Pastrami sandwiches from Katz's Deli in New York City
“We think epic food on demand is a pretty compelling idea.”
That sums up founder Joe Ariel’s mission statement for the strangely named Goldbely, the “curated marketplace” for local and regional food that he launched a little more than a year ago (the site's spelling, according to its website, "is a story for a different day.") If you ask Ariel what he does for a living, he will tell you that he spends his days “just trying to spread love.”
His particular brand of love happens to be food previously only available in specific restaurants, and the trowel he uses to smear it coast to coast is the Internet. If you’re craving a pastrami sandwich from New York’s iconic Katz’s Delicatessen, Goldbely will ship it to you. If your immediate travel plans don’t include a trip to Birmingham, AL, to eat Dreamland Bar-B-Que’s ribs, Goldbely will make it possible for you to picnic on them while taking in the sea breezes on Ocean Beach. All it requires from you in return is a craving and a credit card.
So is Goldbely a genius creation or just another service that inches us closer to becoming the idle, robot-fed gluttons of Wall-e?
Ariel’s conceit—that local, regional food can be treated the same way that Zappo’s treats sneakers or Amazon treats, well, everything—isn’t exactly new. Omaha Steaks has been sending red meat across the country since 1952, and Harry & David began direct-mailing gift baskets full of its rock-hard Comice pears in the 1930s. But it is perfectly suited to this particular juncture in history, when both gastronomic obsession has reached an all-time high and there's room in the Internet bubble for just about any flight of fancy. “We think the time is right, based on technological changes and [the rise of] the food movement,” Ariel says, “where people know what is great and seek out the best of the best.” The Internet, he adds in classic Valleyspeak, “delocalizes local. If you want the best of the best, it’s not necessarily something that’s in your one-mile radius. Why should food be any different?”
I’ve found myself thinking about Goldbely a lot over the past couple of weeks, and not just because it keeps sending me promotional emails touting everything from lobster tail puffs and cherry pies to Kansas City barbecue and Buffalo wings. I look at the site and see the natural culmination of the gastro-mania that’s taken hold of a sizable portion of the country, enabled by a technology that encourages equal parts excitement about food and submission to our most fickle, entitled impulses. If I want a Grasshopper pie from Momofuku, I can get it in San Francisco within 24 hours, assuming I don’t mind paying $44 for the pie and $48.52 for shipping (yes, that’s almost $93 for one pie, though still 20 cents cheaper than ordering direct from Momofuku).
Gone is the need to make a food pilgrimage, or to do much of anything in the way of planning or effort; the Holy Land takes a pilgrimage to you. Ariel has set up shop at the intersection of consumer desire and laziness—though he prefers to see his site as “empower[ing] small and medium-size purveyors to have a national footprint.”
You could argue that places like Katz’s and Magnolia Bakery, with their interminable lines of tourists, don’t need empowerment and that the massive carbon footprint made by overnighting food across the country is at odds with appreciating local and regional fare. Ariel says that Goldbely’s carbon footprint is “totally” a concern, and argues that ordering a pastrami sandwich online is “in a lot of ways more efficient than flying to a city” to eat one. He also stresses that Goldbely is “in no way […] trying to replace the experience of going to an iconic establishment. We want you to be able to relive it if you’ve been there, or if you haven’t, it gives you a taste of what that experience might be like.”
We’ve reached a curious point where our interest in making food—and in how it’s made—is surpassed only by our expectation that it be all but effortless to procure, as Yelp rants about long lines and slow service make clear. The fact that Goldbely, which received $3 million in venture capital funding from firms including Intel Capital and FundersClub, has been such a success thus far, with more than 100,000 subscribers, offers compelling evidence that that Ariel is particularly well-suited to fulfilling that expectation.
I don't think Goldbely is a problem so much as symptomatic of the greater ill of tech bubble excess—for every startup trying to fix the world, there's one that's indirectly harming it by using technology to cater to our every whim. Goldbely perfectly illustrates the extent to which the average foodie’s “curated,” supposedly superior approach to eating has become synonymous with single-minded self-gratification, and how mundane so-called gourmet food can become in the process. When the holy land is made deliverable, its holiness starts to feel hollow.