The Bay Area and Silicon Valley are synonymous with technology and startup innovation. Adding in the Bay Area’s vibrant culinary history and community, it is no surprise that the area is home to a plethora of food-oriented applications. From rating and review platforms such as Yelp to reservation booking sites such as Open Table to POS systems like Tock to the growing number of delivery platforms, technology has permeated into all facets of the dining experience. When talking to different restaurant owners and chefs, it became clear to me that a whole market has emerged to cater towards different aspects of the restaurant business.
From rating and review platforms such as Yelp to reservation booking sites such as Open Table to POS systems like Tock to the growing number of delivery platforms, technology has permeated into all facets of the dining experience.
While I wish I could have explored the entire spectrum of restaurant and food-related apps (and very much urge others to do so), I decided to focus on delivery platforms. Food delivery platforms are a prime example of a gig economy, connecting customers to workers who perform jobs on a temporary or contractual basis, and examining how these specific tech companies are shaping the food industry might be helpful when examining other similar disruptive technologies. Exploring food delivery platforms relates to Miller’s idea that “Digital anthropology therefore has to contend with the way culture itself has grown in scale and form, including new dreams and new nightmares about who we are becoming, and who or what should be regarded as modern or traditional” (Miller, 3). Following Miller’s perspective, taking an anthropological approach to these delivery applications will add to the ongoing discussions about the new “traditions” or norms that gig economy companies are creating.
The story of these delivery companies is rooted in the Bay Area, as the top national platforms, DoorDash, Uber Eats, GrubHub, and Postmates (which was acquired by Uber Eats in November 2020), were all founded here. I personally try to avoid using these services, but have seen food delivery stickers and bags exponentially pop up at restaurants that I frequent. According to Morgan Stanley, the total addressable market for online delivery is set to grow from $260 billion in 2017 to possibly $470 billion by 2025 (Morgan Stanley). COVID-19 has only increased this growth, as restaurants have had to find alternative ways to reach their customers in light of “Shelter in Place” restrictions. Below is an interactive data visualization that highlights the growth of delivery apps in recent years.
A Foot on Both Sides of the Door
The pandemic has become more than just a backdrop for the story of technology and how it is becoming more and more intertwined with the Bay Area restaurant community. With the “Shelter in Place” restrictions and restaurant take-out only mandates, many restaurants had to start utilizing delivery apps and new technology platforms for the first time. Tanya and Kim’ stories, featured in the Restaurant perspective, highlight the challenges many Bay Area restaurant chefs and owners faced when navigating the new dining landscape during the pandemic. While both Tanya and Kim shifted to using delivery apps and specialized take-out ordering platforms solely because of COVID-19, Nate Pollak is no stranger to food technologies. Nate opened The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen in 2008 in SoMa, a hotspot for technology companies like Instagram and Twitter, and he jokes that Postmates was founded in his restaurant. As The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen was one of Caviar’s first merchant partner signups, Nate has seen the rise of delivery platforms firsthand. Nate describes how delivery platforms’ initial pitches were strong but became cannibalistic to sales, losing control of the dining experience, and the fact that restaurants are often the first to be blamed when deliveries go wrong. A visual bite from our conversation is below.
“What’s not cheap about ordering delivery? We saw people ordering six dollar items and spending nine dollars on a delivery fee, we still do. It became cannibalistic to our sales but that’s what people started to do. Our volume stayed the same, but more and more of it was delivery.”
Given Nate’s background as a restaurant owner, I had prematurely assumed that he would be anti-Big Tech and against the growing power of delivery platforms. However, Nate’s ability to look beyond the good/evil characterization of these delivery companies reminded me about the nuances and complexities that exist within the relationships between restaurants, delivery platforms, and their customers. When I asked Nate about how he felt about the “predatory” nature of the delivery companies, he rightfully challenged my binary thinking and used his experiences of having “a foot on both sides of the door” to point out an important idea — delivery is ultimately something that both the market and customers want. Another visual bite is included below.
“No one is going to deliver food for free and no one is going to provide the technology to do that for free.”
Just like me, DoorDash was born and raised in the Bay Area. I decided to focus on DoorDash because of its local roots and the platform’s ability to spotlight both locally-owned restaurants and fast food chains. My limited associations of delivery platforms tend to be based on what types of restaurants they feature and while I associate GrubHub with quick national fast-food chains and Postmates with more nuanced eateries, DoorDash seemed like a platform that featured the broadest spectrum of restaurants. In addition, I had been following DoorDash’s 2019 acquisition of Caviar, another delivery platform founded in San Francisco. This merger peaked my interest because I had always thought of Caviar as a more “refined” delivery platform that hand-picked which restaurants it featured with the goal of appealing to foodies like myself. I wondered what the acquisition of Caviar meant to DoorDash’s goals and if it signaled a desire to appeal more to the food-conscious consumer. Below is a map of San Francisco’s restaurant landscape according to DoorDash.
DoorDash and other delivery companies saw huge increases in site traffic during the pandemic. Capitalizing on this success, DoorDash raised $3.4 billion during its initial public offering (I.P.O.) on December 9, 2020. DoorDash’s I.P.O., which was one of the largest in 2020, increased the company’s valuation to $72 billion (Griffith). $72 billion is no small number. Watching DoorDash’s trading debut reminded me that these delivery platforms are not just changing individual people’s eating habits, but they are also influencing the entire global economy. While it may be easy to be content reading about DoorDash’s economic power from a high level perspective, I believe that it is important to continue to examine how the company interacts with restaurants on the community level.
Given the importance of the Tech perspective, I was very grateful for Tanya in putting me in touch with Katie Daire Katie is a Senior Director of B2B Marketing at DoorDash. Katie and I immediately bonded over our strong connections with Bay Area restaurants and the communities that are formed in these spaces. She talked to me about what motivates her to work with restaurants and her connection to the Bay Area in the visual bite below.
“You and I just bonded over the lines at Brown Sugar Kitchen from your dorm in Princeton and the guest bedroom in my house, having never met. It’s those shared experiences that help create human connection and connectivity.”
Katie and I also talked about DoorDash’s commitments to restaurants. Given her role working directly with businesses, she mentioned new initiatives that DoorDash had created to help restaurants in the pandemic and other tools that DoorDash offers to restaurants beyond just the traditional delivery platform.
“What we need as we continue to build relationships, build our product, and prove that we really are working towards common goals is to help make sure that restaurants feel empowered with the clear information that they need to make a decision that is best for them to keep their restaurant operating.”
I did try my best to nudge Katie to talk about Prop 22 and DoorDash’s relationship to its delivery drivers. While we did not dive into the controversy as I had initially hoped to, in part due to Katie’s role on the B2B side of DoorDash as opposed to employee relations, she did mention the need for greater transparency to all aspects of the DoorDash business. The last visual bite from our conversation is below.
“There is a lot of work we can do within the experience to provide transparency and humanity into who are the restaurants and who are the dashers.”
After talking to Katie and Nate, I realized I had approached the story of DoorDash and other delivery platforms from a defensive stance. Just as Bill Mauer contends with the problem of relativism in his exploration of technology’s impact on money and monetary transactions, I fell for the trap of relativism/universalism when it came to classifying Big Tech, restaurants, and delivery workers (Mauer, 140). When it comes to relationships that are formed in part through technology, there is no such thing as just a transactional connection. There exists a mutual dependency between delivery platforms and restaurants that is constantly changing, and will continue to change beyond pandemic. Just as restaurants are realizing that delivery is here to stay, delivery companies like DoorDash are learning that understanding and partnering intimately with restaurants will bring about the most benefits to the Bay Area community.