Guerrilla tactics: Food-delivery services take a bite out of local restaurants

It’s a slow Wednesday afternoon at The Brick Oven, where owner Dino Hoxhaj slides into one of his brown upholstered booths and heaves an exasperated sigh as he looks around his restaurant in the Rio Hill Shopping Center.

“All the third parties suck,” he says, shaking his head.

He’s talking about food-delivery services like DoorDash and Postmates, and Hoxha, who purchased his pizza shop in January 2018, is one of dozens of Charlottesville restaurant owners who’ve become increasingly frustrated with them. The problem? These billion-dollar companies are listing local restaurants on their mobile apps as eligible for delivery, despite never receiving permission to do so.

On July 26, a Postmates driver pulled up to local Italian restaurant Tavola expecting an order of food to be ready for him to bring to a customer. Tavola, which is co-owned by C-VILLE Weekly arts editor Tami Keaveny, doesn’t accept take-out orders, so employees turned him away.

Three days later, a Postmates representative reached out to the restaurant and spoke with wine manager Priscilla Martin Curley, who asked for Tavola to be removed from the app. As of press time, Tavola’s listing is still live, and the restaurant continues to receive calls from customers complaining their orders were canceled.

“It’s crazy, I really have been trying and I can’t contact them,” Martin Curley says. “It’s really frustrating because…I have specifically said on the phone that we don’t consent.”

Brick Oven and Tavola are very different types of restaurants, but employees at both say third-party delivery services are bad for business—and they’re not alone. Postmates, which didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, also lists several other local restaurants that say they’ve never been contacted by the company, including Paradox Pastry, Lampo Neapolitan Pizzeria, and Ace Biscuit & Barbecue.

Andrew “Wolf” Autry is the manager at Ace Biscuit & Barbecue, which doesn’t participate in delivery services because he says its food is better served hot. After he turned a Postmates driver away, a company representative called to ask why.

“I told him that every Postmates order that came in here I was just gonna laugh at them and tell them no,” Autry says. “He laughed and was like, ‘Good luck with that.’”

PSA. We do not deliver Or patronize delivery apps.

Posted by Ace Biscuit & Barbecue on Tuesday, August 6, 2019

This isn’t an issue that’s unique to Charlottesville. In 2015, Vox Media’s food site Eater wrote that Postmates uses the personalized search-engine app Foursquare to compile lists of restaurants and businesses, and automatically uploads them to the app for users to select from.

And Postmates isn’t the only food-delivery service to do it.

In February, Paradox Pastry issued a cease-and-desist letter to DoorDash. Owner Jenny Peterson says that not only did DoorDash list the bakery on its mobile app without her permission, it misstated some prices as well. She also struggled getting in contact with the company and ultimately decided to send the letter through a lawyer.

“Apparently that’s the guerrilla tactic for these delivery services,” Peterson says. “They just put [listings] on there and show up for orders.”

Although it’s been a few months since Paradox or Lampo had any trouble, employees from both restaurants say this approach has been a common complaint across the local restaurant scene. Some worry that customers will form poor opinions of their businesses because of a bad experience with delivery services the restaurants never signed up for.

Both Paradox and Brick Oven have made agreements with GrubHub (yet another food-delivery service), which contacted them and received their approvals before including them on its app, with the opportunity to deactivate their listings whenever they like. Both owners have since deactivated their listings, and are skeptical that turning them back on would be profitable.

“At first it seems like you’re making [more] money,” Hoxhaj says. “But when I see that the delivery driver is making more money than me per order…It’s my food and my reputation and I pay the rent and everything; they’re just driving around and making more than the restaurant.”

GrubHub takes a 15 to 30 percent commission on all orders. This has become problematic for Hoxhaj because in March 2018, GrubHub signed a deal with the crowd-sourcing review site Yelp to integrate the food-delivery service’s restaurant network into Yelp’s server. Although Brick Oven’s phone number is listed on its Yelp profile, the “order takeout or delivery” button above it takes users to another screen that allows them to complete the order through GrubHub.

A similar scenario unfolds on Google, where an “order delivery” widget appears under the restaurant’s name in a search. However, the link doesn’t direct users to Brick Oven, which makes its own deliveries. It opens up another site through DoorDash instead.

Hoxhaj is planning to reactivate GrubHub when UVA students return to Charlottesville in a week, to help meet the higher demand. But between sharing his profits with the delivery service and turning away unwanted Postmates and DoorDash drivers—sometimes “five or six a day”—there’s no escaping the constant reminder that he’s not in control of how his customers order his food.

Despite his food costs being relatively low, Hoxhaj says that on “80 or 90 percent of orders, I break even.”

“This is the life we live in,” he says. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”


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