Who has never been put on hold while trying to order pizza, hot wings or moo shu pork? Who has never opened a delivery bag and discovered a Coke instead of a Diet Coke, or that the brown rice is as white as the napkins the restaurant neglected to include?
"I hate calling up to order food," said Lewis Friedman, a Manhattan real estate broker. "It throws me over the edge. They put you on hold. They get the order wrong. It's always a crapshoot."
But all that changed last month when he saw a sign in the window of Lenny's, a chain of sandwich shops in Manhattan, encouraging customers to place orders online. Friedman returned to his office, logged on and, at long last, felt in control of his gustatory future.
"I'm in the driver's seat," he said. "I can click that I like light skim milk. I can click for Equal as opposed to Sweet'n Low or Splenda."
The comedian Jim Gaffigan has teased Americans about how fast they want their food. "That's why we really love those value meals," he said. "You just have to say a number: `Two!' Soon you won't have to speak. It will just be a noise. `Ennnghhh!'"
Gaffigan must have a crystal ball. Small and large chains, even individual restaurants, are now enabling customers to order without speaking: They can order online before pulling into a drive-through; they can text-message an order; and soon, they will be able to experience one-click ordering on their cell phones, for pickup or delivery. Push a button, and a hoagie is on the way.
The restaurant industry is investing in such technology to woo the thousands of consumers like Friedman who fly through life with their thumbs on their BlackBerrys. Hoping to make ordering a burger as routine as ordering a book from Amazon, a number of chains are emphasizing the dot-com after their corporate name to lure the hungry and time-pressed to their Web sites.
As for all those supposed concerns about unhealthy eating and the retreat from home cooking -- who are we fooling? The average American 18 and older buys a snack or a meal from a restaurant five times a week on average, according to a 2006 survey by the National Restaurant Association. More people eat at their desks and in their cars. And children are weaned on drive-through, pickup and delivery.
The biggest regret Americans seem to have about fast food is that it isn't snappier: A survey last year by QSR magazine, a restaurant industry publication, found that 68 percent of people are willing to wait no more than five minutes in a drive-through line. And in an age where everything from sneakers to cars is customizable, people think they should be able to get exactly what they want, when they want it.
"It has really, really exploded in the past year or two," said Patrick Doyle, the executive vice president of Team USA, the name Domino's Pizza uses for its corporately owned locations. "I predict pizza will be one of the top 10 items purchased online within the next 12 to 24 months."
Though online ordering has been around at some locations for about five years, most people still call in or wait in lines to place their orders. About 13 percent of Americans placed online food orders from a restaurant last year, according to the National Restaurant Association, up from about 10 percent in 2004.
But Philip DeSorbo Jr., a project leader for the retail technology department at Subway, which has nearly 28,000 restaurants in 87 countries, said these days many people would rather send an e-mail message than leave a voice-mail message. "I think online will eventually surpass picking up the phone," he said.