Saturday, March 17, 2018

How do food delivery services like UberEATS, GrubHub, FoodNow and Doorstep Delivery stack up?

Delivery meant pizza. Period. And not too often. Just for those kinds of cruddy days when maybe you'd been rear-ended or the dog had done something unconscionable on the rug.

So the rise of app-based food delivery services has largely flummoxed me. What kinds of foods, beyond pepperoni-extra-cheese, travel well? Do you tip? How long does it take? Can you provide feedback or make special requests? Does the food even approximate what you would have been served in the restaurant? What if it doesn't show up? And doesn't the driver's car start to smell really weird after a few weeks of deliveries?

Related: Weird 'special requests' get taken seriously at Tampa Bay restaurants

The debut of UberEATS in Hillsborough County on Sept. 7 prompted several of us at the Tampa Bay Times to wonder who is doing it well. I drew UberEATS, and on a Tuesday evening, without dogs having embarrassed themselves in any way, I ordered from Square 1 Burgers in South Tampa.

It didn't go well.

I downloaded the app, scrolled through the roughly 75 participating restaurants and settled on Square 1 because of the range of options. Spicy pulled pork egg rolls ($9.89, but $8.99 on the in-restaurant menu), half a chopped salad ($6.59, $5.99 on the in-restaurant menu), a blue bacon burger with pickled jalapenos ($13.74/$12.49), Buffalo chicken wings ($7.69/$6.99) and — totally an impulse buy — an order of fried beignets with chocolate and raspberry sauces ($6.59/$5.99).

My AmEx was charged $47.62 and my phone screen had a green check mark next to Order Accepted. It was 6:41 p.m., with an estimated delivery time of 7:16. But at 7:05 the green dot next to Food is Being Prepared was still lit and nothing had happened to the dots next to Food Ready or Courier is on the Way. I wondered: Will the courier teleport to my house?

At 7:27, it said delivery would be at 7:32. At 7:47, it shifted to 7:53.

I went on the app and registered a complaint: "Order is late." Then, a second complaint, because I was starting to feel hangry: "Order was never delivered."

My phone rang and it was an UberEATS driver named Tom. He was at Square 1. He was the third driver to arrive to pick up my order, the previous driver having picked it up and disappeared. The restaurant would remake my food and Tom would wait for it.

At 7:58 he arrived, gracious. He has been an Uber driver since February. This was his first squirrelly order with UberEATS. I tipped him $5 cash (I didn't see anywhere to tip on the UberEATS app) and we chatted for a while in my driveway. (For the record, the company waived the $4.99 delivery fee.)

The food itself was packaged well for delivery: Sauces were on the side, the burger fit tightly into a small plastic foam clamshell so it didn't get sloppy. The fries came in a bag loosely closed so they didn't sog. The salad was a head scratcher, the chopped lettuce and accoutrements set atop a sheet of waxed paper. Who wants to eat a salad sitting on waxed paper? Never mind. In short, the food hardly suffered at all in the transport.

The next day, I called Square 1 and talked to manager Tucker Doran about what had happened. Guess what? Since their debut with the program Sept. 8, this was the first problem, he said. They've had approximately 150 UberEATS orders, doing a staggering $3,000 in extra sales already.

As per packaging for delivery, the restaurant has had curbside service since its South Tampa store opened, so this part didn't represent a learning curve. But Doran said they will have to staff up if sales continue at this pace.

So if mine was the only order that has gone awry so far, who has to pay for the duplicate preparation — Square 1 or UberEATS? Doran wasn't sure.

It was a late dinner. I ate it in a sweatpant-pajama hybrid while watching a documentary about Cory Booker. In the aftermath, I corralled the mountain of clamshells and tried to banish the words "eco pig" from my brain.

Would I order from UberEATS again?

At 2:50 a.m., I got an email from Jorge Paredes about my "Order is late" complaint.

"Hi Laura, I hope you're well. I am happy to help. Apologies for not getting this addressed sooner. Let me help you on this."

Too little, too late, Jorge. I could have starved already.

Laura Reiley, Times food critic

We tried some other services. Here's how it went in different parts of the bay area.

Doorstep Delivery

THE CHOICES: I waded into the food delivery service pool while staring down a recent workday that looked like a puzzle of meetings and other commitments. A handful of services was available to bring lunch to my downtown St. Petersburg office, so I visited Doorstep Delivery's website from my desktop and, after entering my address, browsed the restaurant options. The list included local spots 9 Bangkok Thai & Sumo Sushi, Ricky P's and Fish Tales, plus chains like Chick-fil-A, Chili's and Nature's Table.

THE FOOD: I went with 9 Bangkok Thai & Sumo Sushi, opting for the Sushi Combo that came with two rolls: the Futomaki (krab, cucumber, tamago, carrot, radish and avocado) and a tempura-style Crunchy Roll (salmon, eel, cream cheese and asparagus). I was moderately confident that the sushi would travel well, but wanted to test whether the tempura preparation of the Crunchy Roll was up to the delivery process. To meet the $15 delivery minimum, I added an order of pad Thai with beef. Both meals came with soup and egg rolls.

THE TIME: I utilized the service's Advanced Ordering option, because I had a window to eat lunch and wanted to make sure food came at that particular time. I recommend this option (which the service defaults to when restaurants are closed), especially if you're the kind of person who succumbs to hysteria if you have to wait an hour for food. Around 9 that morning, I placed an order for 1:30 p.m.

It worked a little too well. I walked back into the office around 1:10 after meeting with some co-workers and found a delivery guy standing in the lobby.

He wanted to hand over my food, but I told him I had to go upstairs and get cash first. He made a comment about having to wait in the lobby that left me wondering what the point of advanced ordering was if the food was going to come 20 minutes early.

Being early isn't always better than being late. By the time I came back downstairs, my food had been sitting in its plastic foam container in the lobby for a while. And I was starting to regret the 18 percent I had pretipped my snippy delivery guy.

THE PRICE: The $15 minimum (though some are $20 or $25) required by most restaurants means you likely will be ordering more than one meal. The Sushi Combo was only $6.95; the pad Thai $8.95. But with the delivery fee (which ranges from $3.99 to $5.99) and tip (it defaults to 20 percent, but you can enter a custom amount, which means you could put $0; I went with 18 percent), you're spending at least $20. My total was $24.18. I chose the cash payment option and didn't pay anything until the delivery arrived.

THE PACKAGING: Takeout packaging does not get more standard than this. The pad Thai and Sushi Combo both came in the same foam clamshell. Soups came in shallow foam bowls. On the side were little bags with the egg rolls, plus various sauce packets and two pairs of chopsticks. Points for the plastic smiley face delivery bag.

THE RESULT: The tempura sushi held up just fine, and despite being packed into the same box as the other sushi, both looked and tasted like they should. I was put off by the earliness of the delivery, since I had chosen a specific time on the order. Overall, it was way more food than I needed, and I wondered as I slurped noodles if the entire extra meal was worth the convenience of not leaving the office to get it. At least pad Thai makes for good leftovers.

Michelle Stark, Times food editor


THE CHOICES: There is a scarcity of food delivery apps in my North Pinellas zip code. But FoodNow offered pickup from places including Hooters, Pierogi Grill, Green Mint Asian Grill, Skyline Chili and Deeya Indian in Clearwater, and Our Place and Carmelita's in Dunedin. I wanted pierogi, but the restaurant was closed. So from the parking lot of the gym on a Monday night, like a good American, I ordered from Carmelita's. The app was relatively easy to use and walked me through the restaurant's selections. For places that were closed, it gave the option of setting delivery for a later date. I imagined waking up to pierogi on my doorstep.

THE FOOD: Though some places do not offer tacos for delivery due to sog potential, like Datz in Tampa, Carmelita's is not one. I put them to the ultimate test — three hard-shell shredded beef tacos, with a side of corn and black beans. Rude, but it had to be done. I also ordered chicken tamales with refried beans and rice, and because a chief temptation of app food ordering seems to be clicking on impulse items, I added chips and guac.

THE TIME: I ordered at 7:53 p.m. The estimated arrival time was 50 to 70 minutes. Now, here's where I felt silly. I had to drive past Carmelita's to get home from the gym. I wished I had picked a different location to take better advantage of someone waiting on me hand and foot, but, there it was.

I got text messages each step of the way, when the order was placed, when the driver was at the restaurant, when the food was on the way. My driver got lost near my house and called, but she was delightfully friendly. The food arrived at 8:51 p.m. Right on time.

THE PRICE: There was a $15 minimum for food and a minimum tip requirement of 15 percent. I'd be willing to tip more, except you have to choose your tip before you order, and how would you know if the experience warranted a bigger one or not? The delivery fees are different for each place, and go down depending on how close to home the restaurant is. My grand total with delivery fee, tip, tax and food was $42.29.

THE PACKAGING: The driver brought the food in an insulated bag, with a paper to-go bag inside. Carmelita's food was all portioned into tight plastic containers, the chips in a paper bag. The black beans and the sauce were in individual covered bowls to avoid leakage.

THE RESULT: I was curious if the tacos might come disassembled, but they were in full taco form, and the shells were soggy on arrival. Any future tacos I order will be soft shell. The food was warm and tasty, and I even hung onto the black bean container to reuse. I would use this service again, but I'd focus on a restaurant that was not right down the street, to maximize the convenience and fees. You know what I'm saying. Pierogi.

Stephanie Hayes, Times arts and entertainment editor


THE CHOICES: The restaurant options were similar to the ones offered through Doorstep Delivery — lots of cheap local places and chains. Neither of these services had a list as varied as UberEATS or FoodNow, at least not in the St. Petersburg area. When you browse the list, it automatically sorts them by "Open Now," which is helpful, since GrubHub doesn't seem to have any sort of advanced ordering option that allows you to place an order when a restaurant is closed. I went with one of the chains, Nature's Table.

THE FOOD: I ordered two "bowls," the Chipotle Chicken and the Sesame Thai, both of which came with aoilis. I figured those might fare better than a salad. I added a bowl of vegetarian chili to meet the delivery minimum.

THE TIME: I placed an "ASAP" order for lunch at 12:50 p.m., hoping my food would come even sooner, because I was hungry. Again, I used the website from my desktop, though there is a super user-friendly GrubHub app. At 1:20, I got a text saying my food was being prepared. I went to a meeting at 2, where I forgot about my hunger for a bit. When I came out at 2:20, I began to worry. I checked my email, my phone — nothing about my order. What once seemed like such an easy, convenient promise now seemed like a huge hassle. At 2:45, I contemplated walking down the street to get a meal from somewhere else.

THE PRICE: Minimums tended to be lower through this service, with many $10 minimums (though one restaurant had a $10 minimum but a $9 delivery fee). Delivery fees ranged from $3 to $5, and in some cases were relayed in percentage (typically 5 percent). The Nature's Table's minimum was $15. Each bowl was $7.49. That comes out to $14.98, a total engineered to mock all of my choices. I added the chili for $2.99, for an order total of $29.36. I paid with a credit card. The tip defaulted to 15 percent, but you are allowed to write a custom amount. GrubHub also offers the option to tip with your card or with cash.

THE PACKAGING: The "bowls" came in large plastic containers, with so many greens on the bottom that they looked and tasted like salads. Overall, it didn't seem like much thought went into preparing these meals for delivery. With one, I asked for dressing and cheese on the side. With the other, I didn't specify, and it came fully dressed. There was definite romaine wilting by the time it was consumed. Also, there were no utensils in the bag.

THE RESULT: The food was fine, but the severe delay caused the chili to go lukewarm and the "bowls" to lose their chill. Around 3 p.m., I found a phone number in my email for Delivery Issues, and called it. A man answered and told me he was with Doorstep Delivery.

Huh? Didn't I order from GrubHub? Turns out, Doorstep Delivery is GrubHub's third-party delivery service in the Tampa Bay area. I felt like I was in the Matrix.

The man, Kevin, said the meal was delivered to my office at 2:21 p.m. That's an hour-and-a-half after I placed the order, so a bit over the 60- to 70-minute estimated wait time.

But I didn't know it was there, because I never received a text or call, or an email, to let me know the order had been delivered. What I did have by that point was a meal from another restaurant on my desk, because I had been too hungry to put off eating until I figured all of this out. I walked downstairs after hanging up with Doorstep Delivery to find my food waiting in the lobby.

All I could do as I scarfed down my replacement meal was daydream about the kind of meal I could get at a nice restaurant for $29.36.

Michelle Stark, Times food editor

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