When The Flight Deck, the restaurant with a patio just off the runway at Dillant-Hopkins Airport, lost its delivery person last fall, its owner, Tracy Gunn, decided to register for the popular food delivery service DoorDash.
Around the same time, Gunn also began using DoorDash at two other eateries she owns: Willie Mac’s Pub & Restaurant and Life is Sweet, both in Keene.
She canceled the service for The Flight Deck and Willie Mac’s at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, however, because the fee it charged — 30 percent on each order — was cutting into profits and distracted her staff from more efficient work.
Gunn’s experience echoes the complaints of many restaurant owners around the country, who have criticized delivery services like DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats for what they claim are exorbitant, non-negotiable fees and deceptive business tactics.
Those objections grew louder during the pandemic, as restaurants turned to delivery services after temporarily suspending in-person dining and with many clients still wary of returning to crowded areas.
Compared to last year, the delivery services’ revenue rose about 140 percent early in the pandemic, while spending at restaurants dropped about 35 percent, according to the New York Times.
But the delivery services claim they’ve helped restaurants stay afloat by allowing customers to safely order meals and by offering reduced rates for partnering restaurants. In March, DoorDash temporarily eliminated its fees for new partners and reduced them for existing partners.
Local restaurants offer mixed reviews on their experiences with delivery services like DoorDash.
Gail Somers, who owns Yahso Jamaican Grille in downtown Keene, said the restaurant began using DoorDash and Uber Eats last summer in an effort to expand its clientele.
She said orders through the delivery services tripled during the pandemic, helping Yahso offset much of the in-person business it lost. Somers also thinks the restaurant’s presence on those companies’ online platforms attracted new customers in recent months.
Revenue from orders through DoorDash and Uber Eats increased from 10 percent of Yahso’s earnings before the pandemic to 20 percent at its peak and now accounts for about 15 percent, according to Somers.
“For me, it really helps to generate revenue,” she said. “It is an expense and takes out of the margin from where you’d normally get profit, but I think the top line makes a difference.”
While other restaurants surrender 30 percent of their earnings for each order to the delivery services, Somers was able to negotiate fees between 20 and 25 percent.
Still, she continues to monitor Yahso’s partnership with the companies and may soon drop Uber Eats, which she said generates less business than DoorDash and is not as reliable.
“Their delivery efficiency is not as good,” Somers said. “I tend to be waiting for my Uber [Eats] driver, whereas my DoorDash driver shows up on time most of the time.”
Pho Keene Great began using DoorDash in May because the delivery service was not charging fees for partnering restaurants, according to its owner, Malaise Lindenfeld.
Lindenfeld said the restaurant, which offers Vietnamese cuisine, noticed a “modest increase” in business after partnering with DoorDash, which represented 15 percent of its sales in July. But the recent resumption of 30 percent fees on DoorDash orders completely eliminated those earnings, she said.
“At best, we are making no money on delivery orders,” Lindenfeld told The Sentinel in an email. “The theory behind a service such as DoorDash is that it allows people who will then become restaurants customers to try your product. So far we have not seen that at all.”
Lindenfeld said Pho Keene Great continues to use the delivery company as a service to people who do not want to leave their homes due to safety concerns, rather than to generate profit.
“It is not helping us stay afloat,” she said. “If we were to stop [DoorDash] sales today, even if we had less [in] sales as a result, we would be better off.”
The Flight Deck and Willie Mac’s also struggled to overcome DoorDash delivery fees, which Gunn said were never reduced, after the state ordered restaurants to suspend in-person dining on March 16.
Given the tight margins and logistical challenges DoorDash added for the restaurants, whose employees were diverted from more profitable efforts in order to fill DoorDash orders, Gunn said, she dropped the service two days later. After a brief attempt to establish their own online ordering and delivery systems, the restaurants closed completely on March 20.
Gunn said DoorDash continued to present problems, even before The Flight Deck and Willie Mac’s re-opened in May and July, respectively.
In the intervening months, the delivery service periodically showed both restaurants as open on its online platform, leading people to place orders that could not be fulfilled, according to Gunn.
Life is Sweet, the candy store in Keene that Gunn also owns, has continued to use DoorDash during the pandemic but also launched its own free delivery service in recent months. Gunn estimated the store only receives five or six DoorDash orders each week.
“It would be just as easy for us to bring [an order] to somebody than to use DoorDash,” she said.
Despite her concerns, Gunn re-activated DoorDash when Willie Mac’s opened on July 14 and also added Grubhub as a delivery option in early August — though she already plans to drop the latter.
“Since a lot of people didn’t know we were open … it was effective to go back on DoorDash because anybody who would be using it would see it,” she said.
Gunn senses the convenience of food delivery services, amplified by the pandemic, signals a fundamental shift in the food industry — similar to how Amazon changed retail shopping.
“Let’s be honest, it’s easier to call in [an order] and have it come to you than to get in your car,” she said. “People have pushed us way closer to doing [business] online.”