On a recent Sunday morning at Kettleman’s Bagel Company in the Glebe, business was unrelenting.During the blur between breakfast and lunch, most of the eatery’s tables were filled with diners. The line-up of new arrivals, which stretched from the front door to the cash, never seemed to shorten. For a dozen or so deli staffers, it was all hands on deck to expedite bagels, pastries, coffees and juices to a steady stream of customers.However, the most harried-looking Kettleman’s staffer was working to satisfy hungry people who hadn’t even left their homes.At his station behind the bagel makers, the Kettleman’s point man for Uber Eats customers was catching orders on his iPad and then inputing them into the Kettleman’s system so the kitchen would know what to make. As soon as he confirmed each order, an Uber Eats driver was dispatched and the countdown for arrival began. With every item that was prepped, packed and labeled, a deli staffer yelled “Uber pick up!” and the point man’s job was to bound over, retrieve the item and get it into the right bag.As Uber Eats drivers queued in front of the Kettleman’s takeout counter, insulated delivery bags in one hand and phones in the other, the point man sealed paper bags filled with food and put them into plastic bags. After quick handoffs, the drivers left.“When you do it, you have to do it like a military operation,” says Craig Buckley, the founder and CEO of Kettleman’s.Over 20 or so minutes, the routine was repeated to fill eight Uber Eats orders. That’s the kind of volume that helped establish the breakfast bagels at Kettleman’s (which has three Ottawa locations) as Uber Eats’s most delivered item between May 2016, when the service launched in Ottawa, and its one-year anniversary. Since then, after Uber Eats expanded its list of restaurant partners, orders from chains such as McDonald’s have bumped Kettleman’s from top spot.Not surprisingly, Buckley is sold on Uber Eats. Between eight and 10 per cent of Kettleman’s business comes through Uber Eats and that percentage is growing, he says. His plans to open Kettleman’s locations in Toronto and Montreal call for them to have dedicated queues for Uber Eats.Regarding online food delivery services, which in Ottawa include not just Uber Eats but also SkipTheDishes, which came to town in 2014, and the recent arrival DoorDash, Buckley says “it’s definitely something a restaurant has to have.”If only his success was typical.Yes, the online restaurant delivery business is booming, not only in Ottawa but also nationally and beyond. The burgeoning industry took in $2 billion last year in Canada and is expected to grow for the next several years, says Howard Migdal, SkipTheDishes’s managing director for Canada. A 2017 Morgan Stanley study predicted that by 2022, digital food delivery in the U.S. may take up 11 per cent of the total restaurant market, compared to its current six per cent share.“The (restaurant) industry could get ‘Amazoned,’” the study says.But for every Kettleman’s that welcomes the digitization of restaurant ordering, there seem to be numerous eateries that view the transformation as a mixed blessing or even a disruption that’s barely worth the trouble.Customers everywhere who forego dining out and embrace the app-based convenience and added fees of having food appear at their doorsteps should know that not all restaurateurs are fans of this revenue stream.The sceptical ones complain their returns are meagre, that the services take a massive middleman’s cut (usually between 25 and 35 per cent of the order), and that when things go wrong — the specifics of orders are botched, the food arrives cold, the drivers are late, early, or surly, and more — headaches mount.“There are loads of problems,” says Jamil Bhuya, co-owner of the Ottawa-based Burgers n’ Fries Forever chain, which has partnered with both Uber Eats and SkipTheDishes.“We’ve had delivery drivers show up as late as an hour,” Bhuya says. “Once, we had a five-meal order take two hours to pick up.“We’re trying to get in touch with service providers … their business practices have gotten a little less transparent in terms of who we can contact if we are in trouble,” he continues. “It’s becoming increasingly harder to keep the customer happy and usually the customer takes his anger out on the restaurant.”
Kory McCoy, kitchen manager for Burgers n’ Fries Forever on Bank St for story about the use of food delivery services such as Uber Eats and Skip The Dishes Photo by Wayne Cuddington/ Postmedia
Wayne Cuddington /
Of course, some Ottawa restaurateurs who are uncompromising about their food and stress the primacy of the dine-in experience refuse to deliver.Marysol Foucault, chef–owner of the tiny but beloved Gatineau breakfast and lunch spot Edgar, would never send its famed “Dutch baby” pancakes with pork belly and apple compote with a courier.“I think the delivery time would impact the quality of the food,” Foucault says. “I never want a review that something wasn’t ideal because it was left there waiting too long. You always have to think that it could be this person’s first (and only) experience, and we wish for it to be memorable.“Also, having an outside service that isn’t invested in the company (with their heart and soul) is a big risk I would never take,” Foucault says.Joe Thottungal, chef-owner of Coconut Lagoon and Thali in Ottawa, similarly refuses to sell his vibrantly flavoured South Indian curries through an online partner.“I fear losing the personal touch,” he says. “There’s something special about serving our guests in the restaurant itself … The guests at Coconut Lagoon come just for the simple fact of enjoying the food. There’s no multitasking, no mind-consuming thoughts that take over, the guests are just enjoying.“In fact, when a restaurant serves you food in their restaurant, they’re also serving you their heart,” Thottungal says.If TripAdvisor’s tally is reliable, there are about 2,500 restaurants in Ottawa. Of them, SkipTheDishes has partnered with close to 1,000 eateries, of which roughly 600 to 700 are independent businesses while the rest are locations of national or regional chains, Migdal says. Josh McConnell, a senior communications associate at Uber, said the company could not provide a figure for the number of Ottawa restaurants on Uber Eats. DoorDash, the newcomer, lists more than 700 Ottawa restaurants on its website.Still, many eateries that have partnered with delivery services are also struggling to capitalize on this new way of getting food to customers.“It’s like everything in the restaurant industry. Every time there’s a new technology, it makes it better for (customers) but the restaurant in between is caught in a hard place,” says Simeon Yaremko, the general manager for Dunn’s Famous Restaurant in the ByWard Market, which limits is offerings through Uber Eats to smoked meat sandwiches and poutine, to ease the strain on its kitchen.“It’s very rare that it works well for the restaurateur,” Yaremko says.“It’s become a necessary evil,” says Bhuya. “Everybody else is doing it. It’s eat or be eaten.”***Migdal, SkipTheDishes’s managing director for Canada, says that one appealing aspect of services such as his is the expanded range of food that’s available, which goes beyond the pizzas and Chinese fare that were previously the staples of delivery.“Now, an app like SkipTheDishes lets you get a breakfast sandwich from Tim Hortons in the morning, a salad at lunch and a pizza at dinner. The additional choice has made this habitual for consumers.”He adds that the fastest growing segment of his service is “fast-paced families … we’re seeing it become a mass-market product really quickly.”
The storefront of Elgin Street Diner sports a SkipTheDishes logo.
Ashley Fraser /
Still, at the website Restaurants Canada, the national, not-for-profit industry association, a blog post ascribes the boom in online food delivery to “one big and growing slice of the market … millennials.”Matthew Baggetta, a content strategist for 7shifts, a Canadian company that makes employee scheduling software for restaurants, writes that millennials allocate the highest share of their food budgets to prepared food (7.5 per cent) compared to other generations (between 6.6 and 6.9 per cent).“The preference for prepared food is all about convenience,” Baggetta writes. “And this preference is gaining priority as millennials grow up, build wealth, and become a powerful segment driving restaurant business.”Baggetta’s article even asserts that “virtual restaurants” — essentially kitchens that don’t serve dine-in customers but make food exclusively for pick-up, take-out and delivery orders — constitute an emerging business model.Ottawa millennial Kayla Bernier says she’s “100 per cent” conflicted about her use of online food delivery services.“I do it all the time … there are some weeks where it’s every day,” says the 27-year-old who lives in downtown Ottawa. Among her go-tos are shawarmas from Shawarma Palace on Rideau Street, perogies from Midnight’s Mac and Grilled Cheese Cabin in the ByWard Market, and Vietnamese dishes from Pho Bo Ga King in Chinatown.“It definitely adds up,” she says, scrolling through the record of purchases on her phone.You have to cut Bernier some slack for not making her own meals. As one of the cooks who helps feed the gourmet taco lovers who come to Ola Cocina Taqueria in Vanier, Bernier says: “I don’t want to cook for myself after cooking all day.”Given what she does for a living, Bernier has mixed feelings about Uber Eats and SkipTheDishes, both of which are installed on her phone. “I can’t tip the restaurant,” she says.“I need to stop this. It’s bad. Every single time, I’ve been like, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’ But it’s convenient. Every time I order, I’m, ‘Oh.’ But I want food in my face right now.’”Bernier’s employer, Donna Chevrier, the owner of Ola Cocina, is just as conflicted about having signed up last year with SkipTheDishes and Uber Eats. “For years I said, ‘No, no, no.’”But after talks with her business coach, Chevrier took the plunge. Her tiny restaurant seats just 20 or so, and she says she needed more money over the winter because her plan to open a store next door to sell take-home dishes was delayed.Chevrier estimates that online orders net her about $800 a week — along with considerable frustrations.“You’re in a vicious circle,” she says. “Those people who are ordering (online) aren’t going to be coming to your restaurant,” where the profit margin is higher, says Chevrier. Meanwhile, dine-in customers may experience longer waits for their food because of online orders.“Notice that there’s no (Uber Eats or SkipTheDishes) stickers on my doors? That’s how much I don’t want to do this,” she says.Chevrier lists complaints in quick succession. She resents having had to pay for the services’s tablets and the all-important photos of her food that appear on their websites and apps. She thinks that petty criticisms by customers drove down her ratings with the services, something which in turn makes her restaurant less prominent and popular in the online listings.Like many a restaurateur, Chevrier is frustrated by drivers whose arrival times change, forcing Ola Cocina to make an order twice.Ryan Moleiro, the founder of Paradise Poké on Bank Street, says his Centretown business, which specializes in Hawaiian-inspired raw fish dishes, must remake dishes a few times a week because SkipTheDishes drivers are a half hour or so late.Moleiro says he is glad online deliveries allow his business to reach customers beyond downtown Ottawa. “We’re happy we can get people fresh poké, delivered right to their door,” he says.But he adds that the accounting methods of Uber Eats and SkipTheDishes strike him as “deliberately confusing.“Every quarter we sit down and take a hard look at sales. Dissecting Uber and Skip statements are nearly impossible. They keep sales and deposits separate, making it extremely difficult to cross-reference each customer’s order versus the money we have been paid. They also refuse to speak to you regarding any accounting questions. We have tried to contact them multiple times, to no avail. This has naturally been very frustrating.”
A sample of a meal at Burgers n’ Fries Forever.
Wayne Cuddington /
Bhuya of Burgers n’ Fries Forever has also been stymied when trying to liaise with the delivery services.He recalls that when he first signed on, he had no complaints. Back then, Burgers n’ Fries Forever’s sales through Uber Eats “were insane … beyond our wildest expectations,” while the lines of communication between his restaurants and the services were clear, he says.Since then, the honeymoon has ended, Bhuya says.“We have noticed in the last year or two, the service from account managers has pretty much disappeared,” he says. “We used to have a dedicated account manager, but now we just get to a general help line or hotline.“The money comes to us on a weekly or biweekly basis with fees deducted. For us to argue is such a hassle and a waste of time. Two weeks later, we don’t remember what we got dinged for,” he says.Even more frustrating, Bhuya says he has difficulties in reaching a delivery service rep in real time when there’s a problem with an order.“The biggest frustration is some form of liaison between customer and restaurant when we need it the most, which is when the food is being made,” Bhuya says.“That’s the bottom line that has made the situation so frustrating. We’re usually the ones trying to put out fires, while trying to make food, while trying to service customers in-house, while trying to clean up.“Really, our only job is to make food, as the restaurant — that’s kind of what you get sold,” Bhuya says. “(But) they don’t take care of the rest.“I feel like the people who provide the most value, which is the restaurants, are treated like the last priority now. We are called restaurant partners — that makes it extremely hard to stomach these days.”Migdal’s response to the frustrations of Bhuya and other restaurateurs is that, simply put, SkipTheDishes is trying.“We try to provide multiple ways restaurants can get in touch with us by either hitting a button on their tablet and getting a call right away or calling into our customer service agents.” SkipTheDishes, he says, has more than 2,000 employees at its Winnipeg call centre to help restaurants, customers and couriers.SkipTheDishes is making progress in improving key metrics and measures of satisfaction, Migdal says, citing the example of delivery times having dropped to under 35 minutes.“If there are any unhappy restaurants out there,” Migdal says, “we genuinely work every day to try to improve that partnership because we truly see that not as a service-vendor relationship but as a partnership. We’re in this together.”McConnell, the Uber senior communications associate, says Uber Eats is “always listening to restaurant partner, courier partner and eater feedback on how to improve and evolve the platform.”He stressed that in all, there’s money for eateries to make via Uber Eats, since the service largely drives business to restaurants above and beyond in-store sales. “Uber Eats personalizes dish and restaurant recommendations to customers, providing restaurants with access to a new set of targeted and high-value customers,” McConnell says.***At Oat Couture Oatmeal Café in Old Ottawa South, co-owner Brian Montgomery feels that the pros of the delivery services outweigh the cons, and that through them, his business is reaching new customers it otherwise would not have attracted.“We cannot assume that we are cannibalizing our own clientele and receiving less profit from them, as I have heard some of our competitors complain. It could be a totally different market,” Montgomery says.About 10 per cent of the cafe’s sales comes in via Uber Eats, SkipTheDishes and DoorDash, “adding extra revenues to an existing cost structure that would still be there whether we do this or not,” he continues.Montgomery says it has been crucial to teach drivers how to handle the cafe’s orders so they don’t end up with bowls of oatmeal sitting sideways in their delivery bags. After having a few drivers take the wrong order, the cafe has instituted better verification protocols.“You have to adapt to change in business, or you may perish,” Montgomery says. “I don’t see this trend going away. More delivery platform entrants will probably drive the fees down, and so it will be good to already have your own house in order to be able to deal with more entrants.”He adds that he and his staff even order the cafe’s items “from all over the city to make sure that the bowls and coffee are hot and consistent with in-store (orders), and we are happy to say that they are. It’s a bit weird to buy your own stuff and pay someone else a fee to do so, but we want to see the experience from the end user.”
Owner of Elgin Street Diner, Ron Shrybman, says SkipTheDishes has been beneficial to his business.
Ashley Fraser /
At the Elgin Street Diner, owner Ron Shrybman says he’s processing at least 600 SkipTheDishes a week, generating revenues in the “high six figures” annually.That money is on top of the diner’s gangbuster business, Shrybman says. “I still have lineups, I’m full and I’m still doing Skip,” he adds.On a recent Saturday morning, the situation at his 26-year-old downtown mainstay for casual comfort food supported his take. Despite construction outside on Elgin Street, the diner that seats 80 was packed and several paper bags were being filled on the counter near its entrance, in anticipation of SkipTheDishes drivers.“You have to embrace the whole thing,” Shrybman says. “You have to have employees who are trained. You have to edit some of your menu items that don’t travel well. You have to think about it and really put some brain power into how this food is going to look in 20 to 30 minutes when the customer receives it.”More than a year ago, Shrybman says he “took packaging seriously. My Skip business doubled.” By that, he means he switched to boxes with scalloped edges that wick away condensation so food doesn’t get soggy. Those boxes cost 40 cents each compared to three-cent styrofoam containers, but the sales bear out the investment, Shrybman asserts. As well, customers appreciate that the diner opts for more environmentally friendly packaging.“When done properly, it (selling food through online deliveries) is very efficient. But very few restaurants are set up to do takeout like I am,” Shrybman says. “The whole fit was perfect for me. It all worked and it still does.”