If there is one certain thing about legislation that goes through San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, it’s that it always takes forever for any new bills to be accepted — bureaucracy at its slow-and-argumentative best. That’s why it was shocking this summer when the Board unanimously agreed to cap commission fees from food deliveries for these high-profile companies like Uber Eats and DoorDash at 15%.
Yes, it was still a little too late, as the tech giants knowingly and relentlessly took advantage of the little restaurants and hardworking freelancers that fueled their growth for many years. But the pandemic’s reliance on takeout and delivery put a particularly bright spotlight on this unfairness within the restaurants and delivery apps industries. And that spotlight was harsh enough to actually spur the notoriously sluggish Board of Supervisors to action — that’s how badly these delivery apps needed to be controlled! They awoke the slumbering City Hall giant.
The reality is not that delivery apps are the evil villain. They do largely serve an important purpose, especially during the pandemic. Some restaurants have seen a rise in business because of their ability to deliver to a wider market thanks to these apps, as opposed to simply relying on what could be a more limited local audience. In addition, like with every industry that relies on freelancers/independent contractors, there are workers who appreciate the schedule flexibility and find the financial compensation to be worth the effort.
On the flip side, the enormous delivery apps are also the nemesis for restaurants and delivery couriers because they’re big businesses, and big businesses care about profit and the bottom line — that’s what you’re taught in MBA school and carry onwards to the boardroom.
Here’s our beef with food delivery apps.
They do not care if the delivery courier receives health care benefits or can even afford to live within an hour of San Francisco. They do not care about the restaurants’ ability to have a sustainable income or the cost of living for couriers (until those restaurants and couriers start affecting the apps themselves). That’s why companies like Uber and Instacart powered Prop 22 to victory in 2020 out of desperation, because their business models rely on not treating other parties fairly.
That’s why the San Francisco Board of Supervisors had to eventually say “hold up, that’s enough” to the commission fees from these companies. These are companies who unfortunately control the power of an important segment of the restaurant industry.
A 2019 New York Times article vividly talked about tipping within the delivery apps. It did successfully spur the apps to action to stop the practice. However, that article also showed how dangerous the delivery conditions are for the couriers responsible for doing the deliveries. Do the apps care about those hazardous conditions? No, because the couriers aren’t employees. If they had to be employees, their business model would have to dramatically change because they’re built to take advantage of fragile labor.
As the apps will tell you, they are the connector of restaurants to consumers.
This connection, of course, happens to be done via delivery (they would surely use free robots if they could!).
The other stuff — the bike rider zig-zagging through frenetic SoMa traffic or the driver surrounded by speeding cars on El Camino Real — is none of their business. Since the apps are the platform (period, end of sentence, full stop), that’s why they command a commission fee. And in turn, the restaurants must raise the prices, but customers never like higher prices (which already are high given Bay Area real estate and cost of living), and it becomes the dog chasing its tail for restaurants and consumers.
Prices go up, business goes down. Repeat. This is the San Francisco Cycle of Economic Unsustainability.
Even with the feel-good marketing of popular celebrities in Uber Eats commercials and a Sesame Street one for Doordash in February’s Super Bowl, there isn’t a lot of touchy-feely wholesomeness about these apps. Those commercials are because they have smart, shrewd marketing teams, likely paid for by cheating restaurants and delivery riders and drivers. And we haven’t even mentioned how it seems like what starts as beautiful, delicious food from the restaurants then gets smashed en route to your home or “office.”
Again, the mission of these apps has a good purpose. Then they opted to go all greedy corporate America and become Oscar the Grouch.
On the other hand, there are companies who realize that food industry workers are more than just figures in the pursuit of profit.
Take Off the Grid, for example. (We know, shameless plug!) Genuinely, the company works entirely with local food entrepreneurs, many of whom are minorities who often encounter challenges when trying to launch their food businesses because of language barriers or lack of prior opportunities to gain business experience.
Off the Grid provides support for these creators and truly wants to help them find success on their own, as opposed to these third party delivery apps who simply treat restaurants as a distant part of their financial equation.
Off the Grid’s productions help showcase the hard work and culinary talent of the creators that produce your favorite delicious dishes. It isn’t a one-way street; it’s a collaboration. Off the Grid helps these creators with the often-challenging logistics for a young food business like permits, business strategy and a location to serve customers. Yes, there’s a service fee (otherwise how would Off the Grid or any business be able to pay any employees?), but the commission percentage is more in line with the normal expected business support fee, as opposed to the upwards of 30% that delivery apps were charging before authorities started to get on their case.
The easiest comparative difference beyond “deliveries” of Off the Grid to the delivery apps is that Off the Grid produces opportunities that let the creators serve the public. They are deeply involved with trying to help these creators find success, while simultaneously trying to make the dining public happy.
The likes of DoorDash and Grubhub often don’t notice if a restaurant is even a real restaurant, or just a ghost kitchen (or imitation restaurants). They just want hungry eaters to use the app, and then for somebody to produce food for somebody to deliver it to that hungry app user. That can work on a small, “None of Us Really Care Other Than I Want Lunch Now” basis. However, it certainly doesn’t work for the large corporate events that need a high level of organization to match the high level of cooking quality and large amount of food to be produced.
Delivery will never work for that. Chefs who are used to serving large audiences at the Presidio Picnic or Menlo Park gatherings of Off the Grid know how to please giant corporate groups. Additionally, Off the Grid certainly knows how to make those large audience events run smoothly, so guests can just enjoy the food and be productive in work activity.
There are just so many red flags with these delivery companies that it can add up to make your sandwich or pasta feel like a decent cold meal with a side of guilt.
Delivery food certainly is important and necessary (we’re not naive—it’s an incredibly important niche), but unfortunately these apps decided to take advantage of that critical role with greed and aggressiveness, as opposed to finding optimal solutions everywhere.
After all, we like to feel good about what we eat and how we eat. Off the Grid gives creators the opportunity to fairly thrive, and lets guests and companies enjoy wonderful dining events without all of the corporate ickiness that delivery apps add to each meal.
By Trevor Felch