ImageAndrew Silbiger was a consultant for a downtown Boston company.  He was allotted $25 for meals when he worked late, which was often.  But by the time he was done paying charges, delivery fees, and built in tips there wasn't much left for the food.  Chatting with his friend Peter Burton about the problem they decided there was the spark of a business idea there, and America To Go was born.

"America To Go is a Web-based food ordering and accounting solution," explains Vice President for Business Development Audrey Emmer.  "You don't think technology goes with the food industry -- they're very different.  But in fact they go very nicely together."

It is actually a perfect example of how computer technology and the Internet can be leveraged to make real world activities more efficient, cost-effective, and a win-win solution both for food vendors and their corporate customers.

Emmer was in Ithaca a few weeks ago to meet with 'admins' -- people who are authorized to order food in the system -- at Cornell University, an America To Go client.  Cornell wanted to consolidate all it's departmental ordering through it's e-SHOP initiative.  They folded America-To-Go into e-SHOP so that all the various departments would order food for receptions, dinners, and other events on the Web-based system.

'Vendors' (restaurants and caterers) in the system are vetted by America To Go, saving Cornell the time, and therefore money, it takes to make sure a vendor has the proper insurance, can handle the size of events they host, are able to deliver to that ZIP code, and so on.  Departmental tracking is part of the system, so it is easy to see who is spending what for which events.  The real price including delivery fees and tips is displayed, so 'admins' can add or delete to their order when they have to spend within a budget.  And the university only pays one bill, once a month, and gets a full accounting of spending across departments, which it can download into a spreadsheet, saving hours of accounting time.

"It's great because it's real-time," Emmer says.  "It tells people what the costs are as they order each item.  It tallies the cost.  If they realize they went over budget they can click out an item.  It's very transparent.  It tells what the delivery cost is going to be, the tax, and if a company wants to set a standard tipping policy it will show up."

Those benefits translate into savings not just for universities, but across the spectrum of businesses.  For example, a law firm can get instant billing information specific to individual meals in real time so they can accurately bill their clients.  Or a high-tech firm on Boston's Route 128 beltway can provide lunches for employees, providing more variety than the restaurant-scarce neighborhood naturally can.

Another benefit to clients -- they don't pay for the service.  They only pay for the food and beverages they order.  In most cases when America To Go signs a client they find restaurants and caterers who are a good match for the company, that reflect the admins' tastes, price range, and ability to handle the size of events the client hosts.  By the same token the vendors don't pay to be included -- having menus and pricing set up on the system is free.  Vendors pay a percent of sales generated by the system.  For that fee they get visibility and the kind of exclusive market provided by corporations who use the online system.

While some clients love the immediacy of point and click ordering, others want a human connection.  When a client needs food for a last-minute order they just call customer service, which does the scurrying to line up the vendors so the event is taken care of, then gets it entered into the system to keep the accounting up to date.

"We pride ourselves on our customer service," Emmer says.  "We're a 24/7 operation both for the clients and for the vendors.  We really take care of what needs to be taken care of immediately.  I'm also an account manager for some of the companies.  I take care of issues right away.  That's all the client really wants.  They want to know that they're being heard and you are taking care of it.  A lot of our vendors are the same way."

Emmer is a vivacious people-person who loves food and the food business.  A Boston area native, she works for the New York City-based America To Go from her home in the Lexington/Concord area.  With teaching degrees from Emerson College and Harvard Graduate School of Education she taught theater in secondary schools and junior colleges for some time, and then at University College division of Northeastern University, teaching accomplished business people who wanted to add to their credentials.  Later she took a job as the saleswoman for a Boston catering company, and after two years she was recruited by another, where she worked for almost a decade. 

That company was a preferred vendor on America To Go for a Fortune 500 firm in Boston.  When the firm signed with America To Go she found herself working with the Web company as a vendor.  After five years she asked Silbiger whether he planned to open a Boston office.  The result was that she went to work for him in Boston.  She went after new clients, and others found her as she grew that region of the business.

"That's the part that I love," she says.  "I love talking to people.  They tell me about the food that they had, and it was beautifully presented.  I share that with other people when they ask who will do a good job for a little hor dourves party."

While in Ithaca Emmer hosted a few tastings at Cornell.  It's fun to bring them together.  Then she demonstrates the site and how to navigate it.

"It's good for me, because I see what it is they do and I hear the feedback from people," she says.  "You match up food with the type of people in the departments.  I do it automatically because I know food and I get to know the people a little better.  You have to embrace them all.  You have to appreciate that basic sandwich that is good quality and you know is fresh.  At the same time the upper level with linens and china -- they all have their place.  The sooner you learn that the better you can take care of your clients, and everybody's happy."

Good food and saving money is a powerful draw, and America To Go counts Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies among their clients.  Emmer says the system is able to handle items that are not normally on the menu, and a lot of vendors are willing to do something different for clients.  The system has proven to be a good fit for businesses, and now the company is targeting universities.  Cornell is the first university to fully implement America To Go.

She stresses the streamlined accounting, efficient use of employees' time, and cost control benefits of the system.  But on a day to day basis the one-stop convenience of planning an event, otherwise a time-consuming proposition, is what attracts the people who order from the system.

"The beauty of the site is that the menus and prices are up there," Emmer says.  "It is the same for everybody.  That's what's nice, the consistency. It is quite wonderful when you don't have to write out checks or an admin forgot an invoice.  When you look at your account the invoice is in there.  If you want to send it to a colleague it's there.  It saves so much time and paper.  It saves companies having their employees do these little things."