Ana McClain was confused when a customer came into her restaurant, Lion Bridge Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids, in March asking why her food was never delivered. The brewery McClain co-owns never got the order — and it didn’t partner with any delivery services.
The woman explained she placed her order through the restaurant delivery service Grubhub. That was confusing, too, since Lion Bridge canceled its Grubhub account months ago and returned the software Grubhub used to place orders.
“We had no idea what they were talking about,” McClain said. “But we made them the burger, gave it to them and called Grubhub. They had made us live again without our consent and were taking orders for us again, but they hadn’t communicated that to us.”
As many restaurants were discovering, Grubhub wasn’t waiting for them to sign back on as partners. The company and some other third-party delivery services, including DoorDash, were scraping menus from the internet and posting them on their websites.
Here’s how it works: Food is ordered through the delivery site, and someone with the delivery service places the order with the restaurant. A driver then pays for the order and takes it to the customer.
In many cases, the restaurants aren’t even aware they’ve been part of an order through a delivery company. The delivery companies maintain they’re simply providing more business for restaurants in a time when many are struggling and badly need the income.
“We partner with hundreds of thousands of restaurants across the country, and the overwhelming majority of our orders are and will continue to be from these restaurants we partner with. Starting in late 2019 in select cities across the country, we’ll add restaurants to our marketplace when we see local diner demand for delivery so the restaurant can receive more orders and revenue from deliveries completed by our drivers,” a Grubhub spokesperson said in a statement emailed to The Gazette in response to questions about the practice. “This is a model that other food delivery companies have been doing for years as a way to widen their restaurant supply, and we’re only using this model to close the restaurant supply gap created by our competitors. We strongly believe partnering with restaurants is the only way to drive long-term value in this business.”
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The statement said restaurants nationwide have received almost $4 billion in sales from orders placed on Grubhub so far this year.
But many local restaurant owners told The Gazette they don’t like the process and have requested, sometimes more than once, that their menus be taken down.
The problems, they say, are numerous: The services often post old and outdated menus. The prices are higher than the restaurant itself charges. Sometimes delivery drivers show up to pick up orders on days they’re closed. And as drivers try to optimize their routes, food often takes a long time to be delivered and arrives cold.
All of this can lead to bad reviews and loss of customer loyalty, said Ryan Evans, owner of the Blind Pig in Cedar Rapids. Many customers have no idea the restaurant isn’t officially involved with the delivery service and blame the restaurants for the problems.
“We take the heat for it as a restaurant, they give us awful reviews online,” he said.
He said he’s found the Blind Pig’s menu posted on more than one site without permission, including DoorDash. That company did not respond the The Gazette’s request for comment.
Evans said since the pandemic started, demand for carryout and delivery has skyrocketed. The restaurant turned a corner of their space into a carryout preparation station.
“We went from doing probably five to-go orders a day to, I kid you not, some days we do 100. And the orders are getting a lot larger. As a restaurant we’re getting better at to-gos — we now have two people each shift just to do the orders” he said. “And we have learned to take the phone off the hook — once we have 40 to go orders to be made, we stop answering the phone.”
If they don’t, their kitchen becomes overwhelmed, he said, and wait times increase, and they also have dine-in customers to worry about. That’s another reason he wants orders to come in directly, rather than via delivery site.
“It’s tough, especially right now; because of COVID, people want things delivered and they want that convenience,” McClain said. “Just make sure that if something takes forever to get to you, realize it might not be the restaurant, it might be the third-party service.”
McClain said she understands why the demand is there. She recommends before ordering delivery checking directly with the restaurant to see if they have a partnership with a company.
Many restaurants choose to partner with the companies, seeing them as a way to reach more customers and provide a service they don’t have the capacity to offer in house. Typically, those partnerships work with the restaurant paying a commission to the delivery company for each sale. When there is no official partnership, the delivery companies may recoup their costs on the other side through fees or upcharges to the customer.
Katie Sturtz, whose family owns five Iowa Culver’s franchises, said she noticed that when she saw their Hiawatha location listed on Grubhub. Curious, she ordered a cheeseburger and fries, just to see how the process would work. She shared a screenshot of her order, with taxes and fees, with The Gazette. The food cost $6.39. “Taxes and fees” were an additional $7.94. Once a delivery charge and tip were included, the total order came to $24.38.
“They had our menu incorrect — items that were no longer on our menu — and they were not our prices, they were elevated prices,” Sturtz said. “It reflects badly on us; it looks like we’re price-gouging.”
Such concerns are why Adam Weeks, co-founder of Iowa City-based delivery service Chomp, said his business doesn’t follow the practice of posting menus from companies it isn’t partnered with. The company has been slowly expanding into the Cedar Rapids market, adding one restaurant at a time. The demand for delivery since March has been huge, he said.
“We’re up over 100 percent year over year in growth. ... We’ve added thousands and thousands of new customers over this time,” he said. “But it’s bittersweet. We’ve worked with restaurants that have closed. At least we’re bringing some welcome revenue to restaurants that really need it.”
McClain said one reason Lion Bridge decided not to partner with a delivery site are concerns about food safety and liability. Once the food leaves the restaurant, she has no control over how it is handled or if it arrives hot.
Evans said expecting delivered food to be the same quality as food served hot to your table isn’t reasonable. Burgers may be cold; fries may get soggy.
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“If you have no way to go get food and you’re hungry for something specific, just understand it’s not going to be the same quality. ... It’s just not going to hold up the same way as when its served fresh,” he said. “And when you make your order, be very specific on the things you want and don’t want.”
That’s a common problem he runs into with people calling in orders from a delivery site.
“They don’t know the answers to the questions. We get an order for a chicken sandwich and fries, and the first thing we ask is ‘Do you want breaded or fried? Lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion?’ They just guess,” he said.
Matt Georges, owner of Greyhound Deli in Cedar Rapids, had similar problems with DoorDash orders. The cafe, which is inside the Cedar Rapids Public Library, just reopened after being closed for months because of the pandemic. Before it closed, Georges recalled getting orders for sandwiches with a cup of soup. When he asked, “What kind of soup?” the person would be confused and have to call back. Then someone would show up to pick up the order and pay with a DoorDash credit card.
He wouldn’t mind, Georges said — an order is an order — except he realized the company had posted a 5-year-old menu, from the cafe’s previous location at NewBo City Market. The prices and offerings were completely wrong. He said customers were getting charged $9 for a sandwich he sells for $5.50.
“I wasn’t super bothered by it because they weren’t taking a cut, but they are charging the customer more, and you don’t have as much control over how your food gets delivered or if there’s an issue,” he said. “I called them and said, ‘I never signed up for this.’ They said they’d get me removed, and I still kept getting orders.”
Requests to be taken down
Grubhub’s statement said it has a team dedicated to helping restaurants fix issues with their listings and removing restaurants that request they be taken down. The company sent a list to The Gazette showing when restaurants the newspaper talked to had been removed from the site.
It listed Lion Bridge Brewing Company as being removed Oct. 26 — after The Gazette emailed Grubhub questions. McClain at Lion Bridge, however, shared an April email from Grubhub assuring her the restaurant would be taken down. Multiple restaurant owners told The Gazette they’ve had to request their menus be removed from Grubhub and DoorDash more than once, as they get re-added after being removed.
“We have had multiple times where delivery services added us to their website — we either saw it on our own or ended up finding out when a customer shows up with their credit card for DoorDash or something like that,” said Brittany Hannah, executive chef and president of Bistro 3 Nineteen in Marion. “We try to get it off their website. Sometimes it happens quickly, sometimes it seems like its 10 to 15 calls to get it taken down.”
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