Your Pizza’s Cold? Blame Your Food App — Not Your Courier

I’ve been delivering for Postmates and DoorDash, but glitches in their apps have created unnecessary buckets of my sweat.

At 9:39 p.m. on a recent Tuesday night, I was biking straight up one of San Francisco’s famous hills, glasses sliding down my nose and a shiny layer of moisture coating my skin. I had someone’s $18 salmon salad dangling from my handlebars and only two minutes left on the clock to deliver it, and I was nowhere near my destination. When I finally pumped my way to the top of the hill, a woman dressed in pajamas stepped out of her house to claim her meal. I’d earned $15 for the trouble — not bad — but I couldn’t fathom why my on-demand food delivery app had chosen me for this journey. Why send a bike messenger on an impossible mission, to collect food and race three miles up an incredibly steep hill in a mere 45 minutes, when a car could have done the same without missing a beat?

I’d been lured by the ads: “Postmates at your fingertips!” alongside DoorDash’s “Delightful Delivery!” and Caviar’s “The best of San Francisco, delivered.” My curiosity got the best of me, and I signed up for the first two as a bike messenger. As I soon learned, the apps’ algorithms don’t always remember that their couriers are humans, with muscles and feelings and all sorts of special needs. In a city as steep as San Francisco, small errors in dispatching can yield epic misadventures and some very late food.

Note to Postmates: SF has hills, FYI

I show up to my Postmates orientation with 10 other people. An instructor in his late twenties gives us a quick demo of the courier app. When the app assigns you an order, your phone vibrates and screeches like an old alarm clock. “You’ll have nightmares from this sound,” our orientation leader assures us. We’re handed a delivery bag and credit card, and released.

I open the app for the first time a couple days later, and I quickly fall into an easy rhythm. Burritos from El Farolito to Mission Bay, two six-packs from Safeway to Rincon Hill. One night I do laps between Pancho Villa Taqueria and different customers’ homes. At a startup incubator in the Twitter building, security is so tight that the elevators have no buttons. I love getting paid to see the city in full swing around me.

But — those hills. The app dispatches bicyclists on short-distance orders but doesn’t account for the grade of the streets. Major oversight! On one delivery I carried yet another salad from one hilly neighborhood to another, a saga that ended with me red-faced and dripping in sweat. After flexing so many muscles in transit, decoding a doorbell system, and climbing flights of stairs, I only had a 10-second interaction with the customer. After his door clicked shut, I checked to see how much I made. A $0 tip — really?

On my second day I accepted an order to buy beer. But when I arrived at the prescribed location, there was no store in sight, and I was standing in the middle of a high school campus in a dark residential neighborhood. Confused and slightly nervous, I called job support, and the order got cancelled. I still got paid a small amount for my wasted half hour, but I regretted the missed opportunity to earn more.

My worst hour of Postmates was an order from the Cheesecake Factory with a long prep time and no tip. I only made $4.80. My best hour of Postmates was working during a period with a $25-an-hour guaranteed minimum, when I made the promised $25.

In all my time working for Postmates, not including that rare $25-an-hour windfall, I made an average of $16.23 per hour.

Dear DoorDash, your hotspots don’t work

After the unpredictable pay of Postmates, I signed up for DoorDash, curious to see how it compares.

The difference is immediately obvious: Dashers earn a flat fee of $12 per delivery and the customer always tips; it’s usually around $3. This works out to a much steadier average hourly rate than with Postmates, where payouts vary based on time of day, distance, blitz pricing, and the whim of the customer.

The second difference is that in San Francisco, dashers choose one hotspot from four neighborhoods with a high density of restaurants. Hotspots might sound like a welcome innovation over the free-for-all that was my Postmates experience, but I soon discovered that they caused me to waste even more time and energy.

At 5:30 p.m., prime dinner delivery time, I headed to the Mission hotspot, opened up the app, and waited. The sun set, the fog came in, and… nothing. After half an hour standing on a corner watching people come home from work, I received an order to deliver Mediterranean food to Hayes Valley, a short ride and a quick $15. I never had that much downtime with Postmates.

Idle time isn’t the only trouble. After every delivery, dashers are supposed to return to their hotspot to receive their next order. With Postmates, I would have already hopped to another job instead of biking back to my starting point.

Sometimes the app seemed to forget that I needed to bike back to the hotspot. After delivering Mexican food to a neighborhood on the west side of the city, the app immediately buzzed, asking me to pick up barbecue and deliver it to the east side within 32 minutes — a 4.5 mile ride. That seemed impossible. I texted customer service asking them to reassign the order. I didn’t receive another order for the rest of my shift, leaving me to wonder if the city had suddenly gone quiet or if I was being passed over because I rejected the previous delivery.

An overlay of the author’s delivery routes.

I traveled farther to complete DoorDash orders than I did for Postmates. For a sushi delivery to Noe Valley that I knew I wouldn’t be able to complete on schedule, I called job support for help. The phone number led to a voice recording and then another voice recording saying the support method had changed and I should text customer service instead. More time gone from the clock, and I was still nowhere near Noe Valley. I pedaled hard to get to the restaurant, where I discovered the order was wrong and it would take 20 minutes to fix. Meanwhile, the app buzzed with another order to pick up a pizza and deliver it in another direction. “There’s no way that’s going to happen,” I thought to myself. My text pleas to customer service went unanswered, and anxiety and annoyance gave way to resignation and indifference. I would get there when I get there. I eventually delivered the sushi an hour after I was supposed to arrive, for a total of $15.

Average hourly rate: $16.18.

I am now hyper-attuned to the army of couriers servicing these delivery start-ups — the black Postmates bags, the red DoorDash t-shirts, the special PEX debit cards, the app open on someone’s phone. Despite its flaws, I ultimately found Postmates to be easier to bike for overall, though DoorDash is better for the downtown lunch rush. But a month from now, who knows?

Postmates sends an email almost every week announcing, “We’re growing like crazy!” and advertising guaranteed minimum hourly wages for the week or bonuses if you complete a certain number of jobs. The competition is fierce. Once, after picking up an order for vegetarian Indian food, a woman stopped me: “Do you work for Postmates? GrubHub is way better,” she declared. On another day, when I was wearing the red DoorDash T-shirt, a stranger approached me and asked, “Do you work for DoorDash? If you switch to Postmates, we’ll each get $300.”

Given that these companies can’t deliver food without us couriers, it’s remarkable how unfinished their support services are. It’s not like any one of these companies has a monopoly on the city’s fleet of couriers — in San Francisco, Caviar, Sprig, and GrubHub are all signing up bike delivery workers, too. I’m clearly biased, but I believe the courier’s experience is just as important as the customer’s. The race to dominate food delivery may well be swung by how we, the couriers, vote with our wheels.

Photographs by Anna Vignet
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