What were they thinking?
That’s what customers, restaurants and delivery workers want to know after a surprise promotion by the food delivery platform Grubhub went badly awry – and proved there’s really no such thing as a free lunch.
Grubhub’s plan was ambitious: to feed everyone in New York City and the surrounding Tri-State area for free, during lunch hours on Tuesday. The platform cited a survey it had conducted that found that 69% of working New Yorkers said they had skipped lunch.
But that’s exactly what the stunt ended up doing, after Grubhub’s platform crashed as New Yorkers rushed to place orders. The fiasco left restaurants overwhelmed, delivery workers frustrated, and many customers with empty stomachs.
Christopher Krautler, a spokesperson for Grubhub, said the platform was averaging up to 6,000 orders a minute, which “absolutely blew away all expectations”. Krautler acknowledged that the demand “initially caused a temporary delay in our system and some users experienced an error message with their code, but that was quickly rectified”, adding the platform fulfilled more than 450,000 lunch orders connected to the promotion.
But many users never saw their food after spending money, with some kept hungry and waiting for hours by the app’s promises that the food would soon arrive.
The app was offering $ 15 off any order made in the New York City area between 11am and 2pm. Restaurants across the city were inundated. Fee Bakhtiar, a general manager at Jajaja Mexicana in West Village, called it a “shitshow”. When she opened the restaurant at 11.30am, she was stunned to find 40 orders from Grubhub already waiting in the queue.
“I was like, wait, this can’t be real. And then all of a sudden, it was just kind of like, ‘Oh well, I guess it is real.’ ”
Bakhtiar said Jajaja West Village, which focuses on takeout, was able to fulfill all of its Grubhub orders – which suddenly disappeared at 2pm. “But it would’ve just been nice if we had a heads up.” She told the Guardian that neither she nor the managers at Jajaja’s other locations in New York received an email or a mobile notification from the platform warning that the promotion would happen.
But many restaurants were unable to cope. Megan Benson, a worker at a fast casual chicken restaurant in Brooklyn, said that the flood of lunch orders created shortages that spilled over into dinnertime, turning the kitchen into a “war zone”.
The restaurant is “typically busy from the moment we open the door, and nobody told us about this this free lunch thing”, she said. “Normally it’s a tight ship in there, but we couldn’t keep up. We had no time to restock anything, so half the stuff was missing or sold out. ”
“The phone wouldn’t stop ringing because people were calling mad as hell to tell us that they were missing items, or they just never got their food picked up, so the Grubhub delivery guys would have to keep coming back.
“Eventually my co-workers just got irate with phones constantly being shoved in their faces. Believe me when I say fights almost broke out. ”
Toward the end of the shift, the kitchen was down to just Benson and another co-worker, who struggled to stay afloat.
“It was just too much, and I had to keep reminding myself out loud,‘ I’m just one person, ’because I had to take the orders and make the orders while my co-worker did all the overflowing Grubhub orders. There was nowhere to put them, either. ”
The delays meant Benson had to stay well past midnight to clean up, and she finally got home at 3.30am. “I just hope we get overtime pay this week,” she said.
Krautler said that Grubhub “gave advance notice to all restaurants in our network, which included multiple forms of communications across email and in-platform… even with that preparation, no one could anticipate the level of demand and unfortunately that caused strain on some restaurants” .
It wasn’t much better for customers, some of whom still ended up out of pocket from the “free” promotion. Chloe Brailsford, a comic artist who moved to Brooklyn last year, was quarantining at home with Covid and decided to use Grubhub for the first time after learning about the promotion from a friend.
By the time she logged on shortly after 1pm, she noticed that many of the restaurants on the app had marked themselves as “closed”. At first, she tried Taco Bell, but a notification popped up as she was ordering, saying the restaurant was no longer available.
Then she managed to find an Ihop that was still taking orders, with a delivery estimate of 45 to 55 minutes. It took two tries to put through her request for a Belgian waffle combo and hash browns – which, even after the discount, still cost $ 22.26 including delivery fees.
“[The app] said it would arrive between 2.59pm and 3.09pm. And I was like, that’s a lot longer than 45 minutes. ”
By 5pm, Brailsford still didn’t have any food. She watched the estimated arrival change to 8pm: “I was like, what the fuck is happening?” She tried calling Grubhub’s customer support, but sat on hold for more than half an hour before giving up and going to the grocery store to buy her dinner: a can of Progresso soup.
Krautler did not respond to a question about whether customers such as Brailsford would receive their money back.
For delivery workers, the promotion was a mixed bag. According to Krautler, Grubhub increased its incentives to workers to support the demand, and drivers “generally made two to three times more than usual during the promotion”.
Two delivery workers told the Guardian they made higher than usual earnings as Grubhub spammed their phones begging them to come online: one worker, Artemiy Isakov, said the bonuses helped him make about $ 500 over six hours of work. Another worker, Maurice Jamison, said he pulled in $ 300 across breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But other workers – including some thousands of miles away from New York – reported not being able to log on at all as the app strained under demand. One Grubhub worker in California told the Guardian that his app “froze multiple times and completely stopped working” during the time of the New York free lunch promo; he was only able to complete three deliveries during eight hours online, netting him just $ 28 for the day.
As Grubhub’s systems heaved, it outsourced some orders to third-party delivery platforms, which quickly became affected as well. A worker for Relay, a New York City-based delivery platform, told the Guardian that soon after using the promotion as a customer to get a free sandwich, he noticed orders began to pile up in his courier app.
The worker, who asked not to be identified, said one order he was assigned to pick up was missing. Relay’s app requires workers to contact their support line to report order issues, but nobody picked up after more than 30 minutes of waiting.
After unassigning himself from the order, he received another order, which the restaurant had no record of on their system. “Again after waiting 30 minutes for help from Relay, I got nothing. The app rates your performance, and unassigning yourself affects your rating, so I’m very hesitant to do it. I’ve gotten a warning already.
“I better not get punished for this,” the worker said. “Relay was absolutely not prepared.”
Relay did not respond to a request for comment.
Hildalyn Colon-Hernandez, the policy director at Los Deliveristas Unidos, a labor group representing New York City delivery workers, said that as Grubhub’s app sputtered out yesterday, many workers were left holding orders in their hands, unable to deliver.
“Sometimes the workers show up to the restaurant, and the restaurants have not even received the order from the app,” she said. “That leads to a confrontation, because the workers are like, ‘I’m already on the clock, I need to get there on time, but the restaurant is already packed.’ And when they deliver to the customers, they’re saying, ‘I’ve been waiting for this for two hours.’ ”
Brailsford, who is still waiting for reimbursement for her failed Ihop order, doesn’t blame New Yorkers for the chaos: “People saw a deal, and they wanted it, because who the fuck in this goddamn economy doesn’t want to save some money on food? ”
But she has harsher words for Grubhub. “You could’ve thought about this for any longer than half a second, and you might’ve realized what kind of terrible idea you were doing.”
After this story was published, a Grubhub spokesperson said that customers would receive a $ 15 Grubhub credit and a refund for any additional money spent if their order failed to arrive during the promotion.