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Meals on Wheels

Even the most devoted cook appreciates time away from his passions. I learned this years ago, when my father bought my mother her first microwave oven. I can still see Mom bawling as she unwrapped her gift. "Mrs. Widmer got diamonds for Christmas," she sobbed, "and I get something to cook with."

Years later, the rise of the Food Network and more high-end kitchen appliances hides an ugly truth: America loves a family meal, but it wants strangers to cook it.

Douglas Wrightsman is cashing in on that reality. In 1997, he struck a deal with nine area restaurants and began delivering meals in his primered Ford pickup from those eateries to private homes. Today the forward-thinking foodie has about a hundred employees, who wheel food from 75 local restaurants to thousands of stay-at-home diners each week. Wrightsman's By Jeeves now serves more meals each night than some of the city's biggest restaurants, and he's become a kitchen-less restaurateur of the highest (to-go) order.

"People are outsourcing more," Wrightsman says, noting that the home-cooked meal has met much the same fate as the oil change, lawn maintenance and housecleaning. By Jeeves customers pay to bite into a burgeoning for-hire food concept: "home replacement meals."

"If you've got two kids and you work until seven every night, spending an hour in the kitchen is not the best use of your time," Wrightsman explains. "We have a lot of people who call in on their way home so their food is waiting when they walk in the door." Others call By Jeeves, he says, "because they're 22 years old and are really not sure what the things in the kitchen do."

Wrightsman was waiting tables at the now-defunct Ilios and delivering videos out of his truck when D Diamond, Ilios's owner, suggested that restaurant meals might be a hotter to-your-door commodity. So he put together a business plan -- naming his company after the unflappable fix-all butler from P. G. Wodehouse's novels -- and rustled up some working capital, then launched By Jeeves from his one-bedroom apartment in Capitol Hill. To keep track of orders, he created his own software.

The basic concept is simple: For a modest fee of $3.95 per order, By Jeeves customers pick meals from restaurants participating in Wrightsman's venture and pay By Jeeves what they would pay for those same menu items at the eateries themselves. In addition to the order fee, Wrightsman collects a commission from the restaurants that create the meals he delivers each week. (The service also delivers alcohol from Argonaut Liquors.) By Jeeves drivers make their bucks off tips, plus a modest hourly wage and mileage money for using their own vehicles.

And participating By Jeeves restaurants get their payoffs in extra business without having to add staff or incur the costs involved in delivery. "We were very excited when he approached us, because we had no way to do delivery ourselves," says Simeran Baidwan, owner of Little India and a By Jeeves member from the start. Today, Little India boxes up thirty to forty By Jeeves orders each day, at an average of about $40 an order. "That's a lot of business," Baidwan notes. "It's a good way for us to introduce our food to new people. They come in and tell me, 'I order from By Jeeves all the time. I thought I'd come in this time.'"

About 10 percent of his customers are hotel guests who order restaurant meals in lieu of room service, Wrightsman says. The rest are split between at-home diners and business clients. Companies on deadlines or deep in meetings will call By Jeeves for large-scale orders that can total thousands of dollars. Tony Leger, an administrative assistant with Marathon Oil, says her company buys lunch for those who work through their midday meals. By Jeeves gives those employees lots of food options and makes it easy for Leger to order meals via faxed menu forms.

Tyler Aiello and his wife, Monica, who run a contemporary art gallery and design studio northwest of downtown, are frequent By Jeeves users. "When we first moved in five years ago, nobody would deliver to us here," Tyler says. His wife was pregnant at the time, and the prepared meals were a big help. The diversity of delivery choices at By Jeeves has kept them coming back for more. "We order a lot of Indian and Middle Eastern food," he notes. The Aiellos also use By Jeeves to feed artists setting up in the gallery.

Tyler estimates he spent about $3,000 last year with By Jeeves. The meals almost always arrive warm and need no time in the microwave -- but they still require a little kitchen cleanup. "My wife has an issue with eating out of Styrofoam containers," he says, "so we get out plates."

The plates are a good idea when you're dropping big bucks on a restaurant meal without the restaurant. Our order from Maggiano's arrives within the promised one-hour delivery window, a still-hot spread of steamed mussels, grilled steak, pasta and dessert. But we don't want to look at our $32 steak sitting naked in a ten-cent plastic dish, so we quickly transfer it to one of our own plates. Digging in, we feel like we've made a brilliant dinner choice.

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