.”

That’s the EatBlue/EatStreet experience from the field. What’s going on behind the curtain?

I started with EatBlue’s “contact us” link to find out if the company still exists and who the original student inventors were. My messages were not answered.

So I turned to EatStreet and eventually found myself talking to “Jerad” in a chat box.

Jerad: Thank you for contacting EatStreet! How can I help you?

Observer: I am a business reporter from Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’m trying to find out about EatBlue (Ann Arbor). Who can I talk to?

Jerad: EatStreet does process online orders for EatBlue, but I would think this would be the best place to start: http://www.eatblue.com/contact-us

I told Jerad that I’d already tried that and asked if he had a phone number for a real person. He told me to try 866-715-7202, EatStreet’s customer service number.

Nine rings later, a recording said, “You’re hungry! We’re here to help!,” offered to direct my call, and told me my call was being recorded. (Back atcha, EatStreet.) I eventually reached a human, but didn’t quite catch the name because the line broke up–Kathy, perhaps, or Katie?

I identified myself as a business reporter from the Ann Arbor Observer and told her I was trying to find out more about EatStreet and EatBlue. I asked her whom I could talk to.

“Heh, heh,” said Kathy or Katie, which I took as a subtle apology for the disappointing barrage of deflection she knew she was about to issue. “I’m not a hundred percent sure offhand, but the best way is to just go ahead and email us at eatstreet.com and provide all your contact information.”

I told her I had already done that; she told me to hang in there and someone would eventually answer “as soon as they have some free time.”

As for what EatStreet is, she explained that the Madison, Wisconsin, company is “an online ordering platform. We work with over 20,000 restaurants across the country. We provide online ordering for restaurants who, for whatever reason, are unable to put up their own systems themselves. … We are not yet providing delivery for these restaurants, but we’re testing it right now.”

I spoke to two restaurant owners who use EatBlue/EatStreet, and both requested that I not name them. They explained, as Kathy/Katie had, that EatStreet and its competitors are simply computer interfaces. Restaurants sign up; EatStreet puts up their menus and takes a cut of the money. Neither restaurant owner I talked to wanted to share the nuts and bolts of the transaction, though they’re probably not particularly interesting. What is interesting is that the whole point of this exercise, from my standpoint, was to get dinner delivered. And EatStreet doesn’t deliver. Shalimar cooked my dinner, and Zoomer delivered it.

So what does EatStreet do? “It’s basically an electronic food court,” said one of the restaurant owners. Also, by bizarre coincidence, this restaurant owner told me that she was a personal friend of one of those mysterious student inventors of EatBlue. His name, she said, was Dave, though she wouldn’t give me his last name. He lives in Maryland–she didn’t think he had ever been a student at U-M, but she gave me his cell so I could clear up the mystery, but she begged me not to mention her. (I asked her several times if she was sure he invented EatBlue–not EatStreet, but EatBlue. She assured me she knew exactly what she was talking about.)

I left a few messages on Dave’s cell phone, but he never called back.

Almost immediately after Zoomer had delivered my dinner in the middle of the afternoon, I received an email asking if I’d mind filling out a brief survey describing my experience. I had no trouble deciding which box to tick when it came to speed: “blistering speed” was a great description of how quickly my order had been executed.

Of course, in my case, it was the problem. And I wanted to tell them it was a problem so I had put it in the–that’s right–comment box.

I glumly typed out a long comment: “well, EatStreet, the problem is, no one reads the comment box … I was going to bail on it if there was no place to say ‘deliver later.’ But a comment box was there. I used it to specify ‘Please deliver at 6 pm.’ Guess what?”

No one at EatStreet ever responded to any of my comments or questions. But ever since I ordered, I’ve heard constantly from EatStreet’s marketing cyborg. “Super Deals for Tasty Meals” was one email subject line in late November, offering me a few bucks off on my next order. “Cold Feels Means Hot Deals” read one a week later, using the same rhyme scheme with a little less verve. The confusing syntax was a little creepy, making me wonder if it was computer generated and untouched by human eyeballs. Another was headlined, “Life Can Be Unpredictable but Dinner Shouldn’t Be.”

Would I use EatStreet again? I almost certainly would have if it hadn’t sent me my dinner in the middle of the afternoon and been pathologically unresponsive to human entreaty. My EatStreet headline, anagrammed from their own odd lexicon, would read, “Unpredictable: Tasty Meals Can Be Hot but Dinner Feels Cold.”

Calls & letters, February, 2017

Eat Blue update

The secondary headline on Sally Mitani’s January look into virtual food delivery–“EatBlue, where are you”–“made me smile,” emailed Adam Linkner. He’s one of the U-M students who invented EatBlue.com.

Linkner, who grew up in Ann Arbor, is now an attorney at Hooper Hathaway. He arranged a conference call with Mitani and two other EatBlue inventors–Jake Cohen and childhood friend Scott Meves–to relive that summer of 2002 (not 2003 as we reported). As Cohen describes it, it was the Ann Arbor version of The Social Network: “We wanted to start a business. We were living in a house on Church St. dealing with that big college problem of how to get food delivered to your house.”

The state of the art at the time, Linkner says, was printed coupon books–“Cottage Inn would, for instance, be offering a $5 pizza with two toppings.” Their goal was to aggregate restaurant menus online and make some money off it. (Meves, a programmer, laughs that they didn’t originally think people would want to order online. He thought their strong point would be advertising daily deals–a sort of early version of Groupon.)

One of their inspirations was a U-M student–whose name they no longer remember–who had invented a simple and brilliant scheme called Bar Time, an email list telling students where to drink. “Everyone knew to check Bar Time,” Linkner recalls. “Bar owners would charge a $2 cover and give him all of it.” That got them thinking: “What if we were telling everyone where to eat?”

After graduating in 2004, they expanded EatBlue to other Big Ten schools, changed the name to UGrub, and added another partner, Ann Arborite Clint Wallace. They sold UGrub in 2006 for a price they won’t disclose; as Mitani learned, after going through various permutations, it ended up as part of EatStreet.com.

The four inventors are still close friends. Linkner returned to Ann Arbor after law school at Emory. Cohen is now a venture capitalist in Detroit, working with Dan Gilbert. Scott Meves has his own start-up in Detroit called Quikly, and Wallace just landed a job as a law professor at University of South Carolina.