Gift certificates remain an important holiday season revenue stream for restaurant operators, but 2013 may go down as the year that signature restaurant items took off in the e-commerce world. Specialty food websites like foodydirect.com and goldbely.com now provide the digital infrastructure that puts restaurant operators on the fast track to nationwide home delivery of individual menu items and multicourse meals. A handful of operators are already cashing in; you can bet others will jump on board in 2014.

Why not? The opportunity is huge and the market is proven. Growth rates in the specialty food segment are in the double digits and hundreds of websites have provided direct-to-home shipment of pricey, high-quality items for years. Yet online specialty food retailers are a dime a dozen. That’s why sites that have a restaurant connection and can in some way reproduce a small part of the restaurant-going experience have a big edge.

That’s the niche foodydirect.com and goldbely.com want to fill. Among the restaurants already participating:

Peter Luger Steak House. This legendary Brooklyn, NY, operation’s most costly offering: A four-steak selection that includes two USDA Prime dry-aged 24-26 oz. strip steaks plus two USDA Prime dry-aged 36-38 oz. Porterhouse steaks shipped for $299.50. Less costly options are available, too.

Momofuku Milk Bar. New York City chef David Chang and pastry chef Christina Tosi sell their famous “Crack Pie” online for $44, among other bakery items. It’s a big ticket for a single dessert, but makes for a much hipper gift than, say, a generic $50 Visa card.
 
The Anchor Bar. This Buffalo, NY, institution provides Fifty Suicide Buffalo Wings priced at $109.99, shipping included. The wings come precooked; recipients just reheat in the oven.
 
Lou Malnati’s. The king of Chicago-style deep dish pizza’s basic order is a pair of pies, with choice of toppings, that cost $58.99. That’s the same price as the restaurant sells them for on www.tastesofchicago.com, which features many other Chicago-area products and also ships nationwide.

Twede’s Cafe. This North Bend, WA, operation, whose cherry pie gained fame on television show “Twin Peaks,” sells a 9-inch version online for $49.


How can your restaurant get into this game?


First, you need to come up with one or more signature items that are shippable. Hopefully, they’ll be dishes you already sell in high volume and for which your restaurant is already famous. Some restaurants opt for ready-to-eat items; a high percentage of the offerings on these sites involve baked goods and desserts. But other operations take the meal to a mise-en-place level and count on the recipient to handle final assembly and prep.


Next, contact goldbely.com, foodydirect.com or a similar site and sort through your e-commerce options. In effect, you’ll be outsourcing marketing, order-taking, payment, delivery and complaint resolution while still reaching a much broader audience then you ever could on your own. Prep and packaging take place at the restaurant level—probably a good thing when it’s your restaurant’s name on the box.

Another option: Set up your own online specialty food operation. That’s what Boston-based Legal Sea Foods has done, but it’s a big (34 restaurants) well-know chain. Momofuku Milk Bar also sells its wares on its own site. But Chang and Tosi also list their products on Goldbely. Their pricing is the same on either site.


You’ll have to decided for yourself whether online shipment is a viable option for your restaurant. But we will say that a pre-Christmas scroll through goldbely.com’s offerings found many, many restaurant items sold out. To us, it’s evidence that at least on a seasonal basis, your restaurant brand can develop national reach.