Was there ever really a time before we ordered delivery through apps? As we allow delivery services like UberEats, GrubHub/Seamless, Caviar, Delivery.com, and others to ever more firmly mediate the transaction that stands between ourselves and the falafel platter we don't want to leave the couch to eat, we might want to ask who exactly those services are. For Delivery Week, we hopped on the phone with a former employee of a major online delivery service (no, not that one; the other one) about their time there. We've granted our source anonymity and changed identifying details, for obvious reasons.
hroughout high school and college, I worked in bakeries and cafes. When I moved to the city, I was like, There's just no way I'm going to be able survive doing this kind of work, so I started applying for customer service positions. I applied at this new online delivery company to do a customer service job — they were looking for a liaison between the customer service department and the restaurants.
When we launched, the sales people went out and they signed up all these restaurants. They were saying to the restaurants, "We're going to start sending you orders, we just need you to deliver it and we'll mail you a check." Two months went by and nobody had an order. I was begging these restaurants to just deliver the food, and I had the credit card to pay them with. It was a cool time. We were trying to start something totally new. I would literally run orders, I would leave the office and run and hand-deliver an incoming order to a restaurant, because they’d be like, "My printer’s down," and they would just hang up on me.
As soon as a new ten-dollar code would come out, all the staff were going and getting free lunches. It was thousands of dollars a month.
We knew that if people tried to order through our service for the first time and it didn't work, they were never going to do it again. They were going to be like, "I tried this thing and it didn't work." The main goal was to get them the food — we didn't care if we paid for it ourselves and the diner didn't get charged. That was the hustle, trying to convince these restaurants to send out food to these people. We'd call and the restaurants would think we were telemarketers. "Hi, I'm calling from…" Click.
A big part of my job was with consumers. Emergencies always would happen at seven at night, when we had thousands of orders that we're trying to transmit and we had complete meltdowns for whatever reason — there's too much traffic, the restaurant’s computers aren't updating, whatever — and it would take hours for us to fix everything. If you have that blip, it takes hours to make sure everybody's food has been confirmed and delivered.
Originally we would say to users, "Don't call, just email us." Then we started getting thousands of emails: "This is missing, this was not right." We were able to grow and keep up with it, but what we should have done, and we kept saying we needed to do, was let the restaurants have the ability to cancel and credit orders directly. Now, when you get a confirmation email, it says, "Do not reply." It's come to a point where it's just such a beast, the company's not able to manage it. When I worked there we had to respond to all emails in two hours. Now it takes them days to respond to an email.
Once, there was a snowstorm and it was a couple days after Christmas. There were four feet of snow. Nobody could open their restaurants, but everybody in the whole world ordered delivery. There was no one at any of the restaurants, because none of the staff could get out of their homes to open them. So all of a sudden we had thousands of orders that needed to be cancelled, and then we had to go through and figure out who was actually open. We had to start sending all the restaurants orders, and whoever confirmed them got to stay listed as open, and whoever didn't confirm them needed to be marked as closed. As staff got in they were like, "I've got my staff here, but you guys have me closed." I probably spent from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. that day just trying to figure out what was delivered, what needed to be credited, what needed to be paid for, what restaurants were open and what restaurants were closed. We learned from it, and we started paying closer attention to weather.
Even though I know that if I call them directly and give them cash I'm going to save the two dollars, I'm lazy so I still use the app.
We really just did whatever we needed to do to make sure the customer was happy. If you order a burrito and there was no guac, and the restaurant said, "We sent the guac," we would be like, whatever, and we would pay the customer back for it. The service was really good about giving out promo codes. If the restaurant was fighting a customer's complaint, we'd just say to the customer, "Here's a five dollar code off your next order." We would get new codes issued every month, and when the calendar would flip over, we'd get a bunch of calls from people asking, "What's the new code?"
We also had all sorts of promo code scandals. We didn't have the ability to make the monthly codes specific to one account — any account could use any code once — and there was one camera supply store that had hundreds of accounts. I swear they had a wall full of codes in their break room. They would pester us! We would get calls complaining, "We're never using you again," and we'd have to try to retain them, we'd be like, "We're going to give you this code," and then all of sudden we'd see this code being used to deliver food to this one specific address, from 200 different accounts. As soon as a new ten-dollar code would come out, all their staff were going and getting free lunches. It was thousands of dollars a month.
There were also people who would steal credit cards and have big orders delivered to a house that wasn't theirs, and there'd be disputes over that. We just ate the losses, because it was an operating expense. There were really frustrating accounts who would get thousands of dollars in chargebacks, and we'd have to try and figure out — there's no way to say directly, "Who is this person at this address who's using all these fake credit cards and having meals delivered?" You can order food anywhere, you don't have to confirm you live there. You can go and sit on anyone's stoop and wait for a delivery.
Once you have all of the customers, all the restaurants come to you. Then you can negotiate your rates. In the beginning, the rates we charged restaurants were way more fair. Basically there were different rates, and what you pay will give you a different place in the search results. That’s why some restaurants have a delivery charge, to offset the higher rates they paid us. If you call the restaurant directly, you don't have that, but even though I know that if I call them directly and give them cash I'm going to save the two dollar deliver fee, I'm lazy, so I still use the app. I know I'm paying two dollars more for the convenience.
Our system was never set up to be easy for the restaurant; all the investments went toward consumer ends. For instance, there was no feature for restaurants to close themselves outside the hours they'd put into the system. Say you close up shop for the day and you forget to let us know you've closed early, and then an order comes through. We have to cancel it, and we would charge the restaurant what we called a "close without notice" fee. That was a huge hit for a restaurant.
We would get so frazzled in customer service. It would be dinner rush and an emergency, and we'd be talking to restaurants like, "You need to confirm this order. I'm going to turn you off, or I'm going to cancel this order." I didn't do it myself, but it definitely happened. I would talk to owners and they'd say, "Somebody in your office is yelling at me!" The mood in our office was always that restaurants were peasants out there to make us money — the company was not compassionate. I still talk sometimes to older-run places, and they'll say, "You know this online delivery service?" and I never want to admit that I worked there, in customer service. My people probably called and yelled at you! I feel terrible.
What could online delivery services do to make restaurants hate them less? I think they need to be a little bit more fair in their contract structures.
Though it could be a great partnership, mostly for the catering restaurants. An order would be so large, and then the admin at a corporation would be like, "And here's a $150 tip for delivering this catering order." These delivery employees would get so much in tips on catering orders that the restaurant would black out the tip and then refund the clients — because their employees were making so much money in tips they'd stop coming back to work! If you're making $5,000 a month in cash tips, you’d just take off for a couple months.
What could online delivery services do to make restaurants hate them less? I think they need to be a little bit more fair in their contract structures. I feel they've gotten really greedy. If restaurants aren't making enough money to survive — you know, it costs this much to hire and train somebody [on the delivery system], and then they're set up to fail. They're not making money in that.
I have a lot of friends who were at the company for a long time, who have a lot of equity in the company. I wasn't bitter or anything like that when I left. There was a huge family feeling there, though that obviously decreases as the company gets bigger. I would have stayed, but I was totally ready to go.
As told to Matt Buchanan. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, and certain identifying details have been changed.
Angie Wang is an illustrator and cartoonist based in Los Angeles.