Counting the cost of dining in: Is your food delivery safe?

(Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash)

At ‘Adjusted Level 4’ lockdown, with no sit-down dining permitted, customers have the option of collecting a takeaway or having dinner brought to them – but at what cost?

The writer supports Feed SA, an NGO that sets up feeding schemes and community development projects in vulnerable communities around South Africa.

Come closer, my dears, I want to tell you a story about the olden days.

There was a time when there was no such thing as food delivery, and no cellphones either. Imagine! To the best of my recollection, Butlers pizza was the first, in 1989, and it was so exciting to discover that red and yellow flyer in our letterbox. “Look!” I exclaimed. “They’ll bring us pizza! With avo and bacon!” It was a marvellous novelty, exactly like in the movies. And yes, there was that time I requested the cutest butler available and they took it seriously.

It wasn’t long afterwards (1992) that Mr Delivery – as it was known then – arrived on the scene. There were printed booklets which could be stuck on the fridge door with a magnet, and we had to phone our orders in. It was very much a Sunday hangover service for us, when we simply couldn’t face driving down to McDonald’s. I must point out McDonald’s was chosen not so much for its food but because of its supersize soft drinks with lots of ice and a wide straw to suck up more soda faster.

But hangovers are not fun and neither were the calls to Mr Delivery. After having to repeat one’s name, address and telephone number several times, increasingly louder, patience was already wearing thin. Then you could only order what was in the current printed booklet. It didn’t matter if you knew perfectly well a certain combo meal was available in-store, if it didn’t have a code, you couldn’t get it.

These episodes invariably ended with hanging up in a huff, putting a jacket on over pyjamas, slapping on sunglasses and braving the bright outside world anyway. It was also often preferable to having to wait an hour or more for that desperately needed hit of sugar, fat and salt to mitigate the lingering traces of alcohol. 

Nowadays of course, things are a lot different. There are apps for this, as there are for just about anything you can imagine. I saw one the other day which promised to help me not procrastinate, which is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. First of all, my phone is in my hand… and I’m expected not to quickly click on Instagram?

I once heard that you can use a ride hailing app to take you to a fast food drive-through; that was before Uber Eats. The anecdote did not explain why Mr D Food – as it is now known – wasn’t used. Being in our current level of lockdown (Adjusted Level 4 and am I the only one who feels like it’s been the longest 12 days of all?) and waiting for Sunday’s speech with trepidation, is making nervous wrecks of us all. Restaurants have not been able to offer sit-down dining or sell alcohol since June 28, 2021. Will these restrictions be lifted, wholly or partially? Never mind pessimism or optimism; choose realism. Hope for the best but expect the worst.

In the meantime, restaurants have rallied and are doing delivery/takeaway menus with gusto. Today we look at how those meals make it to our tables.

Mr D drivers in Plumstead, Cape Town – is that the kind of social distancing that would make you feel safe? And they’re delivering your supper. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

There are two delivery options: by the restaurant itself, or third party i.e. Uber Eats and Mr D Food. Ride hailing app Bolt has joined the party too.

For some restaurants, especially fine dining or distinctly upmarket, third party is not an option. Their food is not planned and designed to be presented this way, with a large part of it outside their control. For these, doing their own deliveries is the way to go, or to have customers collect. Even with things like burgers and pizzas (you’d really think the shape of a pizza and the shape of its box would be impossible to mess up but you’d be wrong), my experience has been that presentation takes a knock on the back of a scooter.

Then there is the cost factor – for restaurants as well as for customers. Uber Eats has been taking flak for its commission percentage, which is prohibitive for some restaurateurs. 

“We deliver our own foods but it is sometimes compromised because we can’t deliver to all areas,” said Brett Nussey of Stir Crazy Cooking Theatre & Bistro. “I won’t use Uber Eats due to the pricing and I’m hesitant about using Mr D as their drivers don’t practise any form of Covid protection when they stand together, and they look tatty.

“We deliver ourselves where we can, or ask people to collect from us. Our prices are so low a delivery fee doesn’t justify the delivery service.”

Stir Crazy, at V&A Waterfront, serves bistro-style dishes and frozen meals; main courses are R55 to R35 so margins are extremely tight. 

You only have to see it once to form an opinion, those congregations of drivers in their groups, waiting for orders to deliver. It’s not limited to any one company but Uber Eats shared its guidelines. (We’re still waiting for Mr D to get back to us.)

“Food safety is a priority for Uber Eats. We have community guidelines which provide merchants and delivery people with tips on how to handle Uber Eats orders safely,” said a spokesperson for the company. “These guidelines help make every order a great one. They also help build trust among delivery people, Uber Eats users, and merchants. Part of these guidelines includes that all restaurants and delivery people must adhere to local food safety laws and regulations. If we’re made aware of a food safety incident, we will investigate immediately and take the necessary action.” 

“We also allow merchants to communicate to delivery drivers on pick-up guidelines that promote food safety, adhere to regulatory guidance, or accommodate Uber Eats user dietary restrictions.”  

Tips: Uber Eats advises that couriers stay updated on the latest guidance on how to avoid catching or spreading the coronavirus, including the use of face masks and hand sanitiser. They are sent the below tips to ensure they take extra care while completing deliveries, in particular: 

Uber Eats asks that they limit the amount of physical contact between themselves and other couriers while idle and waiting for orders. 

They need to wash their hands regularly with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds.

They must use hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available. 

They need to wear a fabric mask or face covering when out in public.

They need to regularly clean the surfaces of their vehicle which are in contact with their hands, as well as their delivery bag, using disinfectant wipes. 

They need to regularly clean their delivery bag with min. 60% alcohol disinfectant.

They must cover their mouth or nose with a tissue when they cough or sneeze.

Avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands.

If they feel sick, they must stay at home. If they have a mild illness, respiratory symptoms, or have a fever (38 or above), they need to stay home and away from others. If their symptoms get worse, they are required to call their doctor.

“Further to the above, all deliveries requested through Uber Eats are allowed to be contactless, meaning users can have deliveries left on their doorstep, therefore limiting the interaction with couriers and customers,” said the spokesperson.

Stir Crazy Bistro’s prices are so low, using third party delivery is not an option. (Photo: Supplied)

David van Rensburg of Wanted Coffee at Mojo Market in Sea Point broke it down for us.

“The bottom line with delivery platforms is that they are charging too much. Their angle is that customers are prepared to pay a premium to get food delivered. They then also add on a delivery fee and I’ve just been told a service fee as well. (I’m not 100% sure on the service fee),” said Van Rensburg. 

“Okay, so let’s take a simple burger for R100. My costs – raw materials R40, staff 20% R18, rent & utilities R15, packaging R5, total R78. All this excludes any VAT implications, so it’s safe to say there’s roughly 20% in it for the restaurant. 

“The same order going out through a platform costs the above R100 plus 30% platform, R10 delivery fee, and R5 service fee so the price for the same meal is R145 and they end up making more profit than the restaurant that’s making the food and carrying all the risk. Most food does not travel well and I’m sure more than half of the clients are somewhat disappointed when their order arrives. 

“One of the biggest downfalls to delivery is that when they get it wrong there’s nothing one can do other than phone the restaurant concerned and complain, only to be told there’s nothing they can do about it. 

“In my opinion delivery platforms are parasitical businesses who hop on the bandwagon of hard working restaurateurs. There’s no profit in dealing with them and the market sees you as expensive with an inferior product because some driver took too long to get it to you or helped himself to some of your fries on the way.” 

Ross Collins, owner of Hudsons The Burger Joint, said they are “extremely grateful” to have third party delivery as an option during normal times. “I’m not sure whether third party delivery gave us an extra revenue stream or stole some of our regular customers who normally would have come into the restaurants and had a few drinks with their meal and now choose to enjoy a Hudsons experience in the comfort of their own home. 

“In normal times outside of the sit-down ban, third party delivery accounts for 25% of our food turnover. We currently use Uber Eats and Mr D only, of which 80% sales goes through Uber and 20% through Mr D. We don’t use any of the new options as we feel that they don’t have enough of a footprint to make it worth taking them on as people naturally gravitate to Uber/Mr D as they are the market leaders. 

“We have currently put on a trio of ‘call & collect’ specials at rock bottom prices to avoid the 25% plus VAT commission the two service providers charge us on every transaction. What would do us right would be if Uber/Mr D gave their loyal restaurants a noticeable discount on commissions during times like these as they are obviously getting double the business during the Level 4 lockdown. 

“I tried to make contact with both third party delivery channels and both told me their strategy was to lower delivery rates at certain times for the consumers to drive more traffic to the restaurants but to me that seems a bit senseless as the restaurants are their best customers and the ones currently in a crisis.”

Uber Eats is a three-sided marketplace, offering consumers quick and reliable food delivery, restaurants access to new customers and delivery people flexible economic opportunities, said its spokesperson.

“Uber Eats charges each participant a fee for accessing the marketplace. Consumers pay a delivery fee, and restaurants pay a marketplace fee. We work with a broad range of restaurants, from household names to local favourites, to offer users the best selection of meals to order from in SA.

“Delivery people are paid based on a formula that includes a pick up and drop off fee, as well as the distance travelled between the restaurant and the final user.” 

While the marketplace fee paid by restaurants is commercially sensitive and varies between restaurants and locations, ensuring Uber Eats adds value to a restaurants business is a top priority.  

“We understand the concern of the industry as it continues to face unprecedented challenges. We have considered several ways we can help as a business, and as a business that is also challenged by the uncertainty, we have introduced an approach that is sustainable for us, restaurants and delivery people. 

“We have implemented some of the following measures to assist during the lockdown: 

“We have waived commissions on some pickup orders facilitated by Eats (0% on pickup) and introduced a daily pay-out feature to ease cash flow concerns.

“We are investing in marketing efforts to support restaurants which include waiving the delivery fee and run weekly promotional and marketing activities. 

“We have also introduced a feature where Eaters can show their support for their favourite restaurants by giving a R10 contribution when ordering through the Uber Eats app. Restaurants will receive 100% of these contributions.

“You can also thank and tip your delivery person in the app after each delivery. They’re working hard to get your food and essentials to you.

“We will continue to invest in measures that are sustainable for all, and that will help restaurant partners to attract customers and increase order volumes while ensuring earning opportunities for delivery people using our app.”

Societi Bistro’s preference is that customers collect their orders from the restaurant – like this famous signature mushroom risotto. (Photo: Supplied)

Societi Bistro’s preference is that customers collect their orders from the restaurant. “Third party delivery companies have their place – especially with our frenetic lifestyles and the convenience that they offer,” said owner Peter Weetman. “The public demand for third party deliveries is high, and the technology they offer is convenient, which is why we participate with third party delivery companies.”

Massimo Orione of Massimo’s in Hout Bay uses Mr D, and has negotiated a better (lower) commission so it is not too bad, he said. “Since the lockdown last year, the number of orders through them has more than doubled, so in general the delivery companies have done very well during the last 14 months. But this time we are also organised with our own delivery (some are our own employees, others are external) so we are asking clients to try to order first with us; if we have no availability they can use MrD.

“It is an advantage for us all as the driver gets his commission directly from us, and we pay less too.” 

Third party deliveries are an essential part of our ecosystem, especially during these times, said David Donde, owner of Truth Coffee Roasting. “One wishes they carried less overheads during times of trouble, but without them we would have no revenue to keep our staff fed. 

“We use deliveries to allow us to trade beyond our four walls. The hidden costs of running one’s own team on a fair pay basis are just too high for us to do any other way. We get to choose between super slick and expensive options (our choice) and cheaper options that cause customer complaints – putting us between the proverbial and the hard place. 

“We wish more clients would make use of takeaway and in-store picks up as the only viable alternative.”

Peter Tempelhoff’s restaurants Fyn and beyond, as well as the online-only Stickman which launched in February 2021, are all currently closed until the darkness passes. “I think third party delivery is a necessity for small businesses during this pandemic – provided it suits the business model. We have decided not to go down that road again for this winter period as we thought it was best for the company to close for a couple of weeks while the worst of the wave washes past us. 

“It is also not really viable to use a third party delivery service for us as most of them charge 25-30+%. It’s hard to pay someone that much money for delivering our food. Another factor is that since our restaurants depend a lot on the customer experience, not having control once the food leaves our kitchen is a concern for us.”

Tempelhoff used Bolt in the past for Stickman, but it was at a discount rate for a few months: “They asked for 15% of turnover. But we left when they increased the rate to 28%. We are using CloudChef at the moment and they are asking 10% plus a delivery fee which the guest picks up – this is viable.”

Throw a question like this to the floor and you’re always going to get conflicting responses, proving that like the fable, you cannot please all of the people all of the time. Some are going to be happy, others are not. It is what it is, which I’ve recently learned is a “thought-terminating cliché” and everybody I know hates it.

“We have used Uber Eats twice this week to support local restaurants and have had the best service – delivered hot and at the requested time,” said Lisa Airey. “We have used UberEats occasionally before now and had no complaints. They seem to offer vouchers and discounts from time to time which is very appealing to the customer. I would definitely use them going forward.”

Lindi Brogneri, on the other hand, said: “Uber Eats is definitely a no go. The customer service is absolutely shocking and non-existent. My voucher code didn’t work and they are passing me from pillar to post and not resolving it.”

Uber Eats relies on customer feedback to ensure that it corrects any issues that Eaters encounter while using the app to improve its service delivery, said the spokesperson. “We encourage all Eaters to always leave feedback in the app or contact customer support, via the live chat in-app, if they are experiencing any difficulty before, during or after their order. Our customer support is 24/7. 

“We also understand that things can happen during the order and while restaurants and delivery people do their best to deliver your food within the estimated delivery time, external factors may cause delays (for example, if the restaurant is busier than normal such as high season, your order is a large order, there’s unexpected traffic or bad weather conditions). For this reason, we have revamped our tracking technology to share the latest on your order from its confirmation and preparation through the delivery-drivers route to the restaurant, order pickup and delivery to your door.  

“We have also made information more easily accessible so you’re up to speed on what’s happening with your meal from the moment you hit ‘order’ to the second it’s in your hands.”

Fred Metcalf has used Mr D on a regular basis since April 2020 and experienced very few problems. “New drivers to my area sometimes get a bit lost but it’s easy to correct them with the Track Driver Live feature,” he said. “Overall, I am very happy with this app and their service delivery.”

Another option is Mr Yum, to which any restaurant can add their details even if they are not using the platform.

“Mr Yum is a web-based mobile menu, ordering and payment platform used by leading hospitality and entertainment venues in Australia, the US, the UK and now South Africa. We can power any combination of ordering for dine-in, pick-up and delivery,” explains SA co-founder Jesse Singer. “Our starting fee is 4.9% and this is negotiable based on volume, group size and commitment. This includes all transaction costs, sms costs and unlimited support. For example, if a restaurant has a 2% card fee, normally we’re only an additional 2.9% because we absorb those costs.”

Mr Yum has a third party integration with Quench app, which can fulfil delivery. “The cost of that is 10% + R35 but the restaurant has full control over how much the customer pays for the delivery and that goes to the restaurant,” said Singer.

Mr D Food had not responded by the time of publishing despite numerous requests and reminders. DM/TGIFood


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