We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Abby Jiu

People are firing up their Postmates app and ordering $45 “Funfetti Celebration Cakes” from Buttercream Bakeshop. The problem is they take three days to make.

Maybe there’s an emergency birthday party or maybe a group of friends hit the bong a little too hard and only a layer cake will satisfy their monstrous munchies. Whatever prompts Buttercream Bakeshop fans to place orders for immediate delivery, you can’t blame them because the menu Postmates displays for the Shaw bakery shows everything from $80 “Flamingo Cakes” and $248 three-tier “Mermaid Cakes” to $140 floral arrangements from one of the bakery’s partners that also requires advance notice for orders.

“Of all of the things they pulled from our online store, they pulled the things we don’t have on hand,” says Buttercream Bakeshop Owner Tiffany MacIsaac. She calls the faulty menu posting a disservice to both her customers and Postmates customers, not to mention Postmates delivery drivers who show up hoping to pick up a cake and deliver it within an hour.

The issue with Postmates is that unless you pay to be a Postmates Plus partner merchant, you have no say as a small business owner about what shows up on the app, and you don’t even get to opt in. If you offer carry-out of any kind, your restaurant can be added to the app.

I don’t even want to be on there,” MacIsaac says. “I’d rather not be on there than have the wrong stuff. We never asked to be put on there.”

Comparatively, Caviar and UberEats include only restaurants that have opted in and have self-determined which of their menu items are most appropriate for delivery. Of course, these platforms can come with hefty fees of up to 30 percent. 

Postmates representative April Conyers explains that Plus merchants pay the company a commission on orders, which are delivered for a flat fee of $3.99. “The benefits of being a part of Plus is you have control over your menu and have the option to pause orders,” she says. Partner merchants are also given a tablet to control all aspects of the delivery process, and they’re featured in a special tab within the app.

For non-partners like Buttercream Bakeshop, Conyers says the company uses a variety of sources to determine what menu to post in the app, but they primarily use the restaurant’s website. On making updates, she says, “We will certainly update a menu for non-partner merchants. They have to just send us an email or tweet at us and we’ll make any changes that they want.”

MacIsaac e-mailed Postmates months ago to request menu changes, but still hasn’t heard back. She’s trying again today.

This problem isn’t new. We checked in with restaurant owners a year ago about this very issue. Postmates doesn’t seem to have made improvements in communicating  with restaurant owners. At the time, Mandu Chef/Owner Danny Lee sounded off about DoorDash. Today, he has mixed emotions about Postmates. 

“We obviously use them, but there are definitely things that they could dramatically improve,” Lee says. “We want to have available some type of delivery option for our guests, and by continuing to be on Postmates we feel that’s the best option that is currently available at the moment.”

Lee’s decision to use Postmates is partly because Mandu is not a Postmates Plus partner merchant, which means they don’t pay anything for Postmates to deliver food. But he experiences recurring problems that could be solved by better communication between Postmates and restaurant owners.

For starters, there are two Mandu locations (18th Street and K Street). “Postmates just says Mandu, so you don’t know what location you’re ordering from,” Lee says. “So we consistently get things that are only available at the other location. People will call and scream at whoever picks up the phone. I’ll say, ‘We have no control over this. It’s completely third party.’” Then there’s the fact that Mandu on 18th Street is closed daily from 3-5 p.m., yet Postmates orders still get placed.

Another gripe is that sometimes food sits for a long period of time. “There was one night recently when there were so many orders that were not picked up or were getting cold,” Lee explains. “Even if it’s not our fault, we’re not sending a dish that’s been sitting for an hour and a half.” He says he makes fresh renditions, but thinks Postmates should cover the cost of the ones that get cold. “It’s all up to the driver. Some drivers are great, but that’s rare. They’ll put in the order, we’ll tell them 10-15 minutes, then they come an hour later.”

Lee is grateful for the extra business, saying anything helps. “But it’s not worth it when guests are getting angry when there’s nothing we’ve done wrong,” he says. “It makes us look bad because people think we’re in business with Postmates. That’s when we’ll call Postmates and say we’re getting to the end of our rope and we’re going to tell you guys to screw off.”

Scott Auslander, who owns Ventnor Sports Cafe in Adams Morgan, has had similar issues with both outdated menus and slow pick-up times. His bar is not a Postmates Plus partner merchant so he can’t control what menu appears in the app. “Someone will call and order a wrap that we haven’t had on the menu since 2007,” he says, adding that it’s impossible to tell if it’s a Postmates courier or a customer making the call. “Sometimes it’s easier to make what the customer wants than to try to figure it out.”

He’s a mensch in other ways. “Sometimes we don’t even know if we get paid, but if I don’t produce the food, the customer will be upset, so we just make it,” he explains. When food is taking forever to get picked up or he notices that the fee for nachos and a burger creeps up to $70 with various fees, he’ll slip a note, and sometimes a gift card, into the bag.

Auslander prefers other delivery services to Postmates. “What’s nice about Caviar and Uber[Eats] is that we get the customer’s information. We can call them directly … and see that they’re our regular customers, which is nice.” 

At a time when customers want what they want, when they want it, it’s going to take some extra elbow grease on the part of delivery services to ensure the transaction isn’t mutually destructive, even if that means picking up the phone or answering emails.