Greek restaurant Cuzina Neos used to have a huge lunch business, thanks to the 3,000 employees at the Hydro Québec training facility steps away from its premises perched at the top end of Jarry Park. That ended in March, when employees started working from home. With 80 percent of his business gone, owner Terry Bekiaris had some tough decisions to make: he stopped having his own employees do deliveries, limited the restaurant’s working hours to dinner only, revamped the menu to make it take-out friendly (no fried calamari or saganaki cheese), and outsourced all deliveries to the three most popular delivery app companies in the city.
“This is all I’ve got,” Bekiaris says. “I’ve got to try everything. I already lost a restaurant with a terrasse I was planning to open up on Mont Royal and St Hubert. But when the government told us to shut down restaurants for dining in a second time, I just took my car and ran over all that plexiglass I’d bought to separate the tables with.”
With winter coming and no end in sight to the unpredictably of the virus (and the decisions taken by authorities on how to deal with it), restaurants in the city are grappling with the question of how to stay afloat, retain as much staff as possible, and feed customers with food that retains its flavour, texture, and temperature when it gets to their home.
Restaurants that once did their own deliveries, like Cuzina Neos, are facing some real challenges, with UberEats, SkipTheDishes, and DoorDash — plus Asian food delivery apps like FanTuan and HiCity — flooding the market and becoming more of the norm. Restaurant owners tell Eater of commissions that are as high as 30 percent, aggressive sales pitches with sales staff who won’t take no for an answer, and limited-time rates designed to hook them, before raising them later.
Despite the high percentage taken by UberEats, the advantages of being on an app can be alluring to restaurants that want to increase or keep up with sales volumes. “We were told it would be easier for people to reach us, especially if they already know what they want to order,” says Anh-Cuam Dao of Ho Guom on Jean Talon, which still delivers themselves to clients within a three-kilometre radius, augmenting their delivery with apps for clients further afield. “They have special offers (on the apps) that we just can’t compete with. But I still have to speak with customers on the phone to explain the dishes on the menu.”
It’s the same for Halal 786 on Jean Talon, which has been blending the use of apps and managing their own deliveries for clients close to Little India since the pandemic. Ryu Sushi offers customers similar options: a presence on a delivery app or ordering through their own website if they meet a minimum spend. Manager Jorge da Silva sees the use of delivery apps as a temporary thing; they’re hoping to shift exclusively to in-house deliveries over time. Restaurant Damas had some discussions with delivery app representatives but felt concern about the impact it would have on their brand.
“It’s up to the user to be demanding and negotiate,” chef and co-owner of Beba in Verdun, Ari Schor says, adding that rising competition has led delivery apps to be more lenient with the premiums. Schor has experimented with his menu to adapt it to three options: takeout, app delivery, and in-house delivery. Beba’s sandwiches and lighter fare work well with the app, while their weekend dinner and wine offerings, delivered by Beba’s co-owner and brother Pablo, are designed to bring fine dining home.
Not all restaurants are jumping on the app bandwagon, though. A recent instagram story from seventeen popular restaurants appealed to diners to “skip the apps and get takeout,” asserting that the food isn’t the real product when a delivery app is used. “You, as the user, are the product. These companies do not support the local economy; they stifle and exploit it. If you can’t pick up your own food, consider opting for a restaurant that offers its own delivery service.”
While the delivery apps offer income options to gig economy workers, it comes at a price: Mainstream media investigations into the workings of app companies have uncovered some disturbing business practices. This Washington Post article contends that the fees charged by the apps make it impossible for restaurants to turn a profit. In June, the New York Times explored the gap between the myth that delivery apps will save the industry and the challenges that restaurants face in paying for their services. In July, the New York Times put one of their reporters on the delivery beat; the video introduction to the story, along with tales of tipping, is harrowing. And an entire research group, funded by the European Research Council, called Platform Labor, is doing a deep dive into how the gig economy and things like delivery apps really work and who they benefit in the end.
Jesse Massumi, co-owner of Pumpui and one of the authors of the Instagram story, is adamant in his search to find a better business model. “No one who works for those companies is an employee who gets paid,” he says. “No one gets benefits. They all just get paid by the ride, and that depends on data. If there’s no high demand at that time, a driver could get paid $2 to go 10 kilometres. It’s dystopian.”
Made-in-Montreal delivery options are now emerging to rival the big players. Bike delivery app Chasseurs Couriers are working with a few local restaurants and offer a year-round service; contactless payment platform CHK PLZ is offering a takeout order app with no commission and a delivery service provided by rideshare coop EVA. Unlike the standard app services, the CHK PLZ sees that all profits go to drivers.
“We wanted to do delivery all day, but that just wasn’t feasible,” says Keaton Ritchie, wine director and general manager at Larry’s in Mile End. “Up to now, we’ve been delivering with our own drivers — two of our owners and servers — since March 16. We were getting short staffed on the days when demand for deliveries was exceeding supply. So we’re going with a delivery app.”
Nick Rosati, co-owner of Dalla Rose in St. Henri regrets the cremerie’s brief use of delivery apps. “The biggest negative was the customer experience,” he told Eater. “We give boutique service in the shop and in our own deliveries. Problems with the app reflected negatively on us, and there was no way that we could rectify or smooth things out the way we can if we’re doing the deliveries ourselves.” Dalla Rose has put their usual winter ramen business on hold for now. “We’re lucky because our product is frozen and doesn’t have to be prepared à la minute. It’s more difficult to do things as they’re ordered.”
As the threats of insolvency and unemployment in the restaurant sector loom large, the question now for restaurateurs is if “Ça va bien aller” (Quebec’s pandemic slogan, French for “Everything will be alright”) will extend to the restaurant scene. Whether the choice is to use delivery apps or make over menus, owners will keep tweaking their approach to stay open and do what they love: feeding people. As Beba’s Ari Schor says, “You can’t judge what anybody does — as long as it’s lawful — to keep their business alive.”