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Online at the Grocer's

Can FreshDirect.com Deliver?

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It should have been the perfect New Economy business plan (if that's not an oxymoron): Give delivery-addicted New Yorkers what they want when they want it. Yet Urbanfetch and Kozmo.com never could work out how to turn a profit by messengering over a $4 pint of Ben and Jerry's.

Now, eons after the bubble burst, comes FreshDirect.com, Manhattan's newest online grocer, brought to you by Joe Fedele, the mad genius behind Fairway Uptown. FreshDirect offers 15,000 products, from teardrop tomatoes to 30 cuts of steak. Shoppers click and pick, selecting a two-hour window for delivery, which costs $3.95 (two bucks less than what Fairway -- which Fedele left in 1998 -- charges). So far, FreshDirect delivers to parts of Long Island, Battery Park City, and Murray Hill. The service will become available throughout Manhattan over the next six months.

In typical bold fashion, Fedele says he can undercut other stores by as much as 35 percent while delivering fresher stuff. Certainly, FreshDirect's state-of-the-art facility in Long Island City is impressive, with six climate-controlled ripening rooms -- 32 to 34 degrees for apples, 51 and up for peaches, and so forth. But distribution in the food business is tough. "I can understand online ordering for jeans," says Maria Doria Pacheco, co-owner of Grace's Marketplace. "But perishables like cheese are much more difficult." She should know: In January, Grace's canned its agreement with HomeDelivery.com after just five months. "Food gets damaged, orders don't get there on time, customers are unhappy -- we lost a lot of money."

One New York editor's experience with FreshDirect has been mostly good (deliveries on time; some items cost half what the local D'Agostino charges) but occasionally disappointing (uninspiring, underripe avocados).

Still, everyone laughed when Fedele promised to attract New York cooks to an area of Harlem better known for crack than for Camembert. Is he crazy this time? "I'm not a corporate CEO. I'm not a dot-commer," he says. "I'm just a goddamned lunatic who knows about food."


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