À la Carte's wide selection includes Mexican.
À la Carte's wide selection includes Mexican.
Courtesy of À la Carte

South Beach's À la Carte Reinvents Food Delivery

Dennis Garcia glances at a wall inside an Alton Road storefront covered with more than 40 iPads. When an order rings in, the 20-year-old with a polished swoop of black hair pulls a handful of noodles from a waist-high refrigerator and drops them into a sputtering fryer.

Working in a narrow hallway sandwiched by subway tiles, he then places a few bright-red slices of beef into a hissing wok. He turns around, cuts a cucumber into long matchsticks, and shreds scallions into verdant curls before tossing the beef in a combination of soy, oyster sauce, and sugar.

Finally, he arranges it all in a plastic container, snaps it shut, and sends it back toward the wall of iPads, where it is passed to a waiting driver. Garcia isn't the only one rushing out orders. Next to him, another cook tosses a fried chicken thigh in a sweet, spicy sauce and sets it on a toasted bun. Nearby, a cauliflower-and-onion-dappled pizza is pulled from an oven. A few yards away, someone slices through a tuna and shrimp tempura roll.

This is À la Carte (1427 Alton Rd., Miami Beach; 786-620-2295; alacartedelivery.com), where more than a dozen delivery-only minirestaurants work side-by-side in the same kitchen, hoping to reinvent a food delivery industry already in flux.

At the helm is Ken Ray, an athletic 42-year-old with one forearm wrapped in a flower tattoo and a narrow face framed by dark-silver hair. He arrived in Miami from Chicago in 1998 with a backpack and $1,000 cash and then spent the ensuing years bartending and working restaurant jobs before starting Maso Hospitality Group, a consultancy that connects spaces and restaurants. Maso has also run eateries in condo buildings such as the Continuum and Trump Towers in Sunny Isles Beach.

Ray and partner Julian Johnston began toying with the idea of À la Carte in 2016 after spending years watching Miami's cyclical restaurant industry chew up and spit out countless places. "Rents and labor only get more expensive, so we began asking, 'How can you generate more revenue per square foot?'" Ray says. "Then, with everything like UberEats and Postmates coming onboard, the entire concept naturally came together."

À la Carte is billed as a "virtual food hall," though Ray cringes at the term. At conventional halls, customers can choose from tacos, ceviche, ramen, carbonara, or hot sandwiches. À la Carte takes the process online, offering a selection of Mexican, sushi, fried chicken, Chinese, or poke, which can be bundled together. Delivery, offered only in Miami Beach at the moment, is free if the order totals more than $20.

So far, the place that opened in April 2017 with $700,000 in seed money has delivered more than 17,000 orders and nearly broken even. It employs about 15 full-timers, most of them cooks and assistants who pack orders and hand them off for delivery. On an average day, À la Carte's wall of iPads whistles and chimes most during lunch and dinner hours. Each of the food concepts is attached to five or six tablets. So, for instance, Bobby Ray's Famous Fried Chicken, which is named in honor of Ken's brother, has one tablet each for Postmates, UberEats, Amazon Restaurants, and a couple of others.

À la Carte is different from traditional restaurants in the way meals are conceived. Fries from many places often arrive soggy, buttery sauces congeal, and pastas arrives in an overcooked, gummy pile. Ray's meals need to remain crisp.

"What it comes down to is that the food has to be solid," Ray says.

It also means ambition needs to be moderated. The food here isn't astonishing, but it's reliable, reasonably priced, and ready for delivery within 30 minutes. Thus, the menu of each À la Carte concept offers at most 15 items. Take its Mexican operation, Fresco Mexicano. The bulk of the menu is a Chipotle-like setup where shredded roast pork, braised short rib, or spicy tofu can be combined with pineapple salsa, cilantro-lime rice, guacamole, and/or jalapeño peppers in a burrito, a bowl, or a salad for about $11. There are no nachos, which in their mountainous form are a staple of Mexican-American cuisine but turn into a lukewarm hunk of gunk after some time in a box.

The best option is the fried chicken concept, which specializes in sandwiches, tenders, wings, and salads. The Korean fried chicken sandwich ($8) brings a shatteringly crisp fried thigh on a soft, sweet bun topped with piquant cucumber pickles. Another possibility comes crowned with Buffalo sauce and blue cheese ($8), and a third makes the chicken parm portable for $8.50. Ray even hopes to give Pollo Tropical (which has a location down the block) a run for its money with half ($6) and whole ($9) chickens delivered with plantains ($3.50), black beans ($2.50), or yuca ($3.99).

The long game, however, is less about coming up with proprietary concepts and more about bringing in recognized chefs and restaurants.

In early December, À la Carte partnered with Sunset Harbour's True Loaf Bakery to offer Tomas Strulovic's pristine pastries, including almond croissants ($4.50) and banana bread ($4.50). The Miami-based cupcake shop La Sweetz has also signed on, and other partnerships are in the works, though Ray declines to discuss specifics.

The idea is similar to those in airport terminals, where pared-down, celebrity chef-branded concepts are run by third parties. Ray mentions Miami talents such as Pubbelly's Jose Mendin and Kyu's Michael Lewis as the pedigree he hopes to attract. "We're trying to go the more boutique route," he says.

By the summer, À la Carte, which is looking to raise another million dollars, hopes to add other concepts to the roster at À la Carte's flagship while also expanding across the nation. "We'll probably go up to D.C., Philly, or Boston next," Ray says.

They also plan to eliminate that wall of tablets and develop their own software to track food, drivers, clients' allergies, and other info. Dishes will be suggested based on a laundry list of factors running through a kind of culinary algorithm.

A couple of other Miami restaurants have toyed with similar ideas. Last summer, Josh Marcus of Surfside's Josh's Deli offered delivery-only Mexican and Chinese out of his compact restaurant, which is best known for its playful takes on nonkosher Jewish food. At first, the concept stretched the deli too thin, and after several months, Marcus says, he was spending long nights on his feet going crazy for a few hundred bucks. Moreover, dealing with drivers was a constant hassle.

"Guys would be sitting right outside the restaurant for 20 minutes before picking up an order, then come in stinking like weed," he recalls. He cancelled the service but is considering renewing it during slow times.

In December, Phuc Yea's Cesar Zapata and Aniece Meinhold launched a few delivery-only dishes under the name Pho Mi during lunch hour, when the restaurant is otherwise closed. They offer the fragrant Vietnamese soup pho bo for $16 and bánh mì sandwiches for around $12. High delivery costs, though, present a challenge, Meinhold says. "When you look at dining trends, you see people want convenience and value," she adds. "Delivery provides convenience, but does it provide value? I don't know."

Ultimately, À la Carte's approach is the most ambitious and potentially lucrative. Its success depends upon whether the owners can find enough talented chefs, consistently attract an audience, and turn a profit. If they can do it all, the Alton Road kitchen might be onto something much bigger than delivery.

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