Courier Collectives Are Combating Predatory Delivery App Practices
In the pandemic, delivery apps have been hugely popular, even as some of their practices drain profits from already-struggling restaurants. Courier collectives present a more worker-friendly option to get takeout.
When Jon Poteet, owner of Shine Distillery & Grill in Portland, Oregon, first signed up for Grubhub last fall, he soon found his menu also available on rival apps like Postmates without his knowledge or consent. Displeased with his experience with big delivery apps in general, he asked to be taken down. While Grubhub did remove his listing, Postmates didn't. But they did give him the option to edit his menu on their site.
Now, when you look up Shine Distillery on Postmates, you'll find on the menu such offerings as "Do Not Order From POSTMATES: Postmates forcibly takes money from local businesses" and "Postmates forced Shine onto their site without permission.""I'm not a fan of the big apps," Poteet says emphatically.
Shine is just one of the thousands of restaurants around the United States doing battle with delivery apps like Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Postmates, a battle they are currently losing as the pandemic has forced both restaurants and diners to turn to or even fully rely on delivery. Business has doubled for the big apps thanks to the pandemic, but not so for the restaurants they service. Most food lovers think that, by ordering delivery from their favorite restaurants, they are helping keep them afloat. But what they may not know is that these delivery apps charge restaurants extremely high fees and commissions of anywhere between 15 to 30 percent, cutting into restaurants' much-needed and already-reduced profits. Some cities and states have passed laws capping how much the apps can charge restaurants to help protect their local dining scene, but this practice is still rampant. Some of the apps also engage in unscrupulous practices like listing a restaurant's menu on their app without the restaurant's consent or knowledge, as Poteet and several other owners interviewed for this story experienced.
Luckily, in a growing number of cities across the US, customers and restaurants are finding an alternative in the form of locally-founded-and-operated bike courier collectives, like Maritime Bicycle Couriers in Long Beach, California, and CCC PDX in the foodie-and-cycling-haven of Portland, Oregon. Armed with speedy bikes and insulated delivery bags, these food and drink delivery operations are literally giving the big apps a run for their money by offering fast, efficient, and friendly service that's tailored to their communities.
"It just helps the local synergy when you buy local," says Langdon Taguiped, one of Maritime's founders. "You buy something from a local spot, and that dollar stays in the community."
"Local delivery services and restaurants have always been a symbiotic relationship," says CCC PDX co-founder Ponce Christie. "It's when the apps came along that the relationship became parasitic."
Sending something via bike courier is nothing new; in some places, like NYC, it's an essential part of the fabric of the city. But over the past five years, new collectives are popping up in cities across America, especially on the West Coast, to fill the delivery void there, taking on the big apps by appealing to customers and local small businesses with their people-first philosophy, environmentally-friendly ethos, and fair rates and compensation. They have sleek online ordering platforms and apps that are user-friendly and easy for restaurants to integrate with their point of sale systems. Some, like Candlestick Courier in San Francisco and Confluence Courier in Denver, are worker-owned. They approach and collaborate with restaurants one-on-one to create fair partnerships with agreeable rates and ensure their couriers are fairly compensated and work reasonable hours. "We are upfront and transparent in how we operate," says Taguiped.
One of the biggest advantages for restaurants in partnering with local bike couriers is the cost. While delivery apps charge restaurants commissions of up to 30 percent per order plus delivery fees, services like CCC PDX and Maritime cap their fees at 10 percent, plus a nominal delivery fee ($5 at Maritime, $3-5 at CCC depending on order size, delivery distance, etc.). And the couriers keep all their tips. A recent slew of new hires at Maritime and CCC PDX also hail from the decimated service industry, giving out-of-work waiters and bartenders a much-needed job.
"I want to create a system that lasts, that supports people, and is liveable," says Christie. "We've always charged 10 percent, it's never been different."
Just as with the apps, most of these collectives have seen "astronomical" growth during the pandemic, especially as consumers become aware of the "super exploitative business models" of the apps. Without big marketing budgets, that growth has largely been propelled by good word-of-mouth and engaging with the community."People want to support something that's local and bike-oriented," says Christie.
On top of its health and environmental benefits, delivering food by bike logistically makes more sense. Cyclists can quickly and easily zip up and down roads and find places to park and lock up their bikes, reducing both vehicular traffic and demand for parking. And without the risk of being stuck in traffic, timely deliveries are further ensured.
"Cyclists just know the streets better," says Poteet. "So the food gets there hot every time." With anywhere from 20 to 60 independent cyclists, these collectives can carry out hundreds of orders a day and are capable of delivering everything from food and drink to groceries, flowers, and even PPE to individuals and businesses. But they do have their limits—courier collectives have smaller delivery radiuses and don't run 24/7 in order to give their couriers work-life balance. It's a trade-off well worth it for community support and quality customer service, as well as for the well-being of their couriers.
"The community loves us," says Taguiped, with Christie agreeing that "the service we provide is of a higher quality." Their relationships with the restaurants in their network are also far better. "It's cool to actually meet the people and have a direct line of contact," says Matt Stevanus of Low Key Burritos in Long Beach. "There's better quality control and the overall handling of the food...I can actually see and talk with the couriers to ensure the food gets delivered correctly."
"It's back-to-the-basics customer service. CCC PDX reached out to me, I didn't have to call an 800 number, they came in and talked to me directly...it's been great," says Poteet.
Of course, bike delivery isn't without its risks, most notably from cars. Lots of these collectives thrive in established bike-friendly cities like Portland and San Francisco, but in other, less bike-friendly places like the car-obsessed cities of southern California, the proliferation of bike couriers is helping transform the local cycling landscape.
"We've helped bring awareness, make drivers and the community more aware of cyclists," says Taguiped. Going up against big corporations can feel like an uphill climb, but as the growth and popularity of these courier collectives shows, there's clearly an appetite for them, from the restaurant to the consumer to the out-of-work waiter needing a temporary gig until things get better.
"They're supporting small businesses and not letting the big guys bully us," says Stevanus.
"I want the local restaurants to thrive and survive. I don't want my neighborhood restaurants to go out of business," says Christie. "We're all in this together."