It's Delivery Week here at Eater, five glorious days celebrating staying put and having your food brought right to your door. Except for today, because maybe you shouldn't get delivery.
y aversion to food delivery started, like all good pathologies, in childhood. For the first half of my life, my dad was a beef salesman, so there was always half a cow in our garage refrigerator: Flank steak, ribeye, cow butt, ribs, even tongue like Ramona Quimby, age eight. We ate a lot of red meat and we ate it bloody. Every morning I came downstairs to that night’s dinner defrosting in its package on the kitchen counter. Our life revolved around thawing beef.
When my mom went to night school to get her graduate degree, my dad was left to feed my brother and me on Thursday nights. My dad’s cooking skills are unfortunately in line with traditional notions of hypermasculinity: He can grill a rare steak and make a cup of motor-oil coffee. Thus our go-to meal on those motherless nights became one chosen not exactly of taste, or even convenience, but thrift: Domino’s. There was always a coupon for Domino’s in our local Pioneer Press — buy one pizza get one half off, or, on better days, buy one get one free. Sometimes we even got free Cinnastix with the purchase of two pies.
Now. It might seem like the entire point of getting Domino’s is having it delivered. Driving to pick up a Domino’s pizza is akin driving to an Amazon warehouse in Kentucky to get your copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. Is such a subpar product, manufactured by pro-life goons, worthy of your gas mileage? To my dad, it was. Delivery was a needless extravagance. If we wanted something, we had to go and get it, be it frozen yogurt or a job. My father, on steadfast Midwestern principle, would not spend $2 to tip a Domino’s driver; he would take on the burden of delivering godly, sweetly sauced pizza to his children himself. And for many years, that was our Thursday night tradition. Getting food delivered was simply wrong.
moved to New York in 2009. I have watched as the delivery renaissance has taken ahold of the city. I’m so old (30 lol) I remember when it was kind of hard to order food for delivery. You had to call, maybe wait on hold, freak out because you didn’t have cash, run to an ATM to get cash, curse at the $2.75 ATM fee, then wonder why you didn’t just buy dinner at the bodega in the first place. I would have rather eaten cardboard than order delivery. Now it’s still terrible to order in, but in a different way: It’s too easy. Ordering delivery online, with one of the various apps available, is like having sex with a robot. There’s no friction. No humanity. Like selling your clothes at Buffalo Exchange so you can buy weed, it’s a sad, dirty process, even if the apps have convinced you that it’s good, clean commerce: the "all boats rise" approach to the restaurant business.
Driving to pick up a Domino’s pizza is akin driving to an Amazon warehouse in Kentucky to get your copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.
But the tide doesn’t work that way, and most of the boats rising right now are docked in Silicon Valley (they built a gigantic wave pool for them all with venture capital). GrubHub Seamless, a conglomerate that includes MenuPages, Allmenus, DiningIn, Delivered Dish, and Restaurants on the Run, went public two years ago with a valuation of more than $3 billion. Caviar, the upscale delivery service backed by the Winklevoss twins, was acquired for north of $90 million by the deeply confused credit-card processing service Square earlier this year. UberEats, of the $66 billion car service, now operates in 33 cities in six countries. Beyond Uber, Amazon has entered the market; there’s also Postmates, DoorDash, Delivery.com, and Munch Ado, a restaurant search engine that promises to only take an 8.5 percent commission from orders.
Well-capitalized delivery services bleed the income of restaurants, which operate on whisker-wide profit margins to begin with; in the face of rising real estate and labor costs, particularly in cities like San Francisco and New York, those margins have only gotten narrower. As a result, restaurants increasingly rely on delivery platforms — their distribution tools and immediate access to thousands of potential diners (or "active diners," in industry parlance) — even as those services dig deeper and deeper into their incomes. Like most technology, innovations like Seamless, UberEats, and Caviar are value-neutral; the rippling effects ("disruptions") are what can harm (or, in rarer cases, help) people. An order placed through an online delivery service may seem like a simple act, but it’s weighted with implications for industry, labor, and the environment.
The customer, however, is neatly shielded from these realities because of each conglomerate’s shape-shifting identity: Delivery services market themselves as impartial tools, or as things that are good for businesses and customers. In reality, they function more like advertising agencies for themselves, not to mention be-all-end-alls for restaurants. Online delivery services are like social networks for restaurants; if they are not on them, do they exist anymore? And if they are paying to be on a service’s barely functional website, most of which tend to be more like business gulags than flourishing marketplaces, how much are they sacrificing to be there?
Ordering delivery online, with one of the various apps available, is like having sex with a robot. There’s no friction.
Each delivery service is uniquely sinister. Seamless operates like a concierge service, matching customers with restaurants and letting the restaurant complete the order, while taking a commission, typically 20 percent, in the process. (Restaurants can pay higher commissions for better placements in search results, though, even if it effectively turns delivery into a loss leader.) In 2014, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced an agreement that required Seamless to make sure that tips paid through the website went to delivery drivers in full after it was discovered that the service was commissioning fees off the total cost of the order, including tax and tip. Naturally, each restaurant handles tips differently, sometimes horribly; for a billion-dollar tech company to have effectively taken a percentage of tips from (sub-)minimum-wage workers borders on criminal.
Caviar, which caters to high-end restaurants, delivers for a flat fare, which is calculated based on distance; it takes up to a 25 percent commission from restaurants. Unlike Seamless, Caviar employs its own drivers, who can make up to $25 an hour, although many say they earn less. Two years ago, Caviar reported that 65 percent of its business came from corporate orders; one assumes that the other 35 percent comes from assholes willing to spend upwards of $50 on rarefied takeout. As one chef was quoted on this website, "I wasn't convinced that I needed the service, but once I tried it from home and I was able to order Frankies Spuntino 570's eggplant parmesan from my couch, I changed my mind." Other reports focus on the perceived "pleasantness" of Caviar’s messengers. Edible Manhattan: "You actually get a smile with your delivery." This website: "The messenger was extremely courteous and polite." According to Caviar’s website, tipping drivers is "not required, but appreciated."
UberEats and PrimeNow are merely the most recent tentacles to sprout from the gigantic, ever-shifting masses of inevitability we call Uber and Amazon as they look to absorb as much commerce and human productivity as possible — just to regurgitate it as convenience instantiated for the lowest possible price in order to monopolize their respective industries. Backed by unfathomable scale, they can demand from restaurants up to 30 percent of the price of an order, while charging diners impossibly low prices that their competitors, who lack the same virtually inexhaustible resources, can’t hope to match: Uber’s delivery fee in New York of late is just $3, while Amazon doesn’t charge Prime members a delivery fee at all. It should cost more than $3 to summon a human being to travel to a restaurant, retrieve a made-to-order burrito bowl, and carry it to a far-away apartment on the top floor of five-story walk-up, all because someone had a craving for guac.
An order placed through an online delivery service may seem like a simple act, but it’s weighted with implications for industry, labor, and the environment.
Strangely, for all the breathless press about the boom in food delivery services, there aren’t many articles on the exploitation that comes with them (food writers, bless their hearts, tend to get caught up in the minutiae of bread absorption rates and flavor-mixing quotients when reviewing services; the destruction of human potential often gets lost in the fray). It may be great that, in 2016, you can enjoy some gourmet eggplant parmesan on your couch, but at what cost? Did you look out the window when you ordered the eggplant parmesan? What was the weather? Did the minimum-wage messenger have to traverse through a blizzard to deliver it? Did you feel less guilty about ordering it because you didn’t have to speak to a human to do so? Did you not feel obligated to tip the driver because the app told you it was fine? Wouldn’t it be even more efficient for everyone involved if a drone could deliver the eggplant parm from a warehouse? Then no one would be inconvenienced, except the out-of-work delivery drivers.
elf-help literature and the foil wrappers of Dove chocolates tell me that life is about experiences, not possessions, and I am beginning to agree. I used to think life was measured in substantial events like Alaskan whale cruises or marriages but I have begrudgingly come to realize it is about the quotidian micro-experiences that Karl Ove Knausgaard so boringly chronicled to international acclaim. For example, many years ago I had a really cool bike (it had rims) that I rode for transportation. I mostly hated riding my bike, because I hate exercising, but I also came to love it. The thing I liked most about riding was that when I got to my destination, I would feel different than when I started my journey. I always had cool thoughts during my ride and one time I saw Laura Bush’s Secret Service detail. It was so much better than taking an Uber anywhere, which usually makes me feel like I have to barf.
I apply this same philosophy to my consumption habits. I am not a hunter-gatherer, nor an agrarian freak. I can’t cook and I mainly subsist on chicken sandwiches from my favorite restaurant, McDonald’s. But I appreciate a meal that requires some physical exertion — the movement of my legs, the extraction of my credit card, basic interaction with a human — more than something that is passively ordered from an app, delivered lukewarm, devoured too quickly, and ends in a mountain of sad, guilty trash that will take four decades to decompose.
It was only 11 years ago that Steve Jobs told the graduating class of Stanford University to "stay hungry." This was because online delivery wasn’t invented yet and he had to physically walk somewhere to eat, so he was actually frequently hungry. I’m not saying that starvation is the key to creative success, but as the old zen koan says, we should suffer for what we enjoy, because then we will enjoy it more. Unfortunately suffering went out of style somewhere between the Crusades and the advent of the iPhone, and now marketing tells us to seek comfort in convenience. But humans — especially modern humans, the pieces of shit we are, predisposed to ordering burritos through an app — need to suffer. Not only to be able to tell what is good in life, but to feel alive.