Buyer Beware!: Night Owl “Delivery”

When I left Manhattan for Boston several years ago, there were a few things I missed immediately. Among them, restaurants that delivered and intersections where pedestrians did not have a “DON’T WALK” sign in both directions.

At least, about six months ago, I thought I’d finally found my antidote to Boston’s dearth of delivery, at least:, a website that, primarily through the service Night Owl, offers delivery from dozens of restaurants around the city. And not just the usual pizza and fast-food Chinese, either. When you log in, the interface automatically brings up an entire list of restaurants—organized by category—that not only deliver, but do so at your particular address and at the particular time you’re logged in. No more haggling with a chaos-addled phone answerer about how “…the guy came this far last time, no problem”!

As a Leather District denizen, I was also delighted to find that Night Owl was willing to bring in eats from a host of places in Brookline, Cambridge, and beyond, which I never would have had the audacity to consider when ordering “manually.” Tamarind Bay to Beach Street in less than an hour! Even better, the current menu is always listed online, and there are fields attached to every item wherein one can special-request to one’s heart’s content without fear of eliciting a flustered sigh. (“Extra-spicy, please, and none of those maddening bean sprouts,” etc.) You can even deal with the delivery person’s tip with the click of a button! I’ve been so charmed by every aspect of this service that cooking at home has become a rarer and rarer event.

Then came the Peking duck incident.

It was a weather-addled Sunday, a lazy day spent proactively catching up on random DVRed minutiae. Hunger pangs hit. The computer was within grasping distance. What was on the menu today? Scanning restaurant after available restaurant, I finally spied East Ocean City, a place in Chinatown that serves some of the freshest wok-seared seafood around. They also, secretly, serve a mean Peking duck. Could I actually get an entire crisp-skinned duck, with all the pancakes, sauces, and garnishes, delivered right to my couch? Sure enough, there it was. Brilliant!

I logged my order in, paid (online!) by credit card, gave the driver a generous tip (online!), and clicked on the next taped episode of 30 Rock. (I’m a loser.) The e-mail confirmation said, as usual, that I could expect my order one hour later, at 2:30 pm. (The day had gotten off to a late start.)

Two-thirty arrived. Then 2:45. At 3 p.m., an hour and a half since the lunch order was called in from a restaurant an embarrassing (to me, at least) three and a half blocks away, I telephoned Night Owl to check the status of my order. “They’re running a little behind, but he’s already picked it up. He’ll be there any minute,” promised the bewildered-sounding lad on the phone. “Alrighty,” I said. “But I’m hungry!”

Three-fifteen. Then 3:30. At 3:45, I called again. “Hey, what’s up? It’s been more than two hours! Peking duck gets ruined if it sits in the car this long: It’s all about the crispy skin, you know. Can we just cancel this order?”

“No, no, no…he’s right downstairs, any second!”

“All right. I hope so.” No wonder they set it up so that most interactions are not carried out via telephone.

At 4:15, almost three hours since placing the order (and more than an hour after Night Owl promised the duck had already been picked up), I called to speak to a manager. Just cancel the damn thing, already!

It was the manager’s response that convinced me never to do business with this company again. Not an apologetic sentiment was uttered. Two hours past the promised delivery time, with no delivery guy in sight, the customer-relations approach this manager mustered when presented with a request for a cancellation, to reverse the charges back on to my credit card, was this: “No way! I’m not doin’ it!”

Brilliant. Not only did Night Owl lose a frequent customer (and good tipper) who was spending hundreds of dollars a week with them, but my credit card company immediately pulled the money out of their account and restored it into mine while my claim gets investigated.

And: What was gearing up to be a breathless valentine to a great service on this fairly well-read blog (which counts some of the city’s most passionate foodies in its readership—many thanks!) became, instead, a cautionary tale.