In India, neither restaurateurs nor drivers are happy with app-based food delivery. Specifically, they’re unhappy with the local app Zomato. Delivery workers are currently striking because of a pay cut. Business owners are dropping the service altogether, as between high commissions and constant requests for discounts to entice customers, they feel that app-based deliveries are usually a net loss, not a gain.
They aren’t alone. Canadian restaurateurs have also complained about app fees – as much as $500 to sign up, and up to 30-per-cent commission – cutting into already thin margins. And from here to Spain to Australia, there’s been an emergence of “ghost kitchens,” where food is made specifically to be delivered, bearing the name of a restaurant that might not actually exist.
Those include one run by Bay Area pizzamaker Paul Geffner, who saw a US$40,000 loss at his small chain when customers switched to ordering from apps instead of directly from the restaurant, forcing him to pay commissions. He closed two locations, then opened a ghost kitchen to churn out the volume needed to profit from delivery.
An explosion in delivery isn’t just hurting restaurateurs. The expectation that just about anything can be brought right to our doors, right now, has also created a class of exploited workers, including time-crunched drivers whose stress can lead to fatal collisions. Add in the resulting garbage pile – which cities, not companies, end up dealing with – and the convenience of cheap delivery turns out to have some pricey, inconvenient drawbacks.
Delivery for both food and stuff has grown in recent years, and continues to do so. Ipsos projects that “digital ordering” will increase from 6.1 per cent of restaurant sales in 2018 to more than 10 per cent by 2023, “considerably outpacing forecasted restaurant sales growth.” A Canada Post survey found that online purchases went up 58 per cent between 2016 and 2018.
And while the early days of e-commerce meant waiting a week – or two! – for things to show up, it’s now all about instant gratification. Delivery behemoth Amazon offers Prime customers in 19 Canadian cities free one-day delivery, or same-day delivery for those in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. Bad news: Rush deliveries increase emissions, as tight timing means sending out more trucks, or taking inefficient driving routes.
The pressure on drivers can be intense: According to BuzzFeed, Amazon drivers in the U.S. are paid flat rates of about US$160 to deliver as many as 250 packages a day, and are often told to skip meals and bathroom breaks in order to hit their targets. Now, they aren’t told that by Amazon directly. The company usually outsources the last steps of its delivery process, leaving small-business owners to impose these impossible demands by proxy. That’s the case in Ontario, and led to a human-rights complaint against the company last January alleging that Amazon froze out a dispatching service after drivers began to organize a union.
Both Buzzfeed and the New York Times have detailed the traffic chaos this stress unleashes – and how using third-party companies helps Amazon avoid responsibility when the result is collisions, some of them fatal. This arm’s length approach isn’t working for the 45 plaintiffs that have named Amazon in recent suits related to accidents, including the parents of a nine-month-old baby killed in a crash with a rushing driver.
So-called “autonomous" delivery robots aren’t clean, either: At the University of California Berkeley, food-delivery “Kiwibots” are piloted by real people in Colombia, where workers make less than $2 an hour. It starts to seem almost benign that food app DoorDash was merely folding tips into its U.S. workers’ base salaries, until a flood of media attention.
And oh, the plastic. Canadians can’t innocently toss takeout containers in the blue bin, as our recycling industry is in crisis, unable to deal with mountains of waste. That’s partly because China has drastically scaled back its purchases of international waste, as it needs to deal with home-grown garbage. One study estimated that food delivery in China created 1.6 million tons of packaging waste in 2017. That same year, a Chinese environmental organization sued three popular food delivery apps for the garbage created by the delivery of almost 34 million meals a day.
Exploited workers, collision deaths and a mountain of plastic – and for what, exactly? Just admit it: The fries were cold by the time they showed up, and the pants you bought while eating them looked better on a tiny phone screen.
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