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It took two months for Kangaroo Boxing Club to remove itself from Postmates’ food delivery service.
The problem? Owner Peyton Sherwood says the menus were frequently inaccurate, and people would order dishes like collard greens when they hadn’t been available for two months. Other times, he felt drivers were rude, impatient, and didn’t take enough care getting food to the customer.
At its worst, Sherwood told his servers to stop taking Postmates credit cards when couriers showed up to pick up orders. Instead, the staff would eat the food themselves or throw it out, taking a loss. Sherwood also took to Twitter to air his grievances and plea for Postmates to remove Kangaroo Boxing Club from its app and website. Behind the scenes, he threatened to call a lawyer.
“I even told them that I’d rather catapult my food across the city to my customers. It had a better chance of showing up looking good than it did with their drivers,” Sherwood says.
Sherwood is one of several restaurateurs who has a complicated or antagonistic relationship with food courier services like DoorDash or Postmates. The market for food delivery has exploded in recent years with a range of apps and websites touting meals from restaurants that haven’t traditionally offered their food to-go. For restaurateurs, the extra business is often welcomed, but introducing a third party can create problems, especially for businesses that aren’t built around a takeout model.
Most people don’t realize that ordering from these services does not make them customers of the restaurant; they’re customers of the particular service being used. Typically, there’s no contact directly between the person ordering and the restaurant staff. Restaurants can receive orders just by being open for business.
“We simply list you. We have your menu and a small inventory in our system, and we point people toward you,” says Postmates Senior Vice President Holger Luedorf.
Food delivery service DoorDash is likewise not entirely opt-in and will accept orders for any restaurant that offers takeout. Company spokesperson Eitan Bencuya says DoorDash does try to reach out and have formal relationships with all the businesses it lists on its site, but that doesn’t always happen.
“In those cases, we make our best effort to contact the owner of the restaurant and offer them the opportunity to partner with us in order for them to improve the ordering process, gain better insights and analytics, and improve their in-store efficiency,” Bencuya says.
Mandu chef and owner Danny Lee began receiving orders from DoorDash shortly after the service launched in D.C. in early 2015—even though he’d never had a conversation with anyone from the company. He noticed that some of his prices listed on the app and website had been inflated.
DoorDash declined to comment specifically on the pricing or details of Mandu’s situation. But a quick menu search online reveals other examples where the cost of ordering menu items from DoorDash is more than you’d pay in-restaurant, even before delivery fees are tacked on. For example, ordering a large cheese pizza from Vace in Cleveland Park through DoorDash will cost $12.50 plus tax and a $6.99 delivery fee, compared to $10.50 with tax on site. Or you can order from Maple in Columbia Heights and pay $19.95 plus tax for a plate of lamb ragu tagliatelle instead of the advertised $18 menu price.
Lee declined to continue with the service when he was formally approached by the company later in the year.
With these services, there’s no guarantee that a business’ hours or menu will be properly updated online. Lee changes Mandu’s menu once a week, something not reflected on Postmates. Lee says he’s also wasted a lot of food due to incorrect orders from Postmates. For example, he won’t find out about vegetarian substitutions until dishes are already cooked due to a lack of communication between Postmates and the customer. When a customer directly calls in an order, restaurants can ask about dietary restrictions.
Adding to the stress is the fact that some restaurants aren’t set up to handle a large volume of to-go orders.
“Just the simple act of putting food in a to-go container disrupts service,” Lee says. Postmates’ orders have pushed Mandu to its limits. The majority of takeout orders at Mandu are still done by walk-in guests, though, Lee says.
At Scarlet Oak in Navy Yard, a busy night of service or packed brunch might exhaust a popular side dish like Brussels sprouts. Co-owner Brian Schram says in these cases, the restaurant can’t communicate directly with the customer to come up with an alternative and are left either calling the service or coming up with a replacement on the fly.
Even the process of taking orders can be inefficient. Schram, who’s also a partner at Southern Hospitality in Adams Morgan, made the decision to use DoorDash to help connect customers to his restaurants, and he’s had success doing so. But he says that processing the emails he gets from the service when an order comes through isn’t nearly as simple as it might seem. He often finds himself monitoring email for incoming food orders while at a Washington Nationals game or lounging around on a Saturday morning. At some points, he says, it can be a challenge to make sure the email connection gets made with the restaurant manager on duty and that the food gets out the door.
“I forward the message along to the restaurant and hope it works,” Schram says.
Scarlet Oak’s menu prices are the same on DoorDash as they are in the restaurant. The business then pays a commission on the orders they sell.
Some services, including DoorDash, offer to loan point-of-sale tablets to assist restaurants with receiving and logging orders. In Schram’s opinion, though, his restaurant is already dealing with too many devices, and he feels it’s easier to monitor emails himself.
Food quality is another big concern for both restaurants and delivery services, and not all food is designed for takeout. Transporting pizza or Chinese food across town is easier than intricate or temperature-sensitive entrees that were designed to be eaten at a restaurant table.
This is especially the case at Medium Rare, where getting a perfectly-cooked steak delivered to your door just isn’t realistic. Co-owner Mark Bucher says he’ll do eight to 10 DoorDash orders on a good night, and more when it’s cold or raining (which also happens to be when the restaurant dining room is less busy). Bucher tries to manage expectations by providing information on his restaurant’s DoorDash profile that the fries could be cold and the steak will only be cooked medium unless requested well-done.
After all, it’s not just the food quality, but the restaurant’s reputation at stake. Sherwood says that Kangaroo Boxing Club has received negative Yelp reviews with photos of jostled deliveries. “It looked like someone had taken the box and shook it,” he says. “All of these people who are using the app, they think it’s our fault. Whatever the problem is, they think it’s our drivers, they think it’s our people doing these things, and it’s not.” Kangaroo Boxing Club still does a lot of takeout business, but not with any third parties.
Despite all of the frustrations, it’s becoming tougher and tougher for many restaurateurs to ignore these delivery services. They often bring in a lot of business. Georgetown Events restaurant group has found success bringing in new customers using DoorDash at Jetties, Surfside, Bayou, and Due South. Events Manager Michael Tabb estimates each of the restaurants gets 30 delivery orders a day. (He says he’s had only fast and professional drivers, and no issues with updating menus and taking orders.)
“They’re somewhat game changers in the business,” Bucher adds of these delivery services. Still, he was never one to do online ordering in the past, even when he was formerly involved in the quick-service business with BGR The Burger Joint.
“I wanted all my customers to come in the restaurant and experience my environment,” he says. Now though, he says it’s all about catering to the food cravings of 20- or 30-year-olds who are ordering food on the fly.
Smoke and Barrel has partnered with another service called Caviar to manage its deliveries. It offers a smaller version of its main menu, but that doesn’t stop the Postmates calls from coming in. In fact, there are so many takeout barbecue orders from Postmates that it just wouldn’t be possible to stop accepting them, says General Manager Zach Myers.
Another restaurateur concern is that Postmates allows its couriers to rate customers and vice-versa but provides no such system for merchants to weigh in. That leaves no way to report a rude or otherwise less-than-stellar courier, and it’s something the company says it’s working on.
“Ideally, we have to have all key constituencies being able to voice their concerns,” says Luedorf. He also pointed out that D.C. is one of the company’s top markets, and that serious complaints by businesses make up the small minority of all feedback.
With this concern in mind, Luedorf says the company is working to increase the number of direct relationships with restaurants, allowing them to more easily do things like update and customize menus and operating hours.
The company doesn’t give out specific numbers but said they have hundreds of merchant partners in the city.
At Mandu, Lee is still debating how to deal with Postmates and other options on to-go orders going forward. In the meantime? “We’re not going to pull the plug just yet,” he says.
Illustration by Lauren Heneghan