Baltimore, Boston, and Washington, D.C. all recently joined the growing list of cities imposing mandatory caps on the commission fees third-party delivery services charge restaurants. San Francisco, Chicago, NYC, and Los Angeles have already passed similar measures or are considering them.
The D.C. Council passed emergency COVID-19 legislation on Tuesday that, among other things, capped commission fees at 15 percent during the city’s state of emergency. As the Washington Post noted, “The commission cap, similar to ones implemented in Seattle and San Francisco, is meant to help eateries turn profits on those sales.”
Last week, city council members in Boston proposed an order for a hearing to discuss the possibility of caps on commission fees — much like the one NYC just held last week. A date has not yet been set for the Boston hearing.
Baltimore is legally prohibited from imposing caps on delivery companies, but that didn’t stop Mayor Jack Young from sending a formal letter to DoorDash, Postmates, Grubhub, and Uber Eats, asking them to cap commission fees at 15 percent.
It’s a noble gesture, but Mayor Young might as well be talking to a concrete wall. The major delivery services have made it clear that they strongly oppose any caps on commission fees, arguing that caps would make food delivery orders more expensive for consumers, lessen the number of orders coming through the platforms, and ultimately harm both restaurants and the delivery companies themselves. As a Grubhub representative put it at last week’s NYC hearing, “These caps may force us to exit certain markets or suffer substantial losses that threaten the sustainability of our businesses.”
To which one council member replied, “You’re saying a lot of stuff would force you to operate at a loss but you don’t seem to care that you’re forcing restaurants to operate at a loss.”
Grubhub, in particular, has taken severe (though deserved) heat for the way it has handled it has restaurant relationships during the COVID-19 crisis. The service sent out a press release back in March that led many to believe it was waiving commission fees for restaurants during the health crisis. In actual fact, Grubhub was only deferring those fees, and the policy included a lot of unsavory fine print that won the company yet-more bad press. And if you haven’t yet seen the viral Facebook photo that shows just how little restaurants collect from third-party delivery orders, check it here to understand why restaurants are nowhere near turning a profit under the current commission fee policies.
Other services are at least appearing to be more helpful. Postmates temporarily waived commission fees for independent restaurants, though the move only applied to new businesses signing with the platform and based in San Francisco. DoorDash has waived commission fees for all its independent restaurants through the end of May.
But what happens at the end of May? And what happens if a second wave of the novel coronavirus imposes another set of shelter-in-place mandates?
The entire restaurant industry is forever changed because of this pandemic and the dining room shutdowns it has caused. Menus are shrinking, restaurants will re-open with less seating, major chains are overhauling their entire store formats, and small businesses are going to have to adapt to technologies and procedures they might never have considered before. Delivery companies could do themselves and everyone else a huge favor by implementing their own fee caps and accepting that they’re part of the restaurant industry and need to share in some of the pain. Otherwise they can expect more government fee caps and regulations, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole industry forcefully turns on them at some point down the line.