Relay Foods

I’ve looked at grocery delivery services like Peapod in the past, but I’ve never used them. My take on it has always been that if I’m going to pay a service charge or delivery fee, I might as well just rent a Zipcar for an hour, and go pick out the stuff myself. That way I can get exactly what I want, and if they’re out of something I can adjust my menu on the fly.

This summer I heard about a new service called Relay Foods, which wasn’t affiliated with any of the big chains. Their angle is that they do grocery delivery for local food producers. I remember looking at the website over the summer, but dismissing it. I’m not sure if I just didn’t dig deep enough, or if they’ve expanded in the last few months, but I’ve wound up using them twice recently and so far I’m happy with it.

The reason why I even looked at their website again is because I saw their truck in the parking lot of my complex several Mondays in a row. Turns out, they offer pickup in addition to delivery, and I live at one of their local pickup spots. While delivery is $10 (they also have a deal for people who use them every week), pickup is free. They do deliver into my building, but I’d still have to pay the delivery charge. For me, it’s actually more convenient to do the pickup as I’m already on that side of the building when I come home from work on Monday night. (And you know, it’s free.)

I’ve done this twice now, and I’ve been very happy with it so far. Before my first order, I noted the prices of everything on my list on Relay, and then went to the local independent grocery store in my neighborhood, and compared prices. In most cases, Relay’s prices on their “everyday groceries” were just a few cents higher. Some stuff was a couple bucks more. Based on what I’ve paid at the farmer’s market for locally-produced specialty foods, they’re competitive on that as well. That was enough for me to at least give them a try.

The website is easy to use – there’s a search and a browse, both of which work well. It’s quite easy to add things to your cart without clicking through to the details page for the item, and they also have a “Relay Refill” service where you can subscribe to an item. They make repeat orders pretty easy – you can go back into your account and add an entire past order to your cart with one click, or you can open it up and just add a few things. There are also categories in the main navigation to pull up everything you’ve ordered in the past, and everything on your favorites list. It scales well for my desktop, laptop and phone screens, which is so nice to see.

One thing that’s very helpful is that you don’t have to submit your order until midnight of the day before you want it (at least for evening deliveries). You can also add things to an existing order up to that point. So the first time, I placed my order and then a few hours later realized there was one more thing I wanted to add. Very easy to do. The second time I ordered, I got everything in my cart and then inexplicably didn’t check out. I remembered as I was drifting off to sleep that I hadn’t actually sent the order, but I was able to grab my phone and take care of that very quickly.

They provide you with a cost estimate but don’t actually charge you until they’ve pulled your order. The actual amount you’re charged may vary, particularly if you’re buying things that are sold by weight. (You buy things like that in “about a half pound” or “about a pound” increments, and they remind you that this means you may not get exactly a pound.) You also have the option for each item to say if you want the best option for a substitution, or to skip the item altogether if it’s out. (And best of all, you choose the default for your account. So if you are very picky and figure you will rarely want a substitution, you can set your account to default to omitting the item.)

Most importantly, I’ve been happy with the quality of the food. I’ve gotten dairy (milk, cream, cheese) and produce (citrus, peppers, greens, carrots, etc), and it’s all been fresh. I’ve also gotten some pantry items and a bottle of dishwasher detergent (which I was glad to see came wrapped in a plastic bag to protect the food if it opened).

They also offer produce boxes (winter CSA anyone!?), “omnivore” boxes, meal kits, tasting boxes and other interesting things. Hopefully this link will work for you, but if not search “Relay’s Own.” (Why they don’t have a category for this mystifies me and is the only thing about the website I find irritating so far.) I ordered the Late Winter Tasting Box, which I’ll tell you all about in a separate post in a couple of days. Spoiler Alert: I liked it and would order a mystery box from them again. (I will say that I didn’t really see a need for it to be packaged in an actual box, but that’s just me. I know they probably want to keep things together, but a small paper bag would work just as well and probably require less packaging material to cushion things.)

In terms of the actual pickup, the worker who staffs the truck is friendly, and their whole system for this makes a lot of sense to me – orders are carefully packed into big plastic tubs, with ice packs as necessary. The tubs are stacked into shelving in the back of a box truck (and bungeed into place) and numbered. Your order number is associated with bin numbers, so the staffer finds your bin or bins, verifies that everything that’s supposed to be in the order is there, and bags it for you. They have bags they can transfer everything into, or you can put it directly into your own reusable bags or trunk.

This certainly isn’t for everyone – if I lived in easy walking distance of a bigger and better grocery store, I’d probably never use Relay. But these days, I’m doing my grocery shopping wherever it’s easiest. This means I’m most frequently shopping at Eddie’s, and sometimes at Target or Giant. I have been known to shop at the Trader Joe’s near Handsome’s place, the Harris Teeter a few blocks from my office (both of those are in DC!) and I’ve gotten a few things from Amazon. But Eddie’s doesn’t always have what I need (not to mention that some of my staples are exorbitantly priced there) and their produce is hit or miss. I’ve only used it twice, but so far Relay is filling a gap for me and it’s been very helpful. I’d encourage you to take a look if they’re in your area.