Order Up! 

For Boise restaurants, food delivery apps are both boon and burden

click to enlarge 5-star-8.jpg

Pete Grady Photography

If you've recently placed an order on a food delivery app like Uber Eats, Grubhub, DoorDash, or Postmates, you aren't alone. According to a survey released this summer by eMarketer, 38 million people in the U.S. are expected to use food delivery apps this year, up 21% from 2018. By 2021, the group predicts that number will rise to just shy of 50 million—roughly 20% of everyone in America who owns a smartphone.

No one denies that the popularity of food delivery has ascended faster than a veteran griddle man can stack pancakes. That said, restaurateurs do argue over whether the increasing ubiquity of third-party ordering has been a boon or a burden for business. Since Uber Eats touched down in the City of Trees in August of 2017, Boise has been a hub of that conversation.

At Sophia's Greek Bistro near the corner of Glenwood and State streets, traditional Greek dishes like gyros, tyropita, dolmades and moussaka make their ways to tables in the cheerful blue-painted dining room and to-go boxes in the kitchen. The family-owned bistro partners with Uber Eats and Grubhub, and also sees regular pickups from DoorDash and Postmates. According to co-owner Jessi Strong, it's something of a love-hate relationship.

"The thing with Uber and Grubhub is that they keep like 25% of the sale, which as a small business is really hard," said Strong. "The reason we partnered up with them is because we know people are wanting delivery. Nowadays the demand for it has grown a lot. But that pretty much just eats our profit as a small business."

That 25% is a commission, which many food delivery apps take from restaurants in addition to charging customers delivery fees, service fees, and/or order fees as compensation for ferrying their food. For Uber Eats, commissions range from 20-30%. For Grubhub, they start at 10% plus a 3.05% processing fee, and rise if restaurants are willing to pay for increased exposure.

Strong said that on top of already slim profit margins, those commissions pack a serious punch, and there are other downsides to the services, like lost tips for waitstaff, diminished quality control and confusing payment processes that vary from app to app.

Still, because so many people are scrolling through delivery apps on a daily basis, Strong feels dropping out of those partnerships would put Sophia's out of sight and out of mind.

"It just seems like right now it's something that we have to do," she said.

On the plus side, Strong noted app orders help turn over inventory on slow days, and keep the kitchen busy during the hours between lunch and dinner.

In downtown Boise, Paddles Up Poke Owner Dan Landucci cited those same perks and more.

"I think [delivery apps] are great for business. They're great for marketing. They do take a lot of money from the restaurant, anywhere from 20-35% per sale, but what I like to think of is the person that's ordering on that app, they're looking for a delivery. They're not going to come in," Landucci said. "They're going to find something on the app that they want because they want to use that service, right? And I want them to have the choice to eat at Paddles Up."

  • Pete Grady Photography

Paddles Up, which serves Hawaiian-style poke bowls, was one of the first restaurants to partner with Uber Eats when the service rolled into town, and has since signed on with DoorDash, Grubhub and a local option, Five Star Express (more on that later). Landucci said when his staff asks newcomers where they heard about Paddles Up, those apps come up regularly.

"A lot of them do say, 'I've never been in, but I ordered you guys on Uber,' or 'I ordered you on Doordash.' So it's kind of cool to know that they definitely bring customers in," he said.

Paddles Up does 60-100 orders through the four apps every day, and ranked No. 1 on Uber's most-ordered-from list during the service's first two years in Boise. Apart from a 1.5-year period when the restaurant suspended its partnership with Grubhub over slow orders that impacted food quality, Paddles Up's relationship with the apps has been smooth. Handling the influx of orders can be chaotic, but Landucci and his team have mastered the rush.

"It definitely gets crazy when you have four tablets going off and you have a line out the door, and we experience that every lunch," Landucci said. But when it comes to keeping the services straight, he said, "They all have their own noise, they all have their own ring or their own beep that goes off, so you kind of know."

Wanda Martinat, the owner of both The Stagecoach Inn and Goldy's Breakfast Bistro, has no helpful beeps to rely on. Her restaurants don't partner with any food delivery apps, but that doesn't stop the services from calling in orders by phone. Those calls often flood in during peak hours and drag on for minutes, disrupting service for customers lined up at the host stand.

"My opinion as a restaurant owner is it would have been nice if they would have asked us if wanted to participate—Uber Eats, Grubhub, all of them—because every restaurant is different. The restaurants that I have are small, and so we want to make sure that we do a good job for the customers that we have," Martinat said.

She applauds the apps for giving disabled and elderly customers who can't leave home the chance to enjoy restaurant meals, and notes that their orders do help fill off-hours, but she's frustrated with the inefficient call-in process and drivers who show up late. Phone conversations with Uber Eats representatives are particularly grueling: They talk slowly, have thick accents, and ask repetitive questions about menu items and prices. Sometimes, Martinat and her staff turn down orders because they're too busy to accommodate them. If she'd been asked, Martinat said, she would have preferred to restrict the delivery orders to certain hours. As it is, they're marked up 15% to account for the hassle and lost tips.

Zach Marble, who owns the local food delivery service Five Star Food Express, positions his company as a customer- and partner-oriented alternative to the mainstream hassel. Uber Eats stole some of Marble's thunder in 2017 when it launched in Boise just months before Five Star, but the local service still gained traction. Today it partners with more than 130 Treasure Valley restaurants and employs 30-40 drivers. It relies on a network of U.S.-based dispatchers to call in orders, and has a helpline that lets customers add to or change their orders en route. Marble also says Five Star's commission is at least 50% smaller than those of the national services.

"A lot of these places that we're getting food from and doing business with are mom-and-pop businesses just like we are, and if I can provide them a good service at a fair rate, that's our ultimate goal," Marble said.

As restaurateurs debate the pros and cons of each individual app, and food delivery services in general, that philosophy could be the difference between a fighting chance at growth and the probability of getting lost in the chatter.

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