An empty feeling: what delivering food in New York City is really like
Among the many highly anticipated IPOs this year are two companies that together account for approximately one third of monthly online food deliveries in the United States: Uber and Postmates. These companies, along with GrubHub/Seamless, Square’s Caviar, DoorDash, and several others are vying for dominance in the $25 billion (money-losing, but growing) US restaurant delivery business. Food delivery is so hot that venture capitalists have ploughed some $5 billion in it over the past year. This VC money is subsidizing your McDonald’s and Chipotle deliveries (who doesn’t like “free” delivery?), but that’s no excuse not to show delivery couriers some appreciation for their efforts.
I occasionally deliver food by bicycle in New York City. My first delivery was on April 4th, 2018 (a pizza and side of fries from Serafina in Chelsea). At the time, I was a member of Uber’s Safety and Insurance team, but like most people at the company I lacked firsthand driver and courier experience. So, to better empathize with couriers, I signed up to deliver food by bicycle with Uber Eats. It turns out even I — an employee of Uber — had underestimated the challenges and vulnerabilities of delivering late night food.
Food delivery is a hassle and can be dangerous. While couriers enjoy the flexibility of choosing when to go online and work, once dispatched there’s a lot to deal with: parking, communicating with restaurants and customers, and finding the right place to make the delivery. This doesn’t really concern most eaters who just want their food delivered to their doorstep hot and fast. I mean, that’s what you’re paying for, right?
Most of my deliveries end abruptly: customer picks up bag and closes the door. It’s an empty feeling — especially after you’ve waited an extra 10 minutes for the restaurant to prepare the order, then biked over 3 miles through rain, high winds and heavy traffic to get to your customer’s door. This comment on a driver forum captures what I imagine many couriers experience from time to time: ”I worked my first night driving for Uber Eats and only received $2 cash as a tip out of 7 deliveries 🤔. I tried my best and made sure to be friendly!”
There’s a reason why food delivery companies are all losing money. As Harvard Business School professor, Youngme Moon discusses on the HBR After Hours podcast: “there’s not enough money in a single delivery to spread between three parties.” And wage data from Glassdoor and Indeed suggest couriers across the major platforms make anywhere from $8 to $12 per hour. That means some couriers can earn minimum wage, but for many the economics don’t add up. Thankfully when I started out, making money wasn’t my goal — but for the vast majority of couriers it is. To be sure, there’s no wage guarantee and couriers receive 100% of the tips they earn. So, with generous tips, hourly wages can be closer to $15 to $20.
According to Mike Lynn of the Cornell Hotel School the right thing to do is to tip pizza delivery folk at least $2 per pizza. That’s a good rule of thumb, but what should you tip for delivery of Pad Thai or an order of quesadillas? Besides, your bill already includes a delivery fee. What you tip is your choice, it’s a gratuity after all. The point is that you show gratitude. Tipping for service is a highly effective (and appreciated) way to do so.
The next time you order food for delivery be sure to thank your courier. Give them a tip, hold the door for them, and look them in the eye, smile and say thanks. Whatever you do, please don’t punish a delivery person by withholding tips for asking you to meet them outside if they cannot find parking or feel uncomfortable entering your apartment building. I’ve read too many comments on Reddit to this effect: “if they make me come down, they’re not getting tipped” or “the point of tipping means you want them to deliver it to your doormat.” Let’s show couriers more respect. Someday perhaps robots will handle all deliveries, but for now delivery people are humans and they deserve to be treated as such.