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Have Delivery Apps Changed What a Restaurant Is?

The pandemic has forced restaurants to accommodate delivery in order to stay relevant. And there’s no going back now.

A delivery person stands facing away from the camera, holding a phone and wearing a big red padded delivery backpack. Tricky_Shark/Shutterstock

This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.

A couple of years ago, Tacolicious, the San Francisco restaurant I’m a partner in, switched from using corn tortillas from a local tortilleria to making our own in-house. From an operations and labor point of view, hiring a human to spend eight hours a day pressing tortillas by hand and flipping them on a dedicated plancha is more complicated and expensive than using premade tortillas. But it was an upgrade in flavor deemed worth the investment.

That was PC, or pre-Covid, and as a full-service restaurant, we innocently assumed the majority of our tacos would be enjoyed in-house, each bite met with the warm, toasty fragrance of fresh masa. Although we did offer delivery, our menu decisions, like most of our decisions, had up until that point prioritized the entire dining room experience. No one could have convinced me that a pandemic was headed our way, and that third-party delivery would be our main outlet for months at a time. That our tacos would be put into a box and then a bag and set out to wait for up to 20 minutes for a driver who often had multiple deliveries, or ran into traffic, or (true story) had a couple of dogs in the back seat — all while our lovingly made tortillas lost their suppleness by the minute.

We also didn’t consider that the person who ordered them, noting the now-cold carnitas, might blithely pop everything into a microwave until the tacos were, yes, hot again, but also a bit rubbery, and proceed to eat them straight out of the now sweaty compostable box while watching Season 17 of the Bachelorette.

Today, even high-end restaurants — the kind that used to put a smear on an actual ceramic plate — have had no choice but to grit their teeth and make their food transportable, knowing that it was never intended to be that way. Having your business judged by the food that shows up in to-go boxes is cause for concern: A person can give a bad review, which can move a restaurant down in its position on a delivery app.

But my real worry isn’t a one-star rating. It’s that over the course of COVID, the average customer — despite shelling out costly fees and tossing a mountain of to-go ware — has adjusted their expectations. Their priorities have shifted to the point that they now conceive of a restaurant less as a place where you go for community and more as a facility that supplies dinner.

Today, restaurants are juggling how to fulfill both of these functions. We are at a crossroads, and the future of our industry as we’ve known it hinges on whether or not people are going to feel compelled to put some pants on. God knows the pandemic has nurtured our introvert selves, and in the process it’s changed our eating habits. Online groceries have become ubiquitous, and takeout has evolved to the point where it means not just pizza but chili-honey swordfish with grilled Little Gems and gin-grapefruit-thyme cocktails with lavender-wasabi salt.

And so as the world slowly begins to open again, and restaurants resume indoor dining (and, increasingly, cease their takeout operations), I wonder: When we’re at normal capacity and the novelty of eating out wears off, will the process of dining out — getting dressed, walking, driving, parking, waiting, asking for the check — be regarded as a return to hunting and gathering?

Considering that our restaurant’s own takeout business has shot up almost 150 percent since the pandemic started, it doesn’t seem like a crazy question. On a recent Friday night at Tacolicious, 63 of the 120 orders we executed between 5 and 8 p.m. were for delivery — an even split that is not atypical.

The scene is what T., the managing partner of our Mission District location, calls a “controlled crash,” Navy speak for the dangerous and precarious task of landing a jet on an aircraft carrier — one that can be mitigated through training but still offers no guarantees. In the kitchen, our cooks constantly switch back and forth between plating tacos to send out with a server and putting tacos in a box to hand to the delivery drivers who stand awkwardly in our doorway among waiting guests. They are impatient. They have a job to do. But they don’t work for us; we don’t have a relationship. This scenario was not a part of our original business plan. It’s almost like running two concepts out of the same kitchen.

The expeditor, the person who calls out the orders, is the most important person in the house on nights like this. Often, the chaos is miraculously managed. Diners are happy, as are our delivery patrons. But despite the “triple check” system we have in place for delivery, sometimes human error comes into play and a guacamole goes missing in an order. Now the DoorDash customer is left stewing and confused about whom to turn to, first pinging the delivery service, then emailing us. Our manager, who would love to be over at a table toasting someone’s birthday or dimming the lights or adjusting the music, is now embroiled in Operation Guac. And we can’t rectify the error face to face. Instead, we send an apology in the form of an emailed gift card. (Though if someone’s guac-less night is truly crushing, we have been known to send them their guacamole in an Uber.)

Whether restaurants want to or not, the invention of third-party delivery apps such as UberEats, Caviar, GrubHub, and DoorDash has forced us to accommodate delivery in order to stay relevant. There’s no going back now; it is a codependent relationship. Diners expect restaurants to provide delivery, and the revenue it provides has become essential for us to compete in an industry built on slim margins. While these apps began shifting restaurant operations before COVID (and putting a financial squeeze on restaurants with their high fees), they hit the jackpot during the pandemic, more than doubling their revenue since 2020. DoorDash — which was one of 2020’s biggest IPOs — did a study revealing that 58 percent of adults and 70 percent of millennials are more likely to have food delivered now than they were two years ago. “The delivery business is keeping restaurants alive,” Dara Khosrowshahi, the CEO of Uber and UberEats, said in an interview. “[With UberEats], you can get wonderful, hot meals.”

“Hot” is relative, I’d say. But otherwise, Khosrowshahi is both right and wrong. Yes, on some level, delivery might be keeping restaurants “alive,” but it’s also killing us a little bit. Or at least changing us systemically, altering our purpose. Not to get existential, but considering until recently, restaurants were designed to be curated, multifaceted in-house experiences, what’s the tipping point? When is a restaurant no longer a restaurant?

At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I’d say it’s when the dining room is no longer a priority. Because that’s where the joy happens, where a restaurant’s spirit lives. Without it, you cannot possibly practice hospitality, an act of giving that requires warm bodies and lots of tequila. It’s in the dining room where servers answer questions about the food and ask how your kids are doing. It’s where pretty tile covers the floor and there’s a riot of music, cooks clanging spatulas on the plancha, cocktails being shaken, salsa being blended. There’s the aroma of chilies and garlic wafting around diners deep in conversation with their family or friends. It’s where you might meet a stranger or get a little tipsy. And in this virtual world, it is one of the few places left for true community.

Also — and this is not insignificant — it’s the only place that puts you in close proximity to a kitchen, which is essential if you want to remember what truly hot, crispy-fatty pork wrapped in a fresh tortilla tastes like. Or maybe flank steak just pulled off the grill and plated with a smear of prickly ash relish. Or a bubbly, blistered, wood-fired Margherita pizza straight off the peel. I hope that rejoicing in restaurant food as it was meant to be served will help you recall that the delivered version, while satisfying, does not arouse the kind of irrepressible craving that can only be satiated one way. And that’s by getting off the couch and going out to dinner.

An intermittent food writer and former editor, Sara Deseran is a partner at Tacolicious, a San Francisco-based restaurant group.