Homegrown delivery service a force to be reckoned with
Tracy LaMarr sketched out the plan to launch a restaurant delivery service on a plane homebound from a business conference in March 2020, as restaurants and other companies were shutting down to stem coronavirus infections.
The Tri-City restaurant owner knew she’d face fierce competition from bigger, well-known companies like Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub, but she wasn’t daunted.
She cringed each time she paid the monthly fees to the delivery services and knew to weather the pandemic she would need to reduce expenses like these.
“I couldn’t survive with them taking 30% of all my sales,” she said, explaining she was paying up to $10,000 a month for their services.
So she and her husband, Steve, owners of Chicken Shack restaurants in West Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, decided to start their own delivery service.
After all, why not add a third business to their mix?
Tracy is an entrepreneur who launched her own construction firm with partners at age 25. The couple also own StoneCrest Builders, a custom homebuilding company, which marks its 22nd year in business this year.
From Dudes to Force
The food-delivery business began as Tri-Cities Food Dudes but had to change its name when a business in the Midwest alerted the LaMarrs that the name was trademarked.
“We loved the Dudes, but in hindsight it worked out better. We initially did this for the Chicken Shack but we saw how much local restaurants needed us and how much we could help. It became more like a mission. We’re fighting for our locals and hopefully we would be a force to be reckoned with,” Tracy said.
And so Tri-Cities Food Force launched in March 2021, just in time to celebrate the first anniversary of the food-delivery business in April.
More than 50 Tri-City restaurants have joined the Force to date.
Niki Young, co-owner of Pacific Pasta & Grill in Richland, has been using the delivery service since August and she’s been impressed.
“They were local. We like to support the local businesses. They charged a lower fee,” she said.
“I want to see Food Force get more customers so they can grow,” she added.
Chicken Shack hatched
The LaMarrs opened the West Richland Chicken Shack in December 2015 as a licensee. It’s not a franchise, Tracy pointed out. They have the rights to use the recipes, Fred the chicken mascot and logos. They also must agree to use fresh chicken. Other than that, they’re free to run the restaurants as they please.
They opened additional restaurants at 8921 Sandifur Parkway in Pasco in January 2019 and at 3320 W. Kennewick Ave. in Kennewick in March 2021.
“We have great fan base and they have continued to thrive. We pivoted really well on online stuff. We tried to make it really, really easy for people to order,” Tracy said.
The West Richland Shack is popular for its live music and patio seating. Shows returned in April after a yearlong hiatus. Tracy said the shows have been selling out.
“We’re getting a good 21-and-older section in Kennewick, too, and getting a good beer following there,” she said.
The three restaurants employ nearly 30 people.
Food Force employs three full-time food dispatchers along with about a dozen independent contracted drivers. One operational manager works across Food Force, Chicken Shack and StoneCrest.
Between the three companies, they have about 45 employees on the payroll.
Using the Force
Customers ordering food can harness the Force via its app or website to see which restaurants are in their delivery area.
Dispatchers help to make sure everything runs smoothly behind the scenes.
Young, of Pacific Pasta & Grill, appreciates Food Force drivers being prepared with insulated food bags and dressing nicely. After all, she said, they’re representing her establishment, even though they’re not her employees.
Young said she’s never had a call complaining about an incorrect delivery order from a Food Force driver either.
“Whereas Uber and Grubhub I get bad calls,” she said, explaining she has had complaints about customers not receiving drinks or some of the items they ordered.
“I end up having to eat that because I’m trying to make that right with customers,” she said.
Force dispatchers can make real-time adjustments. If an order isn’t seen by the restaurant, they call to alert them. If a hungry customer wants extra meat, they make a note and charge the appropriate amount to cover the cost.
“We work through those problems live, which I appreciate as a restaurant owner. … It enables us to manage that experience,” Tracy said. “We take that burden off restaurants to let us handle it.”
Some restaurants aren’t promoting the homegrown delivery service because they’re too busy running their own kitchens. It’s getting Tracy to rethink how to better market the business to both restaurants and customers.
“Our biggest competition is not each other. Our biggest competition is the other third party. We have to break the habit of everyone going to them and to recognize these restaurants need our service,” she said.
Food Force charges 12% of restaurants’ meal sales, versus the 30% fee assessed by the national third-party vendors, Tracy said. There’s no fee to sign up for the service.
Turning them off
Tracy said she decided to commit to her own delivery service completely and turned off the national vendors in February. She said it took more than a month for delivery sales to build back up as customers figured out about Food Force.
“I had my heart in throat for a month, or my stomach, or however you say it. I just knew that our customers were awesome and going to support us. I hope to be an example and tell the other restaurants: I have the same amount of sales and profitability and the bottom line is bigger.
“We need to get that across to the Tri-Cities. We need to use Food Force not for us, but for the restaurants. It’s going to help them greatly. But I know it’s hard to break a habit,” she said.