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Virus outbreak alters food-delivery market as people seek essential work and consumers strive to support local restaurants

John and Melissa Simon are a husband-and-wife food delivery team who work for a variety of the apps such as Uber Eats, Grubhub and DoorDash. Melissa rides with John because otherwise, they wouldn't see each other much. They also co-own a business, Dooky's Poop Scoop Service, and the company name is on the side of their car, which customers usually find funny. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
John and Melissa Simon are a husband-and-wife food delivery team who work for a variety of the apps such as Uber Eats, Grubhub and DoorDash. Melissa rides with John because otherwise, they wouldn't see each other much. They also co-own a business, Dooky's Poop Scoop Service, and the company name is on the side of their car, which customers usually find funny. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

At 1:35 p.m. Wednesday, Melissa and John Simon were sitting in their parked car in Liberty Lake. The car has the name of their dog cleanup business – Dooky’s Poop Scoop Service – emblazoned on the side. But they weren’t there for dooky.

They also work as a husband-and-wife food delivery team, and they had just opened the Uber Eats app. Two people aren’t necessary for the job, but if Melissa didn’t ride along, they would see each other a lot less.

About 30 minutes later, no orders had come through, so they switched location and service – Sullivan and DoorDash. Over the next hour, they picked up two deliveries and drove about 12 miles. For the first delivery, they received $3 from DoorDash and a $4 tip. On the second order, $3.50 from DoorDash and no tip. The customer had a $47 food order.

Melissa said there aren’t a huge number of orders where there is no tip at all, but the tips aren’t substantial, either. She knows how much money she will receive from the app upfront, but that’s not how delivery people make their money – a sentiment echoed by many other drivers. And, with so many other things, COVID-19 has changed the food delivery industry.

Supporting local restaurants during the stay-home order might seem like a no-brainer, but certain delivery services help more than others. Supporting essential workers only goes so far, as well. Without tipping, most delivery workers can barely cover cost of fuel – especially now, when a bottleneck of limited restaurant options and increased orders means that some workers are waiting at the restaurant to pick up for longer than an hour.

While she and John try to take every order they’re offered, Melissa said there are some restaurants where the drivers will decline orders, and fast-food restaurants fall into that category. The drive-thru lines are long, and the cars have to burn fuel while they’re waiting.

“If you think you’re getting a simple McDonald’s order, we might have to sit in that McDonald’s drive-thru for 10, 15 or 20 minutes just to get a $4 McDonald’s delivery out the door,” Melissa said.

Caleb Geringer, who has delivered with Uber Eats since October, said he waited an hour and 45 minutes for a burger and fries at Red Robin the other day. He messaged the person receiving the food so they would know about the wait, and they were understanding, but that was still nearly two hours he could have been delivering other items that he wasn’t.

Geringer said that because there are a small number of restaurants open, all of them are busy. This becomes even more so when the restaurant has a specialty, such as sushi, that can’t be found at many other options. Geringer waited with 15 other drivers at a South Hill sushi restaurant recently.

Michelle Thome strategically took a DoorDash order at Walmart on Wednesday – she wanted to eat her lunch, and she knew that Walmart always had a wait. She had 35 minutes for lunch.

Most food delivery services take money two ways: in service fees from the customer, and as commission fees from the restaurants. From the restaurants, Uber Eats and Postmates take 30% of the subtotal and DoorDash takes between 20% to 25%.

GrubHub tells the restaurants they are only going to take 15% to 20%.

“GrubHub is the devil,” said Steven Kitchens, 3 Ninjas Curbside and Catering co-owner. “With a small business, we started out we were like, ‘Hey, that’s fantastic, it’s less than Uber, that’s cool, let’s do it.’ Well, they also don’t tell you about the driver commission, which is 10%.”

A GrubHub spokesperson said that all fees are spelled out in the contract that is sent to restaurants when they join. According to the company’s policy, the restaurant can avoid that 10% if it provides its own delivery people.

Despite his feelings for that particular company, Kitchens said he’s appreciative of delivery drivers.

“We’re thankful for the delivery services that can provide food to our community here in Spokane,” Kitchens said. “We’re thankful to be able to have our jobs and be open.”

Kitchens said he appreciates that Uber Eats has put an option into its app to donate money to the restaurants.

“You see that and there’s like a little heart icon on there, it’s just one of those small things that bring a smile to your face,” Kitchens said. “It’s like, man, thank you. We appreciate it.”

The delivery service Kitchens likes best?

“Treehouse, 100%.”

Neil Holford, owner of Spokane-based Treehouse Delivery, prefers not to reveal the percentage from restaurants because of concerns about the bigger outfits using it against him, but The Spokesman-Review independently verified it is lower than any other delivery service in the area.

Despite that, the restaurant commission is how he makes his money. All of the delivery fees – which are based on the distance from the restaurant to the delivery site – go straight to the driver.

“That’s their car, their wear and tear, they should be compensated for that,” Holford said.

Holford works with about 20 independent contractors right now and is slowly expanding because he wants his drivers to only need to work for him to make the money they need – as opposed to the many drivers who switch between apps to make their money.

When recruiting new drivers, Holford has been going to the restaurants he’s built relationships with. Chase Van Cotthem, Shawn O’Donnell’s American Grill and Irish Pub co-owner, said Holford approached him about drivers.

“I have some good servers who were looking for work, and Neil said he was looking for some dependable drivers,” Van Cotthem said. “Occasionally, they stop by to pick up a delivery for us, so that’s kind of fun to see our server come in to deliver our food to someone waiting at home.”

Jade Strickland, who was a cocktail server/bartender at Shawn O’Donnell’s, is now driving for Treehouse, said she’s been enjoying it, and it’s been interesting for her to get a peek at how other restaurants are set up.

“Everybody’s been awesome,” Strickland said. “Surprisingly, everybody is in really good spirits, which is really nice.”

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