Interesting article examining the pros and cons of ordering a restaurant meal.
Pick Up the Damn Phone, and Other Thoughts on Ordering Restaurant Delivery
By Helen Rosner April 2, 2020
The “South America” episode of the BBC series “Seven Worlds, One Planet” opens with a sequence of harrowing intensity. As Sir David Attenborough narrates and dramatic music mounts, a puma in the Chilean highlands stalks a herd of llama-like guanacos, watching the graceful creatures with her flat, unnerving predator’s gaze. She sees her moment, and gives chase to one of the animals, launching herself into the air and onto the terrified creature’s back. The guanaco, three times the cat’s size, bucks and kicks wildly, its fur ripping away in gauzy chunks under the cat’s claws. Eventually, it succeeds in hurling the puma off its body; the cat slams to the ground, now with a bloody gash in her foreleg. Shrugging off the injury, she launches a second failed attempt on the herd. A third time, she brings a guanaco down, but her long pursuit has brought her dangerously deep into another cat’s territory. The puma grips the fallen guanaco’s neck with her heavy teeth, and begins to drag its massive, flaccid corpse up and over the high plains of the southern Andes, toward the spot where her hungry cubs are waiting. At this point, my doorbell rang, and I walked away from the TV. It was my Seamless delivery driver, more than an hour past the app’s estimated arrival time, bearing a Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme.
How lucky we are to live in an age of near-effortless, near-instant sustenance! That night, I had grown hungry, briefly interrogated my hunger until I detected a desire for stoner tacos, and then swiped open my iPhone, tapped into an app, selected exactly what food I wanted, and flicked my index finger in a brief rat-a-tat of microgestures to complete the order. Then I sat on my sofa, glancing occasionally from television to phone to check, with growing impatience, whether my food was en route. Meanwhile, at a Taco Bell a mile and a half away, a brigade of workers prepared, cooked, wrapped, packaged, and handed off my meal to a delivery person, who transported it directly to my front door. Days and weeks and months before that, others had sown and harvested wheat and lettuce, raised animals and milked or slaughtered them, and switched on the machines that pressed tortillas and shredded cheese.
I did so little to get this meal, and I paid so little for it. The total for the food was $12.97 (in addition to the Crunchwrap Supreme, my husband and I got a soft taco combo and a bean-and-cheese burrito); there was a $3.99 delivery fee, set by the restaurant, and a $1.62 charge for the delivery platform (“This 12.5% fee helps Seamless cover operating costs”), plus New York City sales tax of 8.875%. With a tip to the driver, the total cost for my $12.97 meal, plus the privilege of not having to go get it myself, came to $26 even, which is kind of a lot for Taco Bell. Was it worth it? The Crunchwrap Supreme was horrible, limp and room temperature; the half-life of deliciousness for Taco Bell food is so infinitesimal that it arguably has no business providing delivery in the first place. But compared to, say, hunting for a meal on the Andean steppe to stave off the starvation of my babies? I couldn’t really complain.The New Yorker’s coronavirus news coverage and analysis are free for all readers.
The coronavirus pandemic currently raging throughout the United States has brought into sharp focus many extraordinary truths about our society: the insufficiency of the American safety net, the catastrophic failure of the Trump Administration to protect its citizens from a foreseeable threat, the ease and speed with which the human body can founder. It has also, more quietly, prompted a striking awakening to the relentless labor of domestic life, including the job of feeding ourselves. In the world before mass self-quarantine, letting a restaurant do the cooking was such an easy, pleasurable efficiency that it hardly registered as an efficiency at all. For those lucky enough to afford it and live within abundant reach of it, restaurant food was just there, a taken-for-granted part of life, whether a ninety-nine-cent pizza slice or a two-hundred-dollar bistro dinner.
Now, suddenly, ordering in seems exquisitely luxurious. Restaurants and bars all over the country have been ordered to close their dining rooms, as state and local governments scramble to contain the coronavirus’s spread. These measures have proved necessary: in New York, for instance, despite increasingly urgent calls for social distancing, and despite an earlier rule limiting restaurants to fifty-per-cent capacity, many establishments remained packed right up until Mayor Bill de Blasio’s closure order took effect. For restaurants and their workers, though, the regulations have been cataclysmic. Many owners have been forced to lay off their entire staffs; the number of unemployed food-service workers is likely well into the millions. Those restaurants that have been able to adapt to a takeout-only model are operating with skeleton crews—no servers, no bartenders, fewer cooks, both to reduce overhead costs and to protect their workers from crowding together in kitchens.
In this precarious new kingdom, delivery apps are jealous princes, fighting for the throne. Services like Postmates, Uber Eats, DoorDash (which owns Caviar), and Grubhub (which merged with Seamless) control the lion’s share of the app-based delivery market. Restaurants that want to survive during this radical recalibration have little choice but to play by their rules. In recent weeks, restaurants that had never before offered takeout have signed up with delivery services for the first time. But for many owners the revenue from takeout is barely enough to keep the lights on. (“Our economic model requires people in seats,” a group of high-profile restaurateurs wrote in a Times Op-Ed last week.) Even in normal times, the fees the delivery apps charge—up to thirty per cent of each transaction—can be crippling. For restaurants currently facing sharp declines in revenue, these percentages make already unsteady balance sheets even more precarious.
Patrons who are eager to support their favorite places are finding creative ways to do so: buying T-shirts, tote bags, and other merchandise, as well as bottles of wine and liquor from restaurants selling off their inventory; buying gift cards (and promising not to redeem them right away, to give restaurants time to get back on their feet); donating to crowdfunding efforts to support laid-off employees. For the delivery apps, this spirit of coöperation presents another opportunity for growth. “Support neighborhood restaurants: First order $0 delivery fee,” a banner on the DoorDash Web site reads, advertising a benefit to diners but not restaurants. The company is offering restaurants new to its platforms thirty days commission-free, and is eliminating commission fees on pickup orders to restaurants that were already on board. Grubhub, which has made the news in the past year for its aggressive fees and recruitment tactics, announced in early March that it would offer a hundred-million-dollar fee-relief program for restaurants suffering in the pandemic-stricken economy. But, after considerable public confusion, the company clarified that it would only be relieving a portion of its fees, and that those would not be refunded or eliminated but temporarily deferred.
Grubhub’s most recent coronavirus-related promotion, “Supper for Support,” is sneakier still. A pop-up banner on the site’s home page urges customers to “Save while supporting the restaurants you love,” offering a ten-dollar discount on delivery orders of thirty dollars or more. But a copy of the agreement restaurants sign to participate, which circulated on Twitter earlier this week, reveals that restaurants who opt in to this promotion are eating the cost of the discount themselves, while Grubhub continues to charge its standard commission on the restaurants’ pre-discount orders. On Tuesday, a Grubhub spokesman told me, “Local restaurants that chose to participate in the optional initiative have, on average, seen a more than twenty-per-cent increase in the number of orders they have received as well as over-all sales. We are proud of that and will continue to try to connect them with hungry diners and grow their businesses.” A few days later, after Grubhub weathered considerable criticism, the rep reached out to let me know that the company would begin giving up to two hundred and fifty dollars to each restaurant participating in the promotion.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.htmlAdvertisement
Ordering in at all right now is an ethical and practical minefield. According to the C.D.C. and the F.D.A., food itself is unlikely to be a carrier of the coronavirus; the containers the food comes in, however, conceivably could be. (At Serious Eats, J. Kenji López-Alt explains that we can minimize the risk of contamination by avoiding direct contact with the containers and immediately transferring the food into clean plates and bowls.) Then there’s the question of what those of us on the receiving end of the samosa supply chain owe to the people ferrying them to our doors. All of the major delivery apps have created medical-assistance funds for their delivery drivers, though only Uber Eats has said it will provide drivers with masks, sanitizer, and other basic safety equipment. In any case, is it fair for consumers to ask delivery workers—usually poorly paid, and almost always without employer health care—to take on the considerable risks currently inherent in being out and about, crisscrossing the city by bike and scooter, visiting dozens of homes each day? On the other hand, is it fair to avoid delivery out of concern for the safety of the people preparing and transporting it, knowing that it means depriving them of much-needed income?
If you are ordering delivery while in quarantine (despite ongoing wrestling with all of these questions, I so far still am), the simplest way to insure that restaurants are getting as much money as they can, at a time when they desperately need all they can get, is to eliminate the middleman entirely. Don’t use DoorDash or Caviar or Postmates or Uber Eats or Grubhub or Seamless or Delivery.com or Waitr: just pick up the phone and call the restaurants directly. (N.B.: be sure to use the number listed on the restaurant’s own Web site. Last year, Yelp began replacing restaurants’ direct contact information with redirect telephone numbers provided by Grubhub, allowing the delivery service to bill restaurants a “referral fee” for calls made through those lines, even some calls that don’t result in an order.)
Placing a food order by phone feels both familiar and strangely labored, like writing a letter in longhand, or manually rewinding a roll of 35-mm. film. Like so many people who have spent the past decade avoiding all inessential telephone contact, I’ve found that relearning the skills of voice-only communication can be uncomfortable. And it’s true that calling is inevitably less frictionless than clicking through an app: reciting one’s order to a host or a manager who is clearly only half-listening, perhaps because he’s busy wrapping plasticware or tamping out a minor grease fire, one is reminded why online delivery was embraced with such zeal in the first place. But, compared to the considerable other challenges facing humanity right now, these are modest obstacles, easily overcome. (If you need help remembering what to say, you can follow this simple flowchart.)
In many cases, though, it may be too late to call. Delivery apps have eaten their way into the very foundation of how restaurants do business. Some establishments process orders only through delivery-company software; they might not even answer the phone, or might pick up only to instruct you to hang up and fire up an app. Others are happy to field phone orders for pickup, but rely on the apps to provide gig workers for actual delivery. (It’s easy enough to survive on pickup orders in a car-friendly place like Los Angeles, where everyone drives around in her own mobile quarantine pod; it’s less simple in a city like New York.) Meanwhile, many restaurants who have tried staying open for takeout and delivery in recent weeks are deciding to close altogether, whether for financial reasons or out of concern for workers’ safety.
The other evening, I tried calling several of my local spots without luck before I got through to Mi Tierra, a restaurant, a few blocks from my home, whose chorizo tacos have saved my life more than once. Putting in my dinner order by phone was, of course, a little bit bumpy: the woman taking it down misheard my credit-card number, and for a few moments we slipped into a vaudevillian routine, repeating “zero” and “four” back and forth and simultaneously, before we both laughed and started over. After we hung up, I put a twenty-dollar bill into a plastic bag and taped it to the front door of my apartment along with a request to leave the food outside—a contactless tip for a hazardous time. The tacos, by the time I ate them, were close to room temperature, but they were perfect anyway—soft corn tortillas, fat-slicked pork, bright onions and cilantro. As always, I did so little to get this food, but I tried to do a tiny bit more.