PICKLED cucumbers for pregnant women at the Adventist Hospital on Stubbs Road, people paying for their food in the nude, champagne and candles for an outdoor marriage proposal on the Peak, and $9,000 of posh nosh for corporate types in Central . . . another day in the life of Hong Kong's premier restaurant delivery service, Food By Fone. Callers give code numbers of the dishes they desire - number 252 brings up a $65 egg salad from Al's Diner; 3859 means the caller wants a litre of fresh papaya juice from Berrylicious; 2193 tells the operator that pancit beehoon seafood from Cinta in Wan Chai is the third choice. Special requests - like sauce on the side, hold the onion - can be accommodated. 'Our operators are like waiters,' Food By Fone founder Richard Feldman says. The Lan Kwai Fong cubby hole the company calls home stirs just before 11am, 365 days a year. The pace picks up over lunchtime, with higher and higher demand from offices in the area. On average, most deliveries are made to people's homes between 7.30pm and 9.30pm. Rainy Sunday nights are the busiest. One driver became a firm favourite of a man who would order food, ask for his favourite driver to deliver it, and would receive the order naked. 'We were a little uncomfortable with it,' Mr Feldman says. 'But the driver didn't mind because the man tipped him $100 every time.' Sex with the salsa is not part of the service. 'Honestly, at night the drivers are so busy they have no time for hanky panky,' Mr Feldman says. 'They know what the next order is and where it has to go before they've delivered their current one.' Although it seems such an obvious idea, the Food By Fone concept was by no means a sure thing. A previous project, Restaurant Express, folded in the early 1990s, leaving more than the proverbial bad taste in restaurant owners' mouths. With so much money owing to them, restaurateurs were unlikely to cheer when Mr Feldman began knocking on doors looking for investors in 1992. Food By Fone launched with a handful of restaurants - Supatra's, Hanagushi, Al's Diner, Tandoor and the old Graffiti among them - three bikes, and more ambition than money. At first, the office was a table between the washer and dryer at Graffiti. After a year it moved to Wan Chai, where it shared space with a restaurant consultancy. Two years ago, Food By Fone moved to its present home above Beirut in Lan Kwai Fong. About 40 people - including 35 drivers - work out of the 500 square-foot space. The secret, Mr Feldman says, is technology. 'We improve our software weekly.' Internet access is planned, with on-line account summaries and e-mail confirmation of orders. THE entire Food By Fone system revolves around telephone numbers. Customers only have to give their details once, and they join a central database which logs the name, addresses and orders of 45,000 people in Hong Kong. Whatever they order is logged. This has created an unparalleled record of Hong Kong's home-delivery habits. Specialised database management means the company is able to target customers who are most likely to be interested in, for example, a new Japanese restaurant with a certain price range. Most of the orders are worth around $270, chosen from one or all of the 27 restaurants that belong to the service. There is everything from jawaneh (grilled chicken wings, $65) from Beirut and fresh oysters by the half dozen ($144) from Cafe Deco to chicken tikka ($65) from Koh-i-Noor, sticky toffee pudding from 1997 ($55) and Sichuan-style prawns ($80) from Roy's at China Max. Then there are the sundry items: condoms, toilet paper, cat food, deodorant, bags of ice, microwave popcorn, light bulbs . . . The corner store items are either from Food By Fone's cupboard or picked up from a store along the way. Depending on the address, minimum orders cost anything from $100 to $500. The furthest drivers will go is Repulse Bay. Once the order has been confirmed, the operator gives a time frame - usually within 45 minutes. This includes 30 minutes' preparation time and eight to 15 minutes delivery time. 'This is not frozen pizza,' Mr Feldman says. 'All the dishes are made to order, and the process is organised so the food doesn't stand there getting cold.' The clockwork process kicks in the minute the operator puts the phone down. Unless callers have said they will pay cash, credit card approval is sought. By 10.30pm, the night is winding down and by 11pm it is all but over. On a good night the Food By Fone business can contribute 30 per cent to a restaurant's food takings. Yet not all owners are convinced, primarily because of the logistics of presenting food designed to be served in a restaurant in a take-out container. 'We feel the product should represent what we do in the restaurant every day and it's difficult to figure that out with a small kitchen in Lan Kwai Fong and a take-away container,' says Kim Murphy, the owner of Oscar's management company, Food & Beverage Solutions. There is also the logistical problem of dealing with a high-volume take-out business during the restaurant's busiest hours.