Detroit — Detroiter Janet Maxwell eagerly waited in the lobby of her apartment building as Ryan Fields parked his black Mountaineer and pulled out a brown paper bag, submerged in a warmer in the backseat.
Some days, Maxwell, a 69-year-old retiree, orders Chinese from Lucky Dragon. Other days it’s Detroit Seafood Market or Starter’s Bar & Grill. On this day, Fields, a Flash Delivery driver, brought a Little Italy Wrap from Sweet Lorraine’s Fabulous Mac n’ Brewz in Midtown.
“They’re faster than pizza (delivery),” said Maxwell, taking the bag. “I’ve gotten orders that are less than 35 minutes. And the food is still piping hot.”
Maxwell, who lives in an East Jefferson apartment, bashfully admitted she uses Flash Delivery four times a week. It saves her the stress of cooking and need to buy groceries.
“For me, it’s a lot of food,” she said, “so I eat off of it for two or three days.”
Started in 2014 by native Detroiters Tatiana Grant, 33, and Ericka Billingslea, 29, Flash Delivery is downtown Detroit’s first major, on-demand food delivery service. Residents, workers and hotel guests use the service by filling out orders online, via the app or calling. Customers can choose from 30 restaurants and have their food delivered within 45 to 60 minutes.
While many metropolitan cities have food delivery companies such as Grubhub, Seamless and Postmates, Flash remains the only player in the downtown market. Grubhub, which partners with Seamless, has subcontracted Flash Delivery to fulfill orders placed by Grubhub customers in Detroit.
The delivery service’s cut of each order is negotiated with each restaurant.
The model has proved so successful that Grant said revenue has doubled each year since they launched, and they plan to expand to Ferndale and northwest Detroit — servicing the University District, Palmer Woods and Sherwood Forest — and add 10 more restaurants this October.
“We’ve seen really good growth that we were not expecting,” said Grant, explaining they have more than 4,300 customers within 4 miles in the city. Many are like Maxwell, who order several times a week. Then there’s the time-crunched Henry Ford Hospital doctors, Deloitte employees who don’t leave their office during accounting season and Jefferson North Assembly Plant workers lacking dining nearby.
“Literally, they’ve called us with $500 dinner orders,” Grant said. “We’ve been killing it, and with this expansion, we plan to continue on that path.”
Driving two ideas together
A Michigan State University graduate with a master’s in public relations, Grant never intended to start a food delivery company. In fact, she was focused on her firm, Infused PR & Events, when one taco craving changed everything.
“It was a Sunday evening in November. I’ll never forget it,” she said, wearing a Flash Delivery T-shirt with the lighting bolt logo shaped like a fork.
Grant was at her best friend’s mom’s house in Birmingham and wanted to order from Zumba Mexican Grille.
“I’m calling, calling, calling. Nobody was answering. Then I call the one in Royal Oak. Nobody is answering,” she said. “After like 30 minutes, ‘I said, I just want someone to deliver me some tacos!’ And the light bulb clicked on.”
Grant reached out to delivery companies nationwide for advice. A few told her to attend a convention in Las Vegas, where they gather each year. So she went.
Grant enrolled in Detroit’s Build Institute, which helps entrepreneurs develop business plans. She then began approaching restaurants and got an unpleasant surprise from the owner of Westin Book Cadillac’s 24 Grille.
“He said, ‘There was this girl who came in here a few weeks ago, trying to sell me on the exact same business concept,’ ” Grant recalled.
Grant decided to meet this woman — Ericka Billingslea, a Northwood University graduate skilled in accounting. She worked a corporate job, where she ordered coney’s every day for lunch. The idea to start a third-party delivery service, Billingslea said, was also “an ah-ha moment.”
“As I was sitting listening to her, I was like, either I’m going to kill this girl and eat her alive,” said Grant, laughing, “or we need to figure out a way of working together.”
Billingslea also graduated from the Build Institute, and Grant needed someone to manage daily operations while she ran her PR firm.
“So we decided to become business partners,” Grant said. “I don’t know if that would happen in other markets because everyone talks about how cutthroat people are, and for here, I think we’re just trying to get some stuff done.”
Delivering food in a flash
Fields, 29, of Detroit was Flash Delivery’s first driver.
“We were literally getting one, two, three orders a day, and it would be slow,” said Fields, leaving headquarters at Bamboo Detroit and heading to pick up Maxwell’s wrap. “I remember days when I probably wouldn’t even leave the house, waiting on an order, and now it’s like we get orders constantly all day.”
The service operates 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. On a recent Monday, Fields, a full-time merchandiser for Coca-Cola, is working the lunch and dinner shifts. Depending on the day, he could make $175 in tips and the $5-$7 delivery fee, which he’ll refund out of his pocket if he’s late.
The hardest part of the job?
“Finding parking,” said Fields, sliding into a metered space in front of Mac n’ Brewz. “I’ve gotten so many tickets, I can’t keep count.”
The 11 drivers use their own cars and a Flash Delivery topper when en route.
“When the car topper is on, technically they’re in commercial use, but the parking attendants don’t view it as such,” said Grant, explaining she’s tried securing permits but City Council hasn’t fulfilled her request.
Besides filling hungry bellies, the restaurants have benefited.
Mac n’ Brewz co-founder Gary Sussman said Flash Delivery has increased sales since they partnered this year.
“It’s incremental business, which is very profitable,” said Sussman, estimating they get five Flash orders a day.
Food delivery companies didn’t want to service Detroit a few years ago, he added.
“Flash is one of the first that didn’t shun the market and recognized that it was coming around. Other companies, who shall go nameless, we’ve had trouble getting delivered in Midtown. Even though we all knew Midtown was coming along, some of the national players did not realize that Midtown was a great market,” he said.
While pizza and Chinese food remain the most common form of food delivery, a 2016 McKinsey&Company report found online platforms represent a growing segment of the food delivery market worldwide, reaching 42 percent this year.
Louisiana Creole Gumbo owner Joe Spencer sees the value of a food delivery service.
“We receive food orders through Flash Delivery that we would not receive without the benefit of home or business delivery,” said Spencer, adding they get up to seven orders a day. “Over a month’s time, these orders add up.”
For now, Spencer partners with Flash at his Gratiot location but said he’s “anxiously waiting” for the company to expand in the area of his West Seven Mile location.
Of course, hiccups do happen, like the time Fields’ customer ordered five extra Louisiana Creole Gumbo muffins, and she only received four. The lady blamed him, but it really wasn’t his fault. Legally, Fields can’t open and check the containers because he doesn’t have a food handler’s permit.
“But I will look through entree containers, and if you order seven entrees, and there’s seven containers, I’m expecting the food to be right,” he said.
Contact Flash Delivery