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Canada Food fight: Restaurant owners clash with DoorDash over service they didn’t order

Emily Caulfield, co-owner of The Portly Chef in Vancouver.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The first call came in the middle of dinner rush on a Friday.

The voice on the line asked for delivery, and Emily Caulfield, manager of The Portly Chef in Vancouver, was confused. The small neighbourhood restaurant didn’t do delivery, she explained. The caller hung up.

But a few minutes later, the phone rang again. It was the same voice, again asking for delivery.

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She repeated that the restaurant didn’t do delivery.

“Yes, you do,” he said. “I’m online right now and I can see that you’re there.”

He hung up again. But after closing, Ms. Caulfied searched online. That’s when she found the listing on DoorDash, the online restaurant-delivery service – whose sales reps had been trying to woo The Portly Chef onto the site for weeks leading up to that night in November, 2017.

And so, she wrote a sternly worded e-mail to the company. To her, the tactic raised questions about food safety and liability – not to mention her business’s ability to protect its product and brand.

The response from the sales rep the next day was to say that her restaurant had only been placed on the platform as part of a “pilot test.”

“Typically these pilots only run for a short amount of time, since our customers have been in high demand of your food,” he wrote.

But the practice appears more extensive than suggested.

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In interviews, 30 restaurant owners and managers across Canada told The Globe and Mail they’ve been placed on DoorDash without their consent. The incidents date from 2015 until earlier this month.

Many said that, when they discovered them, their DoorDash listings were littered with errors. The owner of a Toronto bakery said her menu on DoorDash offered bacon and eggs. The manager of an Italian cocktail bar in Toronto started getting calls asking for chicken wings.

And more than once, prices were changed: In the case of The Portly Chef, its “Irish Chicken,” normally $7, was priced on DoorDash at $27.

In interviews with The Globe, restaurant owners across the country said these concerns are just the most egregious.

For his part, Brent Seals, the country director for DoorDash in Canada, said these instances were exceptions. “What I want to stress is that we do have thousands of partners in Canada who have told us they’ve seen improved sales, new customers and improved operations thanks to our service,” he said.

The rapid rise of technologies has opened new opportunities for restaurants, helping to connect them to new customers in new markets.

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But there have also been drawbacks. “It’s just kind of become this wild west. There’s fake websites everywhere,” said Ms. Caulfield. “How many of these things are we supposed to be working with?”

The rapid rise of technologies has opened new opportunities for restaurants, helping to connect them to new customers in new markets. But there have also been drawbacks.

The Globe and Mail

DoorDash was founded in 2013 by a group of students at Stanford University. The company, which is headquartered in San Francisco, followed in the footsteps of Winnipeg-based SkipTheDishes and was quickly joined by the likes of Uber Eats and Foodora.

DoorDash now operates across North America and is valued at a reported US$7.1-billion. Since launching in Canada in 2015, it has expanded rapidly, announcing a presence in its 50th Canadian city – Winnipeg – earlier this month. By the end of the year, it intends to operate in 100 Canadian cities.

While food delivery has existed for decades, these newer entrants have positioned themselves first and foremost as technology companies. Their business is logistics: finding the quickest, cheapest ways to get something from point A to point B – never mind if it’s a pack of toilet paper or a plate of tacos.

Competition between the companies has been “cutthroat,” said Sharif Virani, an Ottawa restaurant consultant. “The end goal for these companies is to have users browse their app. And people go to the app with the most variety on it.”

Restaurants enter into agreements with most of the companies. In the case of Uber Eats, for instance, they pay a cut of their sales (about 30 per cent). In return, Uber provides marketing and a tablet for the restaurant to use to manage orders.

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With some restaurants, DoorDash, too, enters into agreements, although it declined to disclose the details of them to The Globe.

But in other cases, it simply adds restaurants without their knowledge. Mr. Seals would not say how many of the thousands of Canadian restaurants on DoorDash are on a such a “trial period.” He only said that the majority do have official agreements. He added that DoorDash will remove restaurants that don’t want to be there.

“In some cases where we think it’s going to be a great fit for both the customer and the restaurant, we will put merchants on the platform for a trial period,” he said.

When asked whether DoorDash contacts those restaurants beforehand, he said, “We strive to reach out to merchants before they are on the platform.”

When pressed on whether it always does so, he echoed the same message: “We’ll always attempt to get in touch.”

In those cases where there isn’t an official agreement, a DoorDash representative will phone the restaurant and send a driver for pick-up and delivery.

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For those calls that came into Emma’s Country Kitchen in Toronto, the caller never identified himself as coming from DoorDash, co-owner Heather Mee said.

This was a few years ago, when the brunch restaurant had a small freezer offering ready-made meals such as chicken pot pie. Ms. Mee only pieced it together when a caller asked for those items.

“I said, ‘This dish is frozen, are you sure you want it?’ And he was like, ‘Someone ordered it.’ I asked, ‘You’re not ordering it?’ ”

“What a ridiculous thing,” she said, laughing. “What do they think they’re doing?”

Nara Sok, owner of Tomo restaurant.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

As with many restaurant owners, Nara Sok can tell you off the top of his head how his business is doing on each of the major online rating websites. He spends much of his time monitoring Yelp, Google and TripAdvisor, reading reviews for Tomo, the restaurant he co-owns in Ottawa.

So when he realized last year that Tomo had been placed on DoorDash, he was horrified: Dishes he thought were being picked up for takeout by customers might, in fact, have been sent out for delivery.

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When customers pick up their own food, he said, “if they get stuck in traffic and their food is cold, they’ll understand.” But for delivery, “if it comes cold, you’re going to get mad at the restaurant, not the driver.”

All these things affect ratings, he said.

Ricardo Chico, owner of Toronto’s Bar Altura, said he aims to provide a fine-dining experience – one he feels is undermined when customers think that his food is available for delivery.

Then, there are safety concerns. One dish Mr. Chico found on his DoorDash menu was kampachi crudo: raw yellowfin tuna, something he’d never knowingly offer for delivery or takeout. “If I wasn’t here, and if one of the cooks wasn’t paying attention, you basically have raw fish at room temperature going out in a cab or [on a] bike.”

Mr. Seals, the DoorDash rep, said the company goes to great lengths to ensure food is delivered safely.

But for restaurants who are unhappy, it’s unclear what recourse is available. Many of those interviewed by The Globe said it was a challenge getting DoorDash to remove them from the site.

After Patricia Drewnowska, owner of Patricia’s Cake Creations in Toronto, saw her requests go ignored, she sent an e-mail threatening to follow up with a cease-and-desist letter.

The response from “Kory,” a DoorDash rep, read: “I’ve never added your store on DoorDash. There must be a mistake here.”

She also said she tried calling police through the non-emergency line, but was told they couldn’t help.

In the United States, chains such as In-N-Out Burger have tried to sue DoorDash. But for small businesses, a legal fight isn’t always an option.

Governments, too, have struggled to keep up. In Toronto – where many of the restaurants The Globe spoke with are located – the city’s licensing department said it does not license food-delivery services. Meanwhile, Toronto Public Health, which conducts food-safety inspections on restaurants, said that it is “aware of this emerging food delivery service” but did not directly address the question of restaurants who haven’t agreed to have their food delivered by third parties.

In Vancouver, Ms. Caulfield said she is increasingly apprehensive about the growing influence of global giants on small restaurants such as hers, a concern exacerbated by her experience with DoorDash.

“To me, it’s a complete violation. There’s lack of respect,” she said. “In what world where you say, ‘No, I don’t want to work with you,’ do you proceed and sign us up anyway?”

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