Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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It was past time for my tacos from Muchas Gracias to arrive on Saturday night, but I couldn’t log into my Caviar account to track my order. I wasn’t the only one experiencing difficulties. The Mexican restaurant said it had 16 orders ready for delivery around 7:30 p.m., but nowhere to send them. DoorDash, which acquired Caviar last year, crashed during peak Saturday dinner hours, and crashed again on Sunday evening. These issues are particularly troublesome during the pandemic, when restaurants and diners have been more reliant on food delivery services.

“We were rolling with service and then we started noticing that we had a lot of orders,” says Muchas Gracias chef and owner Christian Irabién. “All of the sudden we looked and there’s a herd of DoorDash drivers. They knew they had to be at Muchas, but didn’t know what their orders were or where they were going. We have four tiny tables for dine-in that are outside. All of our guests are eating in the middle of this chaos. It looked like a zombie apocalypse with all these lost and antsy drivers pacing back and forth.”

Irabién and his team spent much of the night untangling orders with drivers or communicating with customers who said DoorDash hadn’t contacted them about the outage. He wonders how some of the city’s other immigrant-owned eateries were handling the tricky situation if there was a language barrier. “We were able to discuss with guests and appease some of them, but if you don’t have that ability to talk to guests, they can end up angry and saying they’ll never order again,” he says.

Even though diners and restaurants get reimbursed when DoorDash goes down, I still felt badly about my abandoned meal and the chefs who made it. Having already downed two glasses of wine, driving to pick it up wasn’t an option, so I requested an Uber to ferry the food. A driver obliged and loaded the tacos into his trunk. It turns out this is an actual service the transportation company offers called Uber Connect

Photos of Muchas Gracias delivery tacos by Laura Hayes

TaKorean founder Mike Lenard says DoorDash crashes happen so frequently that his company often uses the same system to transport food. They called a couple Ubers on Saturday night, even though it’s not cheap and creates more work for staff. After calling the Uber, they have to track the order, call the customer to explain how their order will be arriving, then ring them again once the driver arrives so they can go collect it. Uber drivers won’t bring food to stoops like DoorDash couriers.

“Frankly, this issue is specific to DoorDash,” Lenard says. “We had one outage with Uber in the fall. We have different issues with all of the companies, but from a technology outage standpoint, this is an issue specific to DoorDash in our experience … I feel like I get emails about outages two or three times a month. That’s not a statistic, but a gut feeling.”

Other diners found different ways to collect their food during the DoorDash crash. Caryn ordered CHIKO and wasn’t about to skip it. She says the restaurant called her around 7:50 p.m. to say they had orders but no drivers. They gave her the option to cancel it for a refund or pick it up. “I ended up Metroing to pick up my food,” she says. “I really wanted it.” 

Plenty of diners were empathetic. Airlie Loiaconi ordered from Baker’s Daughter Saturday night. “Our order was supposed to be picked up at 7:30. At 8:15 they called to ask if we still wanted the dinner because no one had picked it up,” she says. Neither party could get in touch with DoorDash. “After some back and forth, we said they could cancel it and we would go through DoorDash for a refund,” she says. 

Still in need of dinner, Loiaconi ordered from Domino’s. “Our order from Baker’s Daughter was picked up eventually and both delivery drivers arrived at the same moment,” she says. “We currently have a lot of pizza in our fridge! [Baker’s Daughter] handled the situation so well. We can’t wait to order from them again.” 

Kevin Goldberg ordered from Nicoletta Italian Kitchen because Caviar sent him a promotion. He expected his food to arrive just after 7 p.m. “When 7:15 rolls around, there’s no food, no update, and I can’t get on the app,” he says. “I go to Twitter and of course you type in ‘Caviar’ and it’s like ‘Caviar down.’” 

His two-year-old was getting hangry. “Everyone’s getting cranky,” Goldberg says. “I call the restaurant. They say we have your order but no one’s come to pick it up.” They offered to remake it so it would be hot once the app was back online but Goldberg declined. “I pivoted to some leftovers we had from the night before. Our experience with Nicoletta was great. I felt bad for them knowing what happened. I don’t blame the restaurant in the least.” 

But some restaurants worry that DoorDash’s messaging made it too easy to direct ire at the wrong party. “The gag of last night’s DoorDash outage was that their customer support blamed us, the restaurant,” the owner of a local Thai restaurant who asked to remain anonymous says. They hesitated to speak out because they say companies like DoorDash can control their popularity, delivery radius, and searchability on the platform. “A customer complained to me with a screenshot of DoorDash blaming us,” they say.

The screenshot says: “Hi [redacted]. Your order from [redacted] has been cancelled because we are unable to process the order with the restaurant. We have issued a refund back to your original payment method.” 

DoorDash’s email to restaurants about the crash includes more culpability. “We take these issues very seriously, and we are actively working to ensure that this does not happen again,” it reads. “We’d like to offer our sincerest apologies for the inconvenience and frustration that you experienced as a result of this outage.”

The email also describes the refunds that will be offered, but it’s not all about cash. “It’s still annoying—food wasted, kitchen slammed making orders for naught,” the Thai restaurant owner says. 

DC Harvest co-owner Jared Ringel is most peeved with DoorDash’s lack of communication.  When a food order was sitting around waiting to be picked up around 7:30 p.m. he started calling the company’s help line. “There was no answer and it would ring through and hang up,” he says. “I continued trying to call that number until we were an hour with the food sitting there.” 

He finally got hold of someone who explained the system-wide outage. But that’s not the norm in Ringel’s experience. “Even through other issues I’ve had, I cannot find a way to get in touch with an actual person,” he says. “Them not answering their phone was the most frustrating part of it. The lack of accountability is crazy.” 

Irabién agrees. “When you call them it feels like there’s only two people in the office for the whole country,” he says. “It’s hard to get people and even when you get someone they seem to be confused on how to fix problems. I don’t know if it’s a tech thing—they’re constantly developing.”

City Paper sent specific questions to DoorDash hoping to learn what measures the company is taking to prevent future crashes, given how popular delivery services will likely be in the dead of winter during a pandemic. City Paper also asked how these outages impact couriers

(The company has a history of deceiving its drivers. Today, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine announced a $2.5 million settlement with DoorDash stemming from a lawsuit that argued the company misled D.C. consumers and used tips left for workers to boost its bottom line. $1.5 million of the settlement money will go to drivers.) 

A DoorDash representative dodged these questions and only offered a statement. “We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience caused by this weekend’s site outage. DoorDash has since resolved the issue and customers can continue to access the app. We will refund those customers who were charged for an order they never received, and for merchants who prepared orders that were never delivered,” it reads. “We work to ensure that we are always offering the highest quality of service to the communities we serve, and we apologize for the poor experience some of our community members received over the weekend.”

Despite his mishap with Caviar Saturday night, Goldberg isn’t planning to delete his delivery apps. “Is it going to keep me from ordering Caviar? Well, with a 2-year-old, probably not. We need it in the middle of this pandemic,” he says. “As parents of a young child, the one thing the pandemic has done is open up the number of restaurants on these services. There’s all these restaurants I couldn’t take my kid to. We’re locked in on these services so I don’t see myself stopping.”

(If you too are intent on continuing to use these services, check out City Paper‘s tips for being a better takeout and delivery customer.)

Frustration is mounting nationally with third-party delivery services that are becoming even larger through mergers and acquisitions. Whether it’s the high commission fees, poor customer service, fight against reclassifying drivers as employees, or adding restaurants to their platforms without permission, there’s plenty room for improvement.

Some jurisdictions, including D.C., are considering ways to better regulate third-party delivery apps, especially since many restaurants consider them a necessary evil. It can be costly and time-consuming to set up an in-house delivery system. Some local alternatives are cropping up in the region to attempt to compete with the big dogs including DC To-GoGo, Skip The Line, and 301 Delivery.