A while back, I wrote that third-party delivery services like DoorDash and Grubhub are engulfed in a massive fight now against all manner of opponents, from government regulators to investors worried about profitability to the force that is social media. But in the wake of fresh controversy, these delivery companies’ strongest opponents might actually be the restaurants themselves.
Restaurants’ need to push back against delivery services was (once again) brought to light recently when San Francisco restaurant owner Pim Techamuanvivit, who owns Michelin-star restaurant Kin Khao, left the following tweet:
Techamuanvivit went on to explain how she discovered that Kin Khao was listed on Grubhub and its subsidiary brand, Seamless, despite the fact that the restaurant has never offered delivery or even takeout. After all, it is a Michelin-star joint.
An excellent article from Wired goes into the full details on how Kin Khao got mixed up with a virtual brand that operates out of one of Reef Technology’s ghost kitchens. (It was a technical error.) But the bigger point, as Wired underscores, is that Grubhub had listed Techamuanvivit’s restaurant in the first place, without her knowledge or consent, and that doing so is actually a common practice Grubhub started some months ago.
Essentially, Grubhub identifies non-partnered restaurants — that is, restaurants with which it doesn’t have a contract — that are popular in a city, creates a page using the establishment’s menu and basic information (pulled from public sources), and has orders sent directly to Grubhub. Grubhub then figures out how to actually get the order, which usually involves sending a driver to retrieve a pickup order. However, in the case of a high-end restaurant like Kin Khao, which only offers dine-in service, that tactic clearly doesn’t work.
Many restaurants have voiced concerns over this practice. Steven Sorensen, general manager and partner at The Farmhouse at Jessup Farm in Colorado, had a similar experience to Techamuanvivit’s, even though his restaurant had “routinely” declined to partner with Grubhub. “Our food is not designed for that app,” he told the Coloradoan. “It’s designed to be enjoyed immediately in the restaurant.”
Another restaurant owner, this one from Ohio and going by the handle @ThaibyTY, tweeted that Grubhub had listed incorrect information about their business and incorrect menu items and prices:
Other services like Postmates and DoorDash follow a similar practice. The argument is that listing non-partnered restaurants widens third-party services base of restaurants and and is a way to drive more delivery orders to local restaurants.
But this practice of listing restaurants without their consent is just one of many griefs with delivery businesses are getting louder about.
Grubhub has for some time now also been dealing with a controversy around charging restaurants “bogus” phone order fees. The service announced a new phone-order system in January (which NYC regulators immediately labeled “insufficient”), but according to the NY Post, the service has yet to refund the majority of its restaurant partners on those erroneous fees.
That service, along with Uber Eats, was the center of an oversight hearing in Manhattan last year that called into question the commission fees delivery services extract from restaurants, usually 20 to 30 percent of each transaction. Caps have also been proposed for these commission fees.
DoorDash isn’t off the hook, either, given the controversy last year around how the service tips its workers, a point that’s the center of a lawsuit filed by DC Attorney General Karl Racine.
I wrote back in December that, for at least the first half of 2020, we should expect the already messy food delivery space to get even messier “get messier, raise more questions, and incite more regulatory battles as it progresses towards normalization.”
But maybe it shouldn’t normalize, at least not in its current form. Maybe this latest controversy should instead encourage more restaurants to vocalize their concerns around the unregulated, unsustainable beast third-party delivery is becoming, and in some cases, take further action in order to become a legitimate threat. Techamuanvivit, for her part, is promising legal action against Grubhub and has encouraged other restaurants to do the same.
Litigation is tricky, though. In-N-Out Burger famously tried to sue DoorDash in 2015 but the case was dismissed two months later in a confidential settlement. What the industry needs to see are examples of such lawsuits going to trial and their outcomes forcing changes in how business gets done between restaurants and third-party services. There are no guarantees that will happen.
There are arguments out there that if restaurants don’t like the way these third-party services operate, they shouldn’t use them. That angle might have held water two years ago. Now, off-premises orders are expected to drive most restaurant sales over the next decade, which means delivery is practically mandatory for many restaurant types. Unless you’re a restaurant like Kin Khao, where delivery doesn’t make sense for your brand, most restaurants have to contend with marketing costs, paying drivers, and managing the technical logistics of on-demand ordering. Often the cheapest way to do that is to use third-party services, which may handle the heavy lifting of delivery operations for the restaurants but which are also largely unregulated and as of now face little accountability for their business practices.
Whether Techamuanvivit’s Twitter takedown of Grubhub and possible forthcoming lawsuit can inspire others in more precarious positions (those restaurants who feel they need the partnerships with third-party services), remains a question.
Meanwhile, talk of consolidation among third parties continues, and worry from investors over profitably continues to threaten the model. Coupled with growing concern and louder voices from the restaurants themselves, it seems more likely that something big is going to give very soon. And it should. Otherwise, everyone loses in the long term.