Restaurant Delivery

To avoid using third-party apps, many restaurants are turning to in-house delivery.

Delivery apps have been a godsend to many people during the COVID-19 pandemic. From groceries to pet food to burritos, apps like Postmates, Shipt, GrubHub, DoorDash and Instacart have made it easier for non-essential workers to stay home in 2020.

Restaurant delivery in particular has been vital, as many counties and cities had to shut down indoor dining in an attempt to quell the virus’ spread. Restaurants whose business model never included takeout – much less delivery – have pivoted in order to keep the doors open.

GrubHub reported third quarter revenues of $494 million, which is more than double over the same period in 2019. Rideshare giant Uber, amid a 75 percent decline in rides, bought Postmates for $2.65 billion this summer.

Many diners see these apps as a way to patronize their favorite local spots while in-person dining is unsafe. However, the seismic profits GrubHub and others reported this year are, unsurprisingly, not passed on to the local restaurants that make it possible. These apps charge restaurants around a 30 percent commission in fees in an industry where profit margins hover at 3 to 5 percent.

Now that it's obvious the pandemic won’t be over any time soon, some St. Louis restaurants are taking matters into their own hands and adding in-house delivery.

“[The apps] screw over everyone, from the customer to the driver to the restaurant,” says Mark Hinkle, co-owner of Olive + Oak, Clover and the Bee and O+O Pizza, in Webster Groves, Missouri. “The only one that comes out ahead is the big corporation behind the scenes.”

Like many others, Hinkle and his team have been struggling to keep afloat, despite Olive + Oak being one of the most popular and lauded spots in the St. Louis area. As temperatures drop, Hinkle was ready to take advantage of any opportunity to bring in revenue and keep his staff employed.

Hinkle realizes that using current staff to make deliveries will not completely replace the money they would have brought in this winter with a full dining room, but it’ll at least mean his restaurants won’t have to cut hours as much as they would have otherwise. He’s been frustrated with people not taking COVID seriously and patronizing businesses in surrounding counties where masks aren’t even required, in some cases putting themselves at risk and potentially spreading the virus to St. Louis County.

“We'll keep pivoting and keep trying to make this work, and keep trying to keep our staff employed and stay afloat until this is over,” he says. “It's a hard time for us. We’re so grateful for the people that continue to support our restaurants. And I think they showed it when COVID first started and I think we're seeing it again. We're blessed to have a community in St. Louis County that comes out and supports restaurants while we're fighting to stay alive.”

At Katie’s Pizza and Pasta Osteria, which has two locations in Rock Hill and Town & Country, curbside pickup was supplemented by shipping frozen pizzas (using local staff instead of FedEx) as well as in-house contactless delivery earlier this summer.

“We haven’t had to lay off one person – 140 people – since the pandemic started,” says co-owner Katie Collier, “[It's] something we are most proud of. Keeping our team safe and working has been our mission over any profits.”

For Rick Lewis, co-owner of Grace Meat + Three in St. Louis’ The Grove neighborhood, in-house delivery seemed a natural extension of the Southern-inspired restaurant’s walk-up windows (natural for the pandemic, anyway).

The walk-up window was originally introduced to cater to the late-night crowd in The Grove, but Lewis added a second walk-up window while St. Louis city dining rooms were completely shut down earlier this year.

“We looked at the restaurant model, and we wanted to make it as easy as possible [for customers]. How do you do that? Bring the food to people,” Lewis says. “We don't want to pay third parties to deliver; it just seems like it's not worth putting the stress on your staff and on your restaurant to not make money. It also became a way to give our staff more hours and create jobs.”

The biggest hurdle, Lewis says, has been getting the word out – especially now that Grace is competing for delivery business with pizza places and Chinese restaurants that have been offering delivery for decades. That being said, Lewis says the fried chicken spot had its biggest delivery week yet just before Thanksgiving.

“The community loves us, and our patrons love us. We’ve been there for a lot of people, and I feel like in turn, they’re going to continue to support us. I don’t think it’s going to be a great winter [though]. It’s not going to be fun,” Lewis says with a laugh. “We’re being as safe as possible, continuing to monitor our employees’ health, everything we’ve been doing from the beginning.

“We're not going anywhere without a fight. We’re gonna keep plugging away at this thing, trying to be creative, trying to come up with ways to stay at the forefront of people's minds. I think the delivery is going to take off – it’s still a battle for us.”