‘This can’t be real’: Grubhub promotion turns New York City restaurants into ‘warzone’


What were they thinking?

That’s not exactly what customers, restaurants and delivery people want to know after a surprise promotion by food delivery platform Grubhub – and it has proven that there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Grubhub’s plan was ambitious: to feed everyone in New York and the surrounding Tri-State area for free at noon on Tuesday. The platform cited a survey it conducted and said that 69% of working New Yorkers skip lunch.

But after Grubhub’s platform collapsed as New Yorkers rushed to place an order, the stuntman did just that. The fiasco overwhelmed restaurants, frustrated delivery workers, and left many customers with an empty stomach.

Grubhub spokesperson Christopher Krautler said the platform receives an average of 6,000 orders per minute, which “absolutely defeats all expectations”. Krautler acknowledged that the request “initially caused a temporary delay in our system and some users experienced an error message in their code, but this was quickly fixed,” adding that the platform has fulfilled more than 450,000 lunch orders tied to the promotion.

But many users never saw their food after spending money, some left hungry and waited for hours with the app’s promises that the food would come soon.

The app offered a $15 discount on any order made between 11:00 and 14:00 in the New York City area. Restaurants in the city flooded. Fee Bakhtiar, general manager of Jajaja Mexicana in the West Village, called it a “shit show.” When he opened the restaurant at 11.30am, he was stunned to see 40 orders already queuing from Grubhub.

“Wait, I said, this can’t be real. And then all of a sudden, something like, ‘Oh, I guess this is real’ happened.”

Focusing on takeout, Bakhtiar said Jajaja West Village was able to fulfill all Grubhub orders and suddenly disappeared at 2 pm. “But it would be nice if we had a view.” He told the Guardian that neither he nor executives in other locations in Jajaja in New York had received an email or mobile notification from the platform that the promotion was going to happen.

@Grubhub You have not contacted businesses. In fact, you didn’t even ask if we wanted to participate in it. Today you threatened our reputation and violated our borders. Pay us the money you stole from us today. #dontbuyongrubhub

— Karla Martinez (@kamasil) 18 May 2022

But many restaurants could not cope. Megan Benson, who works at a fast and casual chicken restaurant in Brooklyn, said lunch orders caused shortages, flooding dinner, turning the kitchen into a “battlefield.”

The restaurant was “usually busy from the moment we opened the door and no one told us about this free lunch thing,” he said. “Normally the ship was very narrow but we couldn’t keep up. We didn’t have time to restock anything, so half of the supplies were lost or gone.”

“The phone wouldn’t stop ringing because people were calling like crazy to tell us their stuff was missing, or their food was never delivered, so Grubhub deliverers would have to keep coming back.

“Finally, my co-workers were pissed that phones were being pushed in their faces all the time. Believe me, when I say there are almost fights.”

Toward the end of the shift, the kitchen was left solely to Benson and another co-worker struggling to stay afloat.

“It was too much and I had to remind myself out loud, ‘I’m just one person’ because I had to take orders. and place orders while my colleague makes all the Grubhub orders overflowing. There was nowhere to put them either.”

The delays meant that Benson had to stay up long after midnight to clean up, and he finally got home at 3:30. “Hopefully we get overtime pay this week,” he said.

Krautler said Grubhub “has given advance notice to all restaurants in our network, which includes email and multiple forms of in-platform communication….

Some were still no better for customers out of pocket from the “free” promotion. Comics artist Chloe Brailsford, who moved to Brooklyn last year, was being quarantined at her home due to Covid and decided to use Grubhub for the first time after learning about the promotion from a friend.

When he logged in shortly after 1 pm, he noticed that most of the restaurants in the app had marked themselves as “closed”. Tried Taco Bell at first, but when ordering a notification popped up saying the restaurant was no longer available.

Then he managed to find an Ihop with an estimated delivery time of 45 to 55 minutes and still taking orders. It took two tries to fulfill the request for the Belgian waffle combo and fried cheddar – even after that discount it was $22.26 including delivery charges.

“(The app) said it would arrive between 2.59 and 3.09 pm. I said much longer than 45 minutes.”

By 5 pm there was still no food in Brailsford. He watched his estimated arrival time change to 8 pm: “Me too, what’s going on?” He tried calling Grubhub’s customer support, but waited over half an hour before giving up and heading to the grocery store to get his dinner: a can of Progresso soup.

Krautler did not respond to a question about whether customers like Brailsford would get their money back.

I tried to get my regular lunch order from Sweetgreen today and it was complete madness. Workers shouldn’t have to put up with this crap, shame on GrubHub. pic.twitter.com/3uB5j0DQRO

— Mattie Kaiser (@mattie_kaiser) 18 May 2022

The promotion for delivery workers was a mixed bag. According to Krautler, Grubhub has increased its incentives for workers to support demand, with drivers “usually making two to three times more than usual during promotion”.

Two delivery workers told the Guardian they were earning higher-than-normal earnings as Grubhub spammed their phones to get them online: One worker, Artemiy Isakov, said the bonuses helped him earn around $500 from six hours of work. Another worker, Maurice Jamison, said he took $300 for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

However, other workers, including those thousands of miles from New York, reported never being able to log in because the app was struggling under demand. A Grubhub employee in California told the Guardian that during the New York free lunch promotion, his app “froze multiple times and completely stopped working”; was able to complete only three deliveries online in eight hours, making just $28 for the day.

As Grubhub’s systems skyrocketed, they outsourced some of their orders to third-party distribution platforms, which quickly took a hit. An employee of Relay, a New York City-based delivery platform, told the Guardian that shortly after using the promotion to get a free sandwich as a customer, he noticed orders starting to pile up on the courier app.

The worker, who did not want his identity to be revealed, said that an order he was assigned to receive was missing. Relay’s app requires employees to contact their support line to report order issues, but after waiting for more than 30 minutes, no one picked up the phone.

After removing herself from the order, she received another order that was not recorded in the restaurant’s systems. “After 30 minutes of waiting for help from Relay again, I got nothing. The app rates your performance, and removing your own assignment will affect your rating, so I’m very hesitant to do that. I already got a warning.

“I better not be punished for this,” the worker said. “The relay was definitely not primed.”

The relay did not respond to a request for comment.

Hildalyn Colon-Hernandez, policy director for Los Deliveristas Unidos, a worker group that represents New York City delivery workers, said when Grubhub’s app was sprayed yesterday, many workers were unable to deliver orders by holding them in their hands.

“Sometimes workers come to the restaurant and restaurants don’t even take orders from the app,” he said. “This leads to a confrontation because the workers say, ‘I already have shifts, I have to get there on time, but the restaurant is already full.’ And when they deliver it to the customer, they say, ‘I’ve been waiting for this for two hours’.”

Still awaiting a refund for the failed Ihop order, Brailsford doesn’t blame New Yorkers for the chaos: “People saw a deal and they wanted it because who doesn’t want to save some people in this damn economy? food money?”

But he has harsher words for Grubhub. “You could have thought about it for more than half a second and realized what a terrible idea you had.”