The Middleman Is Thriving on the Internet

Alex Lorton, left, and Zach Yungst, center, of, talking with Damon Kappas, a client. Annie Tritt for The New York Times

By Damon Darlin | New York Times

Alex Lorton, left, and Zach Yungst, center, of, talking with Damon Kappas, a client. Annie Tritt for The New York Times

NO journalist likes to be told he’s naïve. But that’s what Zach Yungst, co-founder of, told me after I wrote a Ping column suggesting that companies that pay for their employee’s meals, as many high-tech firms do, retard the economic life of a neighborhood.

It’s true that these companies, which are paying engineers $100,000 or $150,000 a year, have every incentive to keep their employees at their desks working, he said in an e-mail. Paying for a meal gets a firm another $50 to $70 of work from an office-bound worker during the lunch hour.

Mr. Yungst and his business partner, Alex Lorton, have thought a lot about that., the company they’ve started in San Francisco, delivers food from carts and small restaurants to businesses that aren’t big enough to afford their own chefs. “We fill a big void,” says Mr. Yungst.

Mr. Yungst and Mr. Lorton are online much of the day reading food blogs, looking for trends and figuring out which chefs to approach on the weekends, but they are classic middlemen.

Hold on, though, wasn’t that a job description that the Internet was destroying? There was even a 25-cent word for it: disintermediation. The Web, we were told, was eliminating the need for the layers of brokers, agents, wholesalers and even retailers that separate the consumer from the producer.

That has happened in some instances, drastically reducing the role of travel agents, for example. But consumers still need help and the Internet has provided the tools and the environment for companies like to flourish. It has made it easier for middlemen to reach consumers and made it remarkably easy and inexpensive for these middlemen to create companies to do just that.

While there has been a lot of talk about how the technology industry does not create jobs on the scale of traditional manufacturing — a shrunken General Motors still employs more people than a thriving Google — the Internet has made it a lot easier to create a broad array of new small businesses. is a good example of it. Both of its founders are Wharton business school graduates who began their careers in the kinds of jobs you’d expect B-schoolers to take; Mr. Yungst joined an investment bank and a private equity firm while Mr. Lorton took a job as a business consultant.

Mr. Yungst visited many offices in San Francisco, and strolled past food trucks on the city streets selling porchetta sandwiches, curries, barbecue and just about anything you can think of stuffed in a taco. This gave him an idea: if people can’t get out to the food, Mr. Yungst would bring the food to them. Mr. Lorton, who had met Mr. Yungst when they were both freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania, liked the idea and joined him.

They talked to chefs who were just starting out, many of them hoping to break into the catering business while working in communal kitchens and running pop-up restaurants, farmers’ market food stands or food trucks. The chefs lacked the time and the connections to get inside offices to sell their food.

The two partners found Feldo Nartapura outside a Mission district art gallery grilling skewers of Indonesian sate on a portable grill. Entree to the office-worker market has given him more business and spread his weekend-concentrated business over seven days.

“I have consistent work,” he said. “Before I’d only look forward to the weekend.”

Joseph Ahearne, who makes Argentine empanadas, says of the new arrangement, “It helps to keep the wheels rolling.” The consistent work means he has hired seven people to help him make little meat-filled pastries using his mother’s recipe. Without worrying as much about drumming up business, he says, “I can concentrate on the kitchen.”

All the while, the two were talking to financial and technology companies in downtown San Francisco. (The Internet doesn’t eliminate the need for old-fashioned shoe leather.) Many companies were already having food delivered.’s pitch was that they’d reliably provide variety.

This is where the Internet was a boon to the new middlemen. They could provide a slick order form that even the newest and lowliest employee — the one often stuck with the task of coordinating lunch for everyone else — could navigate. “We understand the stresses on the person who orders the food,” said Mr. Yungst. “We make them look good.”

NOW, an office containing 10 to 250 people can order around 30 kinds of food from 70 vendors. One day it might be Dontaye Ball’s barbecue and the next Veronica Salazar’s chicken mole sliders. (“We call them sliders because people don’t know they are hojaldritas,” she says.) The company says that it provides Malaysian, Venezuelan, Jamaican and African meals as well as more familiar Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Italian food.

They built a back-end system that tracks which companies prefer what kind of foods. now has about 80 clients including prominent start-ups like Ngmoco, Yelp and Posterous.

The middlemen have put the chefs front and center with their clients. “We never white label a product,” says Mr. Lorton.

The chefs are pleased that new customers are becoming acquainted with their fare. People seek them out at farmers’ markets or fairs. Mr. Nartapura’s Satayisfied stand and Ms. Salazar’s El Huarache Loco stand are now fixtures at San Francisco street food fairs.

Mr. Hall, who delivers his sandwiches and salads in his “pulled-pork Prius,” says, “It’s kind of cool to see corporate customers embrace street food.”