Lazy Boy owner reflects on eight years of Iowa City eats
Millennials are ordering their dinner through apps. Elizabeth Keatinge has more.
Before the rise and fall of OrderUp in Iowa City, before GrubHub, Chomp and Uber Eats, Jermaine Ramsey was here. For almost a decade, he's been the local business ahead of the curve and outlasting the competition.
His desk is the dashboard of his truck, his office is the vehicle's cabin. This workplace on wheels is not only recognizable by the Lazy Boy Food Delivery logo on the side of the vehicle, but also by the horse in its back window. Not a real horse, but one of the stuffed horse heads on the end of a pole that kids can pretend to ride around on.
“Smiles are infectious man," said Ramsey on why he keeps the horse looking out his rear window. "Being in traffic all day long, everyone has road rage — you know everybody's going to get to that point. But I can guarantee you that I can look in my mirror and see someone laughing or smiling."
That's part of why his business doesn't feel like a job to him. Smiles and a strong work ethic keep him going. His first year back in 2011, he only had 56 orders. Keep in mind, this was before the explosion of online ordering and apps for everything. But by 2012 Ramsey counted 1,500 deliveries and in his third, 3,000. He stopped keeping track after he hit 11,000 per year.
"You can start from nothing and get somewhere if you really put your shoulder into it," said Ramsey. "But it’s not work to me.I get to drive around the town I grew up in all day long. You can’t beat that.”
In his almost 10 years on the job, the only day he's taken off is for his mother's funeral. Other than that "if the restaurant's open, I'm open."
There is a ton more competition for food delivery service these days, but Ramsey said he has a secret weapon: quality of service. The number or restaurants he delivers for is relatively small, ranging from seven to as high as 25 depending on the time of year and demand. Ramsey makes an effort to work with restaurants where he can build a relationship with the owner and managers, assuring quality for his customers.
He also makes an effort to connect with those customers. Scrolling through his phone, he has more than 1,500 named contracts, representing repeat customers through the years. If someone new is calling he knows it right away. After a personal experience of his own, he also serves patients in area hospitals with no delivery fees.
“Eating is a natural thing," is Ramsey's reasoning. "If you want to treat yourself in what might be the worst experience of your life, you shouldn’t have to worry about paying for it.”
Ramsey remains more interested in building relationships than asking for money.
"I read an article where [Uber Eats] said without charging 30 to 40 percent of the ticket, food delivery is unsustainable," said Ramsey. As a rule, he doesn't charge restaurants a percentage of the order, making his profit solely through delivery fees and tips.
"In my opinion, this is why these large businesses fail. It's all about the money," he said. "It can’t be about (only) money; it has to be about service, and servicing the customer."
He believes that's how he was able to outlast OrderUp after it went nationwide in 2013. When OrderUp first arrived in this market, the company tried to recruit Ramsey as local general manager. But Ramsey started his business specifically because he didn't want to work for anyone ever again, and he turned them down.
According to Ramsey, OrderUp didn't like that very much.
Up to that moment, Ramsey had been delivering for 25 area restaurants, having signed exclusivity contracts with many of them. But when OrderUp came in, he lost all but two of those restaurants.
“[OrderUp] had a clause in their contracts with restaurants that if I was to walk into their restaurant they’d be fined $250," he recalled.
But Ramsey kept doing what he knew how to do best, offering a more personal service with more trained drivers, while OrderUp kept an eye on what he was doing so as not to lose their lead. It was during this period he re-branded as Hometown Local Restaurant Delivery Inc. Eventually, he expanded his range of delivery and OrderUp tried to do the same.
"They followed me right out to North Liberty," said Ramsey. "They couldn’t service it. They followed me out there in the summer time and the fall came, and all the students came back, and they couldn’t handle the service.”
Ramsey remembers the day OrderUp closed in Iowa City because it was the day before his birthday, Sept. 14, of 2017 by his recollection.
Since then, companies like Uber Eats, GrubHub and Chomp have come into the area, but Ramsey continues working 11 a.m. to 11 p.m, just about every day, managing training and paying his own fleet of drivers. Even when tornadoes touch down and he sends his drivers home, he works. As long as the restaurants are open, so is he.
“A business owner has to be willing to sacrifice everything," Ramsey said. "To put everything they have into their business."