Last week, I ran out of coffee grounds. For me and my roommate, skipping the most important part of the morning was a non-option. Driving five to 10 minutes to pick up our own coffee would require barely an ounce of effort; however, the experience of lounging motionless on the couch while somebody else drives in arctic conditions to bring us hot coffee is a once-in-a-while treat. On occasions like these, paying the cost of the service was worth it. The recent snowstorm and the flimsy notion that we owed it to ourselves had decided that DoorDash was going to work for us.
Better yet, because of previous purchases, DoorDash had already had my information. The only thing that separated me from the enticing, personally delivered warm beverage was a couple of taps on a screen. Approximately an hour and four taps later, a paper bag with two roughed-up, room temperature coffees was placed on our snow-covered porch.
Because I don’t want to perjure myself, it is with a heavy dose of shame that I admit the cost of my coffee, including service fees, tax and a tip left me $9 poorer. Nine dollars that could have been spent on three cups of coffee from someplace else were drained at the hands of a Silicon Valley business giant. If those nine dollars amounted to anything meaningful, it was the animation of a little car driving to my house that tracked the progress of my order. Even so, the giddy excitement I felt for my personally delivered hot coffee had left a mark on my guilty conscience.
Amid the pandemic, the act of dropping $30 on a lukewarm burrito bowl delivered by a strapped-for-cash 20-year-old is more popular than ever. Given that in-person dining is no longer a safe option, the common lack of delivery services through small local restaurants leaves hungry consumers to cater from the countless permutations of delivery apps saturating the market.
For this business relationship to exist and thrive, third-party delivery apps need to make money. By hiding extraneous costs within various “service fees,” these apps are pocketing extra money from the consumer while also charging merchant fees that reduce profits for the restaurant. Most locally-owned spots already have thin profit margins, considering that there are workers to pay, a building to rent, food to buy, etc. As exemplified by my $9 coffee, the math does not favor the consumer, the restaurant or even the miserable delivery driver. Not to mention, the delivery times provided by these apps are, from my experience, exponentially longer than the time it would take for the customers to pick the food up themselves.
While they may seem to offer an accessible and inclusive source of income, delivery apps have been unfriendly to their gig employees for a while now: Many Reddit threads express the dog-eat-dog nature of snagging delivery jobs during the busy hours of these apps. The appeal of Uber Eats, Grubhub, DoorDash and all other renditions of food-delivery services is that they promise flexibility in choosing a schedule; that is, if “flexible” means drivers will fight for the limited shifts during busy windows with the highest volume of deliveries ordered.
Drivers may be able to choose their hours, pick up orders they want to pick up and drive their own cars, but there is an illusion of choice built into the foundation of these apps. Several choices have already been made for the driver, the broke college student who has to make extra to pay off the cost of the job itself, or the gig worker who struggles to find another job.
As a replacement for personal restaurant services, maybe consumers are expecting timely deliveries of meals. This analogy assigns the exhausted gig-economists to the role of the server who caters to the needs of the customer. Before the pandemic, going out to eat was an experience beyond socializing with friends and enjoying yummy food — service at a restaurant was designed to make the consumer feel important as employees waited on their needs. With restaurants closed, the “customer is the priority” expectation has been transferred over to third-party apps; now, the responsibility lies on the likes of Postmates and Uber Eats. Of course, this consumer-first mentality could not be further from the truth.
If the customer has already decided that they are going to order delivery from an app, it doesn’t matter which one they go to; they are already fighting a losing battle with the middleman. The lack of communication between the apps and the restaurant creates a terrible phenomenon where the delivery app does not account for any menu shortages, altered restaurant hours and estimated time until the food is ready. There have been several instances where I will order a dish but the restaurant runs out of the menu item. Since the app didn’t tell me that and I had already paid for my food, I waited an hour and a half just to discover that I had actually received something different from what I’d actually ordered.
These third-party apps charge the consumer exorbitant prices, take money away from the restaurant and provide an unstable venture for gig workers, all for them to end up losing money — so why do we keep using them, and why do they still exist? Beyond that, why don’t consumers just support the restaurant directly?
Maybe the migration to delivery apps has something to do with the acceptance of inactivity during the pandemic; consumers can justify using these apps because they are doing what they’re supposed to do by staying home. If food delivery is such a necessity, perhaps there is something pathological about our need to be “served,” whether it be at a five-star restaurant or by means of a hasty doorstep exchange.
Of course, if this was the truth, delivery apps would actually provide satisfactory service.
Regardless of how I feel about delivery apps, a surge of dopamine jump-starts my brain when I press the “order now” button and start counting down the minutes until I can leave the couch to grab the Chipotle burrito bowl waiting on my doorstep. With third-party delivery services being provided during the pandemic, convenience comes at a cost too great to ignore; instead of a quick dinner option, ordering food online is now a luxury.
Daily Arts Contributor Laine Brotherton can be reached at email@example.com.