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Southern Living

February, 2001

"Dine On-line"

Sue Wasserman

Donna Lynes-Miller had the feeling it was time to cook up a new career. Her fast-paced job as senior vice president for Atlanta-based AFC Enterprises was taking its toll. While her work was exhilarating, both the hours and commute were long and stressful. As was the nightly challenge of trying to figure out what she and husband Jeff would do about dinner. "I hated the fact that we weren't taking the time to eat right," Donna recalls.

Then she discovered an ad for Patrick Menger, former sous-chef for Nicolai's Roof, who had launched a business preparing and delivering customized gourmet meals for in-town clients.

"Originally, I started with a family or two, and did the shopping and preparation right in their homes," Patrick says. "But the business grew so fast that I ended up having to lease a small kitchen and do the prep work there."

"What an eye-opener that was," Donna says. "I didn't realize how wonderful it could be having chef-quality food brought right to my door."

Delighted by the week of savory meals that required only heating, the exec was inspired. What if she could create a site on the Internet where a larger audience could order gourmet fare? "We first pitched the concept to AFC," Donna says. "While they thought the idea was good, they decided to remain focused on their core business. Knowing that the concept was in my heart, they were incredibly supportive when I left to follow my dream."

Although it took two years of extensive research and testing before launching, GourmetStation.com proves that dreams really do come true. Husband Jeff was responsible for the catchy slogan "log on, dine in," which describes what their clients do.

Designed for two diners, each GourmetStation.com meal comes complete with a choice of two soups, two entrees, two side dishes, artisan bread, dessert, coffee, and candles. "We did consumer research to determine the most popular ethnic flavors," Donna notes. "Since Parisian, Asian, Baja, and Italian received top honors, we started out with those four lines." The choices are many. Diners can choose from entrees such as Seafood Manicotti, Cheese Tortellini, New Mexican Chili Rellenos and Green Chile Cheese Tamales, and Seasoned Peking Duck.

While the concept seems so simple, "putting this together wasn't easy," Donna says. First, we had to find foodservice vendors to prepare, package, and ship ethnic delights to their satisfaction. Authenticity, of course, was a must. "The Baja cuisine comes from a group in New Mexico, right in the heart of pepper country," Donna says. "Second generation Italians in Connecticut do the Italian cooking. Los Angeles is home to the Asian family responsible for Asian cuisine, and the French fare hails from Washington, D.C."

According to Donna creating the appropriate shipping package was far more difficult than selecting food service vendors. "We wanted people to say, 'Gosh, that's beautiful, that's elegant,'" Donna says. "Unfortunately a lot of what we were seeing were Stryofoam containers with absolutely no panache." What's more, the box had to withstand the rigors of shipping and the food had to be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 27 hours.

Finally, Blue Marble Media, an Atlanta design firm, created a package that met their specification. Patrick recalls, "I realized we had a winner when I was out and about, delivering test packages. People kept coming up to me, asking what was in the beautiful box."

No matter how good the food was, the team realized their venture would certainly fail without the right delivery system in place. "If we hired couriers," Donna notes, "we could only have delivery within five (Atlanta-area) counties. Then we started talking to UPS. With its abundance of e-commerce tools, UPS opened up the country as potential buyers." Noting a few early delivery glitches, GourmetStation.com now recommends delivery to the workplace or to the home the day before it's needed. "That way," she says, "we know our customers will receive their meals when they want them."

Customers' reasons for ordering are as varied as the menus. "Some people use them for a special occasion for themselves or as a gift to friends or family," she says. "We've got one customer with a house on Lake Lanier who orders three different meals for delivery to the lake by Friday so she doesn't have to worry about cooking. I think that's a great idea. In face, we're planning on targeting people in resort communities."

The team likes the idea that people in two different cities can have the same type of gourmet experience. "We could have a client in Boston and a client who's ordered from some small Southern town. They lead totally different lives but share this common experience. We just think that's really cool."

Donna also likes the fact that folks from small towns now have more options. "I grew up in Columbia, Tennessee," she explains. "Usually, people in small towns don't have a lot of restaurant choices. Now they have the same choices as someone living in New York."

Although GourmetStation.com currently has only one distribution center, the teams has plans to expand to other cities. "San Francisco will probably be where we open our next center," Donna says. "It is, after all, the most wired city in the nation."

While they're excited about the growth potential, the team is in no rush to expand too quickly. Donna says, "Right now, I just want people to connect fine dining with the Internet. If we can just get them to log on, we're sure they'll acquire a taste for on-line purchasing."

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