BOSTON — ON a Sunday afternoon when her family of five is settled in front of the TV, the last thing Carolina Calderin wants to do is cook dinner. So she does what more and more people are doing in this era of the couch potato. She orders in. Rather than making restaurant reservations and getting everybody dressed and into the car, Mrs. Calderin prefers the convenience of having prepared meals brought to her home. ``I work, and I cook during the week,'' says the Florida hospital administrator. ``On weekends I like to take it easy.''
Restaurants across the country are finding that families like the Calderins, with more money than time, are a huge, hungry market for home-delivered meals. Delivery is still small, but it's growing far faster than the rest of the restaurant business. Last year it increased 9 percent, while takeout increased only 4 percent and in-restaurant dining declined 2 percent.
Pizza has been a favorite among homebodies for years and still accounts for most of the delivery business. But pasta, barbecued ribs, fried chicken, and Chinese food have also been making tracks. With the help of delivery services, even mid-scale and upscale restaurants are getting involved, expanding the choices to such things as Thai chicken curry or monkfish en papillote.
Restaurant Express, a delivery service in Newport Beach, Calif., is linked by computer to 36 white-tablecloth restaurants in the area. Its 25 tuxedo-clad waiters shuttle 400 to 450 orders a week. Average tab for a dinner for two: $30, including a $4 delivery charge. Entrepreneur John Pugsley, who started the business two years ago, plans to expand soon to 1,250 orders a week and hopes eventually to take the company national.
Behind the demand for home delivery, analysts say, is the trend toward an older, family-oriented population with more two-earner households. Couples are into ``cocooning'' at home after work, watching their VCRs and spending time with their children.
``You've got baby-boomers, who now are in their late 20s through early 40s, getting married and having their first child. And that change of bringing a child into the household has an enormous impact on food purchase behavior,'' says George D. Rice, president of GDR/Crest Enterprises, a market-research firm. ``People are saying, `If I can pick up the phone and order food that's competitively priced, why not?'''
``Consumer demand for convenience is a trend that has been evident since the early '80s, and we see no sign of it abating at all,'' adds Anne Papa, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.
In a recent Gallup survey for the association, 30 percent of consumers polled said they would use food delivery services if they knew they were available.
Analysts warn, however, that the growing appetite for convenience doesn't guarantee success for a food deliverer. The costs of packaging materials, driver fees, menu printings, etc., add up. And combining a sit-down restaurant business with delivery can be complicated, notes Mr. Rice. ``If you have a dining room full of people and a line going out the door, whom do you serve first - the customer there in person, or the one on the phone?''
But operations that are carefully streamlined and conscientiously marketed can do well. Tony Roma's, a specialty restaurant chain owned by the Dallas-based Roma Corporation, has been successfully running baby back ribs from its restaurants in Los Angeles and south Florida. An important part of its strategy, says marketing director Alex Schreer, is mailing menus to homes in affluent neighborhoods. Dependable service keeps its customers calling back.
The Calderins have been ordering an average $60 of food from Tony Roma's in Coral Gables about every two weeks for the last three years. The longest they've had to wait is 25 minutes, and they've never had to reheat an order.