Food delivery services have taken over since the onset of the pandemic as restaurants have gotten creative. Sometimes, the takeover has been quite literal.
Restaurants’ experiences with platforms like Uber Eats, Postmates, Grubhub, DoorDash and others have not all been the same in Charleston. Some were using them pre-COVID-19, but for others that relied on multi-course meals, attentive service and juicy-margin booze sales, switching to takeout was a desperate venture into new territory.
The past seven months have been a juggling act. Restaurants have upended their models and menus to control the chaos, all while forking over 30% of order sales to their newfound delivery partners.
Uber Eats launched in Charleston in 2017 with just 70 local restaurants. Today, the app and others like it are flooded with everything from fast-food cheeseburgers to slow-food barbecue.
A handwritten sign at Park Pizza Company’s register tells visitors they don’t work with Uber or other delivery services.
“We don’t use Uber Eats, DoorDash or Grubhub and frankly don’t want to ever use them if we can help it,” said co-owner Adam Pavao, who owns the Park Circle shop with Leigh-Ann Gobel. “Those sites have added our restaurant without our permission in the first place with incorrect pricing, wrong wait times and partial menu items.”
Acme Lowcountry Kitchen on Isle of Palms had the same problem, owner Bobby Simons said.
“In late July, Uber Eats added [my] restaurant to their platform without notifying in any way,” he said.
At both restaurants, customers unknowingly ordered food through the app, and drivers showed up to grab the orders.
“We first found out we were added by one of our own customers calling us and wondering where their food was. They said they had placed it with Uber Eats 40 minutes ago, but we never received any order for them nor any order from Uber Eats. It was the first we heard of it, so we were kind of stunned,” said Pavao. On weekend nights, Park Pizza sells around 100 pizzas, and wait times can tick upwards of an hour.
At Acme, Simons said incorrect price listings led to frustrated customers and staff working overtime.
Getting their businesses removed from the delivery platforms was even a challenge for Acme and Park Pizza, Simons and Pavao said.
“We had to fight just to get taken off of those platforms with multiple calls and emails dragged out over days,” Pavao said.
When asked about these involuntary enrollments, an Uber spokesperson responded with a statement via email:
“We have launched this program in some cities in order to increase restaurant selection on our platform, which also drives new business to these restaurants. Using feedback from the industry, we designed a system that’s restaurant friendly and have also established processes to easily remove restaurants from the platform if they wish.”
Acme and Park Pizza’s experiences with Uber Eats strained the businesses during an already difficult time, but Pavao recognizes its value in the midst of a pandemic.
“I can see how those platforms can be useful, especially these days, for restaurants that don’t have delivery options,” he said. “We’re lucky to be able to have a delivery system in place. I know some of my favorite restaurants do not, so I wouldn’t ever blame them for using it.”
Controlling the chaos
Delivery services have helped local restaurants attract more business since March, but logistics can be challenging.
Edmund’s Oast added takeout for the first time early in the pandemic with a simplified menu. It still became a double-edged sword — as locals flocked to support restaurants, some were still trying to find their head in the new systems.
“It was cartoonishly hard in those first few days,” said owner Scott Shor, who added that it took Edmund’s Oast a month to go live on Uber Eats due to an influx of new restaurants signing up.
Pink Cactus owner Brooke Warden was on and off the app during that same time frame.
“We [used Uber Eats] briefly, but you literally make no money,” Warden said. “We are already competitive with pricing and adding the to-go containers then the 30 percent cut Uber Eats got — there was not much left over from a sale.”
Specializing in takeout has always been a priority for Eastside Soul Food owner Brooks Harrison, who said he saw a huge spike in Uber Eats orders at the start of the shutdown.
“Most of our customers for the last five years come in and then leave,” said Harrison, who’s been on the app since 2018. “Very seldom do we have people actually come in and sit down.”
Order volume has returned to what Harrison described as normal, but even now, it’s challenging for spots like his that charge $4.99 for a fried pork chop plate with rice. With Uber’s 30% cut, Harrison makes about $3.50 for that chop.
Why not just raise your prices on the app? A move like that would break your contract with Uber and could result in the restaurant’s expulsion from the platform — not to mention sticker shock from previous customers.
Warden pulled Pink Cactus from delivery platforms in April, but she still needed to find a way to offer takeout. Luckily, she found a solution.
“The POS (point-of-sale) company I use offered their online ordering platform which integrated with our already established point-of-sales system,” she said. “It allows us to easily manage, and the best part is they offered it to us for free until the end of the year.”
One drawback is Pink Cactus and other restaurants with lean operations are unable to offer delivery, leading many establishments to stick it out with courier services. Locals can still order food from Edmund’s Oast, Xiao Bao Biscuit, Spanglish and several other independent restaurants that weren’t on the platforms prior to the pandemic.
What happens now?
There’s an untold advantage to being on apps so many of us scroll through when we’re hungry and bored, but is it worth the price of admission? And for drivers, at what point do you shut off the delivery portion of the app and just start picking up folks for trips to the airport or King Street?
Some drivers and businesses continue to utilize these services, while others have decided they are better off handling deliveries in-house.
“Those kinds of companies aren’t people I want representing my business,” Pavao said. “They don’t take the same care and pride that we do. We offer our own delivery and just prefer it be done our way, so we always know the customer is getting the right level of service.”