The Offline as a Place of Work: Examining Food Discovery and Delivery by Digital Platforms

Simiran Lalvani

Feb 1, 2019 · 10 min read

Digital platforms for food discovery and delivery are generally viewed as convenient, efficient, allowing discovery of choices beyond the familiar and as reliable sources of information regarding credibility of food establishments through ratings, comments and photographs.

The digital divide after demonetisation became more stark as those with access to the online abandoned the offline service providers for their digital counterparts. The adverse impact of this digital divide on offline, informal goods and service providers like local kirana stores, autorickshaw drivers, and hawkers has been highlighted [1] and the paradox of formalising the financial system while informalising labour has been pointed out too. [2] In a similar vein, the first section of this essay examines continuities and changes in the practices of food discovery and delivery in the context of new digital platforms. How do practices of offline food discovery and delivery respond to the introduction of digital platforms? This question is pursued from the perspective of those consuming as well as owners of licensed food establishments. Unlicensed establishments and hawkers are kept out of focus so that the conflict between more powerful food establishments and digital platforms can be laid out first.

The second section of this essay therefore turns attention away from the impact of digital platforms on offline food discovery and delivery. It turns the gaze towards these platforms and the large swathes of informal labour employed in the offline for location-based gig work [3] like delivery. It does so to highlight the role of workers in running the online and the invisibilisation of such work by digital platforms.

Continuities and Changes in Online Food Discovery and Delivery for those Consuming and Licensed Food Establishments

This section first briefly traces the practices of eating outside one’s home because caste based notions of purity permeate perceptions and choices relating to food and inter dining in India. [4] The section then proceeds to describe and compare offline and online food discovery and delivery practices facilitated by businesses and keeps at bay recommendations of friends, family and other means of food discovery.

In India, the practice of eating outside the home was associated with travelers, merchants and pilgrims. However it became a necessity fulfilled by public dining institutions like the khanaval (boarding house) for those who migrated to colonial cities like Bombay in the late nineteenth century. The question of eating out emerged for middle-class employees in colonial offices as they found themselves away from home during lunch time due to office hours. A British visitor to India in the 1920s asked, “How is it that Bombay has no restaurants such as we find in European Cities?”

Other than the racial exclusivity practiced by European restaurants, there was anxiety of straying away from the dietary rules of caste, region and community when eating out which was responded to by the service of dabbawallas (carriers of home-cooked meals). Homely meals were thus an inexpensive and safe alternative to eating out in restaurants. The changes caused by the emergence of office hours, the appearance of Irani cafes frequented by the working classes and more importantly the appropriation of elite culinary practices of the Europeans by some sections of Indian society meant eating out by the 1960s was not simply driven by a utilitarian need but also used as a display of indulgence, knowledge or wealth.

Thus, the question of where and what to eat when outside the home emerged for a larger number of people. In response to this question, Bombay: The City Magazine (1979) (henceforth Bombay) — a chronicle and advertising vehicle targeted an upper-middle class audience with its subtle advertisements that aided food discovery. Bombay’s approach differed from that of the Illustrated Weekly which targeted the middle class with information about discounts and met their needs. Even though the magazine was out of circulation by 1991, it left behind a legacy of advertising that was taken up by others later. The magazine had a section titled ‘Eating Out’ which carried reviews of restaurants that were often too expensive for most but it allowed a wider audience to consume the style, ambiance and themes of these places. It also carried reviews of smaller establishments in a section titled ‘Off the Eaten Track.’ Other than reviews of food, there were also some instructions guiding readers about what to do, how to behave in some settings and sometimes it carried recommendations regarding places for various occasions [5].

In a similar spirit, the Times Food Guide (2003) by Rashmi Uday Singh carried reviews of restaurants and views of the country’s best known food critics. Similar to Bombay, it went beyond food as it covered concepts and ideas that work, guides on how to host a meal and home bar and stories of successful entrepreneurs [6].

Today, in addition to these offline practices of food discovery through publications one can purchase, digital platforms for food discovery like Zomato have become widely popular sources of information regarding alternatives for eating out. When looking for a place to eat out, it is common to be asked regarding the estimated ‘cost for two.’ The usage of this terminology reflects the popularity and influence of Zomato. The application (app) presents photographs of the ambiance, food, menu; geographical location; an estimated cost for two people; reviews and ratings (out of five) of food establishments by other users. It allows quick searches based on the type of meal (delivery; breakfast; lunch; drinks and nightlife) or locality. Information regarding opening hours, what the establishment is known for, ‘what people love’ in terms of food, service, look, feel and information regarding valet parking, WiFi, availability of alcohol, smoking area, sports screening and so on is available too. Additionally, there are curated collections based on categories like ‘trending this week,’ ‘newly opened,’ ‘Corporate Favourites,’ ‘Gigs and Events,’ ‘Romantic,’ ‘Value for Money.’

What is the difference between discovering food offline and online then? This essay argues that digital food discovery platforms have emerged as a free, singular point of contact and information that do not rely on views of experts, instead they allow consumers to take over review work. They are also more dynamic in terms of reflecting changes (hours of operation; whether establishment is shut) and trends. For those consuming, these platforms allow not only consumption of reviews and information regarding the food establishments but also facilitate an immediate, impulsive conversion of food discovery into delivery. This is not to say food discovery in the offline did not or does not allow delivery. One could make a phone call to order food since most establishments and street vendors selling food had and continue to have delivery boys who deliver food on cycles within in a limited radius. These boys usually multi-task and are expected to engage in non-delivery tasks like housekeeping and in the case of street vendors they contribute to food related tasks like assembly, cooking, procuring materials.

The listing of establishments on Zomato does not carry a fee, however setting up online ordering carries a fee. Zomato began by charging a flat commission rate of 1.49% for 0–50 orders and additional charges if the restaurant was not able to accept an order in one minute or rejects an order. A similar fee was charged to the customer if they reject the order. This system meant the digital platform facilitated only online ordering and the establishment would have to engage delivery boys on their own.

Another app, Swiggy provided delivery boys, charged approximately 22% commission on every order and waived time based acceptance of order and cancellation charges. The app allows users to track the delivery boy and functions like cab aggregators by allotting delivery to riders who are in the vicinity. In response, Zomato moved beyond online ordering and into delivery by adopting Swiggy’s model. Several establishments preferred to use Zomato’s older model of online ordering of charging a flat commission rate of 1.49% without online delivery. These establishments are of the view that Zomato has found inventive ways to charge an equivalent commission to the 22% even if restaurants have not signed up for the new model [7].

Digital platforms offer food establishments the potential to increase their reach and visibility through separate packages that convert discovery into delivery. Other than the fact that for several establishments offline ordering and delivery continue to be a major source of revenue, these establishments express a sense of being coerced into paying commission rates for online ordering that are set and revised arbitrarily by digital platforms.8

Examining Offline Practices of Online Platforms

Recently, the Food Safety and Standards Association of India (FSSAI) found that nearly 40 percent of listings on 10 digital platforms like Swiggy and Zomato were of unlicensed food operators. The FSSAI directed these digital platforms to delist these unlicensed entities and also commented that some of the platforms themselves did not have required licenses [9]. This section turns the gaze away from the impact of digital platforms on offline practices to the platforms themselves.

Owners of food establishments represented by the Indian Hotel and Restaurants Association (AAHAR) are dissatisfied with digital platforms also because the platforms do not check the FSSAI State or Central licenses of establishments. Additionally, they promote delivery or cloud kitchens on their platforms. These food vendors do not have a dine-in option and only engage in food delivery. It is interesting to note that both Zomato and Swiggy have shown interest in investing in cloud kitchens [10]. These kitchens often do not have FSSAI licenses and do not follow any fire safety, hygiene norms which other licensed establishments are forced to follow. The conflict between food establishments and digital platforms therefore is not limited to the impact of the digital on offline practices but it is also regarding the promotion of unlicensed food vendors that emerge as competition to the licensed food industry.

This conflict between the licensed food establishments and digital platforms brings one’s attention to the role of the offline, informal labour that makes the digital platform convenient for those consuming and profitable for the owners. Beyond food apps, delivery workers who animate the digital in the offline are not contracted on the basis of national laws but on conditions and rating systems of the apps [11]. Several e-commerce companies identify as service providers and attempt to evade labour laws by giving designations like ‘executive’ that keep workers out of the ambit of labout laws [12]. Some e-commerce platforms outsource delivery to third party logistics (TPL) providers [13], Swiggy for instance hired TPL in 2016 [14].

The denial of status as a worker means that any abuse and threats from customers, injuries on the job are not the responsibility of the e-commerce platform. There was an instance where a boy was beaten by the customer, locked in a bathroom and his cash and delivery bag were stolen. Basic infrastructure like toilets are not provided or insufficiently provided since there is a denial of an employer-employee relationship [15].

The marketisation of social relations or the increasing involvement of the market in social reproduction — evident in food delivery apps, laundry and other such services — is often aided by neoliberal policy [16]. The Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE) has outlined National Occupational Standards (NOS) regarding best practices, knowledge and skill required for delivery boys in a Qualification Pack. What does this acknowledgment of skills mean when delivery boys are denied their status as workers and employees?

Highlighting the role of offline labour in running the online helps avoid obfuscating the role of such workers in making the online seem formal, efficient and reliable for those consuming. Recently, there have been agitations by delivery boys against arbitrary reductions in incentives [17] or for better working conditions [18]. It is no wonder that Zomato is planning to launch a takeaway service that circumvents delivery labour and cost by allowing users to place an order that they can collect themselves.


[1] M.S. Sriram, “As Queues Lengthen and Banks Run out of Cash, the Danger Is of India Losing Patience,” Scroll.In, November 13, 2016,

[2] M. Vijayabaskar, “Formalising Finance, Informalising Labour: Demonetisation and the Informal Economy,” Issue Brief №5 (The Hindu Centre for Politics & Public Policy, December 15, 2016),

[3] Martin Risak, “Fair Working Conditions for Platform Workers : Possible Regulatory Approaches at the EU Level,” Politics for Europe #2017plus (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), April 29, 2018),

[4] Frank F. Conlon, “Dining out in Bombay,” in Consuming Modernity: Public Culture in a South Asian World, ed. Carol Breckenridge and Arjun Appadurai (University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 90–117.

[5] Conlon.

[6] “Times Food And Nightlife Guide — 2018,” accessed October 5, 2018,

[7] Telephonic conversation with a member of Indian Hotel and Restaurant Owners Association (AAHAR), March 10, 2018.

[8] Telephonic conversation with a member of Indian Hotel and Restaurant Owners Association (AAHAR).

[9] Bureau ET, “Food Platforms yet to Delist Many Restaurants sans FSSAI Licence,” Economic Times, February 8, 2018,

[10] Supraja Srinivasan, “Zomato: Food Delivery Battle Brews in Cloud Kitchen, Zomato Makes First Move,” Economic Times, June 14, 2018,

[11] Noopur Raval, “Digital Labourers: A Dedicated Workforce Poorly Treated by App Companies,” The Indian Express, September 2, 2015,

[12] Arindam Majumder and Namrata Acharya, “Labour Pains for E-Commerce Players,” Business Standard India, August 16, 2015,

[13] Ankita Johri Dwivedi, “Big Picture: The Last Mile Boys,” The Indian Express, August 9, 2015,

[14] Priyanka Sahay and Sayan Chakraborty, “Swiggy Hires Logistics Partners for Delivery,” Livemint, July 5, 2016,

[15] Johri Dwivedi, “Big Picture.”

[16] Marcus Taylor and Sébastien Rioux, Global Labour Studies (Polity Press, 2018).

[17] Alisha Inamdar and Namrata Shukla, “Hunger Pangs for City as 500 Swiggy Executives Strike,” Pune Mirror, November 28, 2017,; Local Press Co Staff, “Foodpanda 2.0: A Tale of Disgruntled Delivery Boys, Annoyed Customers & Pertinent Questions,” Local Press Co (blog), September 28, 2018,

[18] Bureau, “Flipkart Delivery Staff on Strike in Mumbai over Washrooms,” @businessline, July 31, 2015,; Viraj Deshpande, “Food App’s Delivery Boy Dies in Accident, Colleagues Go on Strike — Times of India,” The Times of India, July 8, 2018,


Simiran Lalvani is currently studying application-based food delivery work
and experience of workers in Mumbai as part of a project titled ‘Mapping
Digital Labour in India’ at the Centre for Internet and Society. She was a
student at the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, Jawaharlal
Nehru University, New Delhi.


Written by

r@w blog

r@w blog

A blog on internet and society edited by the researchers@work programme at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), India


Written by

r@w blog

r@w blog

A blog on internet and society edited by the researchers@work programme at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), India

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