“We started getting really weird calls a few weeks ago,” says Billy Joe Agan, the co-owner of venerable Oakland dive bar Eli’s Mile High Club. “They all sounded like they were from a call center, and they all said the same thing. ‘I’m a driver from GrubHub, I’m outside.’ Even on days we weren’t open.” His confusion mounted this past weekend, when driver after driver for San Francisco-based Postmates entered the bar to pick up orders that were never relayed to the restaurant, often for menu items Eli’s hasn’t offered for years. “I didn’t know what was happening,” Agan says.
Those who have been following the ins and outs of delivery apps’ oft-rocky relationships with restaurants probably do, though. As of last fall, Grubhub announced that it would “expand its restaurant network without officially partnering with eateries,” adding their menus based on second-hand, indirect knowledge and eating the hefty commission fees it charges restaurants with which it has an official business relationship.
It’s a strategy that Grubhub spokesperson Kate Norris told Eater SF was necessary, as in order to stay competitive, the company needs to offer food from as many restaurants as possible — and as other delivery companies also add restaurants without their consent, they must as well. “We want customers to find the most restaurants when they land on Grubhub. When others in the space are doing this it’s creating a gap, and we’re closing the gap,” Norris told Eater SF in February of this year. (Eater SF also contacted Postmates for this report, but did not receive a response as of publication time.)
Eli’s doesn’t partner with delivery apps, nor have they for years. “I was on Grubhub once, many many years ago,” Agan says, “for about a week.” He says he ended the relationship because the always-busy bar’s kitchen was “overwhelmed with orders” placed via the app. Things reached a breaking point when a driver refused to enter the bar “during a pretty Satanic-looking metal show,” Agan says. “It was just too much hassle, and wasn’t worth it.”
Instead, Agan made his own website for his business once the pandemic hit, with an ordering platform that goes straight to their point-of-sale system. “It’s easy and it works for us,” he says. “We still don’t need those apps.”
And yet, the apps appeared to need Eli’s, with calls from alleged Grubhub drivers (“who weren’t actually outside,” Agan says) with orders based off menus the place had ages ago. Eventually, Agan says he “got into it” with one of the self-described drivers, who eventually turned the conversation into “a sales pitch for why we should join Grubhub.” Agan says he turned the pitch down and assumed the matter was closed.
Then the Postmates drivers started coming. Agan says that Friday night, Postmates workers began appearing at the bar, again with orders featuring items from “really old menus,” and “prices from 2016, at least.” At first, he tried to work with the drivers, calling customers to offer similar dishes the restaurant could make with what they had on hand. In other cases, they had to cancel orders when they contained items they no longer carry.
The drivers came armed with prepaid cards they used to pay for the food. “I told them that the prices were way higher,” Agan says, “and I asked, ‘Is that okay with your customers?’” The drivers told Agan that Postmates would charge the customer the price listed on the app and would “cover” the rest, he says, presumably losing a significant amount of money on every order. (Postmates, it should be noted, was just sold to Uber Eats for $2.65 billion, so it might not be too worried about overspending these days.)
Eventually, he says, he had to start sending the drivers away. He didn’t have time to negotiate every order with a Postmates customer, he says, and his kitchen was busy with orders placed directly with the bar.
But while Eli’s has cultivated an image of “Yelp invulnerability,” as Agan put it, the slew of order cancellations still left him rattled. While he relishes negative feedback based on customer service — “I felt judged because I had a North Face fleece on,” Agan uses as an example, or “that bartender is a bitch” — “I don’t want logistics complaints,” he says.
“As far as the customer knows, the fault is mine,” Agan says. “A customer makes an order, they assume it’s made as part of a partnership between Eli’s and an app, and then I’m saying no. Then the delivery app tells the customer ‘They refused your order’ and I’m the asshole, even though I’ve never agreed to be on any of these apps.”
It’s a complaint echoed by other restaurants in the Bay Area and beyond, and that has even spurred legislation at the state level: In February of this year, San Diego-based California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez proposed Assembly Bill 2149, which would prohibit nonconsensual additions like the ones that have previously made headlines.
According to the most recent version of the bill, which was last amended on May 12, if passed it would “enact the Fair Food Delivery Act of 2020, to prohibit a food delivery platform from arranging for the delivery of an order from a food facility without first obtaining an agreement with the food facility expressly authorizing the food delivery platform to take orders and deliver meals prepared by the food facility.” As of August 14, the bill remains in play.
Until the law passes — assuming it does — the only thing restaurants can do to rally for removal is to scramble to find a contact at various apps who might help them. It’s no small feat, especially if you’re contacting the companies as a non-customer. Agan says that miraculously, he managed to “track someone down at Postmates” only to be told “I can’t help you, man.” He says that person took his information and said someone would call him back right away. “So far,” Agan says, I haven’t heard a thing.” As of publication time, Eli’s remains on the Postmates app, which says its full menu will be available to order when the bar reopens on Friday at 2 p.m.