The delivery-only restaurant model has had its ups and downs, but My Belly's Playlist, a sandwich delivery service, has managed to both survive and thrive, keeping its delivery kitchens while also opening up a proper storefront.
Owner and chef Shawn Reilly began his business in 2010, taking over an underutilized kitchen space and turning it into a side sandwich business.
"I've always had this idea of doing New York's best sandwiches my way. At that time, delivery was hard to come by, people weren't doing culinary-driven meals for delivery," Reilly recalls. "We started it as a reservation-only delivery to guarantee quality, but it kind of took off from there and was basically an underground, speakeasy sandwich shop where only certain areas of Manhattan could get it."
The service's popularity turned into an opportunity for a sandwich room service business inside the Renaissance Hotel on West 35th Street, where both hotel guests and locals could order up a turkey sub from the basement kitchen. The hidden sandwich shop idea proved to be a popular one.
"It has turned into something people like to take Instagram and Snapchat stories of," explains Brad Tucker, who helps run marketing for the brand. "It's funny. You think that would end up being a turnoff. However, it's become a bit of a game. We have also created some signs to help guide folks down the hallways and food."
Now, Reilly finds himself out of the basement and into a more traditional space. In August, he opened up his first proper cafe at 89 Washington Street in the Financial District. He's not too far from his original idea, though: "It's off the beaten path a bit, we like to be in more secluded areas that people haven't been to before, but still cool in its own right," he says.
The proper new storefront means an expanded opportunity for incorporating different products into the business like offering ForFive Coffee and, soon, wine and beer. "We're trying to please people's bellies and having a retail opportunity gave us the opportunity to bring these cool little spots [into our business]." The cafe will sell baked goods and products from other businesses like Baked and Dank Bread from Brooklyn.
Now that he's not tied down to delivery-only—My Belly's Playlist still delivers anywhere in Manhattan through third party businesses—Reilly says he can better experiment with dishes designed just for the takeout box. He points to fried empanadas as one example, citing that they stay nice and crunchy when not being carted somewhere else in the borough.
But the sandwiches that started this whole venture remain the most popular, especially The Rancher, a vegetarian sandwich Reilly says "eats like a meat sandwich." The black bean burger sandwich, topped with slaw, pepper jack cheese and chipotle jam, is served on an arepa infused with cotija cheese.
"We've been serving that thing for five years now and it's easily been the number one sandwich for us, year in year out, every week."