Return of the Dot-Coms

It’s been a few years since I had a dot-com that I really, really liked. Sure, we’ve had Amazon and Google looking out for us these past few years, but it was fun during the boom to have the sock puppet and Kozmo’s orange-clad deliverymen all over the place. I’m quite surprised to have had some of that sense of fun return lately.

The dot-com that’s caught my eye is FreshDirect. Their basic premise isn’t very new, indeed, it seems virtually indistinguishable from a HomeRuns or Peapod at first, since they just deliver groceries to your door when you order them from their website. And they’ve even got the very 1999 model of giving you $50 worth of free groceries on your first order. But the similarities end when you consider that they’re actually in danger of being somewhat successful.

Now, the reason you may not have heard of FreshDirect is because of their market: New York City. They only deliver to parts of Manhattan and Queens, and they don’t ever intend to grow outside of NYC’s boundaries, as far as I’ve seen. This makes a ton of sense, because we’ve got a densely-packed, fairly affluent population with almost no access to real grocery stores.

I’ll pause to explain, for those of you who aren’t familiar with New York City and its culture, that we don’t really have supermarkets or grocery stores as they exist in the suburbs or in smaller cities. Most people get their groceries through a combination of specialty stores, small markets, corner convenience stores, and farmers’ markets that are set up around the city. Hippies also exercise the co-op option. But big, acres-of-parking, miles-of-aisles supermarkets with their own in-house post office and bank branch simply don’t fit into our city.

There are upscale boutique supermarkets in nearly every neighborhood in Manhattan, since there’s a disproportionate number of foodies in this town. And then there’s the Fairway Uptown in Harlem, which was created by the same guy who went on to found FreshDirect. The Fairway Uptown is known for extremely fresh food and relatively cheap prices. FreshDirect has both of those, plus the convenience of delivery scheduled in two hour windows. In a town where nobody owns a car, delivery of groceries is a big deal.

They’ve understood the culture of the city pretty well, offering delivery times that start at 6pm and don’t end until midnight, which does a good job of reflecting the actual times when Manhattanites might be at home. And the quality of the food is extraordinary, besting even the produce at the frou-frou foodie stores, and coming in cheaper than the local ghetto mart’s square, hard tomatoes. In all, they’ve got a hit.

One of my few disappointments with the cancellation of this year’s Webby Awards ceremonies is that I was hoping to meet the Fresh Direct folks if they’d have gone. But they’re probably not too worried about winning awards, as the bigger accomplishment is that their business model is actually working. On my block alone, I’ve seen their delivery guys stopping at every single building with the boxes emblazoned with the green FreshDirect logo on them, and then of course we seem the boxes again the next day when all those people put them out for recycling. I was looking around while walking the dog, and it occurs to me that New York hasn’t had this much crushed cardboard lying around since the last time they filmed a David Blaine TV special.

So, it’s great news. Exciting to see companies that perform a useful service, make a decent profit, accomplish these goals elegantly, and best of all, use the web effectively and indispensably to run their business. That’s what I’d always figured the web would be.