Alex Foulkes’ restaurant got its first order from DoorDash more than a year ago. Foulkes, co-owner of Penny Lane Pub in Old Saybrook, had never agreed to work with DoorDash but a representative from the company was now phoning in an order. He’d later learn that DoorDash had posted Penny Lane Pub’s menu on its app and was accepting orders for his restaurant from customers who likely had little knowledge of how third-party delivery apps worked, and who might blame the restaurant if an order was wrong or arrived cold.
Foulkes didn’t realize it yet, but DoorDash, along with national food-delivery company competitors Grubhub and UberEats, was in the process of rapid expansion throughout Connecticut. Many restaurant owners would soon grow concerned with the fees charged by the companies — generally about 30 percent of the gross of each order, in addition to whatever delivery fees they charge customers — and the aggressive marketing tactics these companies have allegedly engaged in. DoorDash and Grubhub commonly start taking orders for restaurants they have no relationship with when they expand to new markets. Last summer Grubhub was accused of buying thousands of domain names that were similar to the names of restaurants they were hoping to work with. Once a restaurant agrees to work with them, some apps will charge back fees for old orders. There can also be hidden costs for customers ranging from unexpected additional fees to menus listed on apps that are marked up without consumer knowledge.
The Saturday after his first DoorDash order, things came to a head at Foulkes’ restaurant. It was a busy night and the restaurant started getting “slammed” with DoorDash orders. DoorDash had outdated menu information and customers were asking for items the restaurant hadn’t carried for months. Foulkes tried to suggest substitutions but since he was talking with a DoorDash rep and not the customer, the rep had to hang up with him, call the customer and then call back. Foulkes had people waiting for seats in his restaurant. After a few rounds of phone calls, he had enough and told DoorDash to stop calling.
“I don’t want your business,” he said.
The next day he started the process of opting out of DoorDash. He says doing so was arduous and required him “to call and call and be super relentless.”
Foulkes is not alone in his frustration. Many in the Connecticut restaurant industry are worried about the practices of the three delivery giants currently operating in the state. Like so much else, these conflicts have been magnified since the start of COVID-19 restrictions in March and the closure of restaurants for all but takeout and delivery. Yvette Tavares, membership director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, says they’ve “heard stories of distasteful and misleading marketing practices during this crisis.”
In online posts, several Connecticut restaurant owners have encouraged customers to check with restaurants first to see if they have their own delivery service. And nationally these companies are leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many independent restaurant owners. Food & Wine magazine published an opinion piece in April called “It's Time to Delete Your Delivery App.”
Tavares says “restaurants are often in a difficult position, because even if they dislike the terms offered by third-party delivery services, especially considering restaurants already work on very slim margins, they often have no other choice because that’s where their customers are.” She adds some restaurants have long handled their own delivery and many more have gone that route during the pandemic.
After his negative experiences with DoorDash, Foulkes tried to find a local company to work with but there wasn’t one serving Old Saybrook. Then Foulkes connected with Douglas Wrightsman, a local resident who had run a delivery service in Denver in the 1990s and was planning to launch a new type of local delivery system that would be owned by restaurant owners. Foulkes was intrigued and signed on as a partner. Their company, Shoreline Menus, launched in February 2019. It’s owned by a core group of local restaurants, including Foulkes’ Penny Lane Pub. New restaurants can buy into the LLC or simply choose to work with the service. It’s less expensive for both customers and restaurant owners than the delivery giants. Fees for restaurants start at 20 percent for non-partners but can be as low as 15 percent for restaurants who buy into the program and take other steps. For customers, most deliveries are free or $1.99 before the tip. Wrightsman says the company’s drivers can make as much as $40 an hour during busy shifts.
Unlike the giant companies, or even other local companies, orders placed through Shoreline Menus are made directly through each restaurant’s website. The customer deals with the restaurant, not a third party, which allows restaurant employees to deal with questions about certain menu items as well as address any problems as soon as they arise. In addition, restaurants, rather than the tech companies, keep the customer data.
“Traditionally, delivery is kind of an adversarial relationship with restaurants,” Wrightsman says. He adds that the Shoreline Menus model seeks to change that.
So far, the plan is working. More than 30 restaurants and other businesses, including a brewery and cigar shop, have signed up in Old Saybrook and nearby towns Essex, Madison, Westbrook, Clinton, Deep River, Chester and Old Lyme. The company is planning to expand by starting new LLCs of local restaurants in new markets elsewhere in the state. The coronavirus may speed up those plans, as in the first week of the shutdown the company tripled its orders and has seen steady weekly growth ever since.
“I’m shocked by how busy we are,” Wrightsman says. “I know the size of communities here. It’s astounding to me the amount of business that we’ve been doing.”
Foulkes believes this expansion would have occurred naturally, but the virus sped things up. “We're at where we predicted we’d be six months from now.”
Shoreline Menus joins long-established Connecticut delivery services such as Waiter Wheels, which operates in greater Hartford and used to operate in New Haven, and Vroom Service Now, which covers about 30 percent of the state. Both businesses have also seen a bump in orders during the coronavirus crisis.
“We have seen an increase in volume,” says Scott Leandra, founder and CEO of Vroom Service Now. The company launched in Sandy Hook in 2010 and expanded throughout the Danbury area and then to other parts of the state. It now works with more than 350 restaurants in various areas of the state including central Connecticut, greater Waterbury and greater Norwalk.
Leandra says his company has been working to support restaurants through the shutdown with various promotions including offering free delivery for customers on orders of more than $35. “That helps drive business to the restaurants,” he says.
Vroom charges restaurants 25 percent of orders placed through its apps, though many restaurants are grandfathered in at a 20-percent rate. “We take care of the sales tax and credit card fees,” Leandra says.
Founded in 2006, Waiter Wheels works with more than 70 restaurants in greater Hartford. The service has seen its number of orders go up but its overall sales volume go down, due to the loss of its big corporate lunch orders. That hasn’t stopped the company from supporting restaurants. During the shutdown, the service is running a promotion aimed at recruiting new restaurants, but open to restaurants they already work with as well. As part of the promotion, any restaurant Waiter Wheels works with that displays a link to the delivery service on their website will be charged only a 12-percent fee.
“As far as we know that’s the best rate that any national and local services are giving restaurants,” says Chris Aparicio, owner and co-founder.
Like Shoreline Menus, Vroom Service Now and Waiter Wheels’ owners both tout better customer service than the national delivery services. Aparicio says there is no comparison between his service and the national chains.
“It’s almost like if someone said, ‘hey, do you want to go to McDonald’s or do you want to go Max Burger,’ or something like that,” he says.
Regardless of what Connecticut’s restarted economy looks like this summer, there is a begrudging acceptance from restaurant owners that things will not get back to normal anytime soon. Leandra says customers who have become “trained” on delivery will not want to abandon that convenience. “There's going to be a lingering volume of people with reservations, no pun intended, that are not going to feel comfortable going out to a crowded restaurant.”
Foulkes says that as a restaurant owner he is planning on his business being dramatically altered for a long time and banking on delivery.
“Now is the time to get creative and diversify and try things,” he says. “It’s a scary time but it’s also an opportunity.”
Correction: The original version of this article omitted the second "a" in Waiter Wheels' owner Chris Aparicio's last name.