Uber wants to be sure even soup dumplings arrive hot

Clarification appended

Uber’s use of surge pricing as a company strategy is well known. With UberEATS, however, surge pricing is not a thing. Food ordered via the ride-sharing giant’s restaurant delivery service almost always costs the same, no matter how crowded the roads or how bad the weather.

It turns out that in order to keep prices level, a different parameter is tweaked: The size of each restaurant’s delivery zone.

The company says it’s transparent about the fluctuating nature of the radius, which determines how far away a potential customer can be and still have a particular spot show up in the UberEATS app.

“When deliveries take too long or the food doesn’t travel well, customers are less likely to order again,” Uber said in a statement. “In Philadelphia, our system helps keep ETAs low by setting dynamic delivery zones based on factors such as cuisine type, popularity, location, distance and expected delivery time due to weather, traffic or restaurant operations.”

But many aren’t aware the zones can (and do) fluctuate daily — including several chefs who’ve come to rely on the contracted couriers. Which has led to some uncomfortable situations.

‘I found out via Instagram’

Curt Evans of Route 23 Cafe didn’t know how to account for a recent slowdown in UberEATS orders to his Hunting Park spot until he started reading through a barrage of direct messages coming through Instagram and Facebook.

Multiple customers were writing to grumble: “What’s the deal? You’re no longer available on my app!”

The day after the only big snowstorm that hit the region this year, Jamillah Abdullah of Paprika Halal Restaurant, also on Germantown Avenue in Hunting Park, was expecting an uptick in UberEATS orders. It’s the only delivery service she uses, even though it costs 30 percent commission, because it’s easy and convenient — she doesn’t have to provide her own drivers like she would with GrubHub or Eat24.

“I figured people were snowed in, so they’d be ordering out,” she said. “I even brought in additional kitchen staff.”

But then, silence. No UberEATS orders were coming in. “I found out via my Instagram page,” Abdullah recalled. “It turns out they shrunk my delivery radius to 1.72 miles without notice.”

Angry customers and a drop in sales

Darlene Jones, owner of Star Fusion in Overbrook, had a similar experience. She first realized something was amiss a few weeks ago, when her BYOB near City Avenue got seven complaint calls in one day.

First the phone rang with someone who said they were used to ordering on a weekly basis, but now the app was suddenly showing the Star Fusion as “out of range.” Another person phoned to gripe that the app refused to let her hit “submit” on a reorder — was the restaurant closed? A third woman who happened to be friends with Jones sent a personal text asking if there was any other way to deliver to her workplace in Center City, since UberEATS “wasn’t working.”

“Then we got another call, and this lady was IRATE!” Jones said. “I can’t have that, have customers calling and berating my staff.”

Jones’ restaurant was one of the service’s early tests in Philly. She joined when it first launched locally back in August 2016, along with all the Stephen Starr joints. So she didn’t hesitate to reach out to her rep for answers. At first, her rep didn’t have an answer, but after checking with superiors called back to explain that yes, the delivery zone had been changed because UberEATS wanted to ensure delivery happened in 30 minutes or less — and apparently some of Star Fusion’s orders had not been making that time limit.

“Listen,” Jones told the Uber rep, “my customers understand they’re not gonna get food in 30 minutes.” The crab-stuffed salmon takes 30 minutes to prepare, much less be transported to someone’s home, she explained. Still, she agreed to take that item off the delivery menu, because the rep “claimed that would make a better experience.” However, her delivery zone still hasn’t been re-expanded to what it was before.

Star Fusion sales via UberEATS, which previously added up to around $1,200 per week, are now hovering around $800 instead, Jones said.

“I like UberEATS, I appreciate it,” Jones added, noting the service still accounts for up to 35 percent of her total sales. “I’m just not happy about how they changed our zoning without notifying us.”

Hot food and the restaurant dashboard

Uber has evolved its bespoke delivery service quite a bit since launch, turning it into a separate app and adding various tools for customers and clients. In March of this year, UberEATS rolled out a dashboard called a “Restaurant Manager” to help restaurateurs track various metrics the company has decided are the key to good service.

The dashboard is designed to give restaurants “access to insights about their service quality, customer satisfaction, and sales.” One thing is does not show: Current delivery zone.

This isn’t displayed directly in the dashboard because, according to an Uber spokesperson, it could change minute to minute. So the company doesn’t want to create an expectation of a certain zone, only to have it be different half an hour later when a restaurant owner might not still be staring at the screen.

Shrinking the zone is all about providing the best experience to the people eating the food, the Uber spokesperson confirmed. For every person who messages the restaurant to complain about being “out of the zone,” there could be five others who didn’t get a hot meal and weren’t that happy — but didn’t bother to go through the effort of lodging a complaint. In Uber’s view, those people are less likely to use the service in the future. (Refund requests are entirely absorbed by Uber, instead of being charged back to the restaurant.)

Uber does provide a series of “tips” on how to get food out fast — and has noted in emails that this is directly tied to the zone. “How do delivery zones work?” reads the first sentence in an UberEATS newsletter from February of this year titled, “Optimizing your delivery.”

The email goes on to explain how and why zones are dynamic. A second newsletter sent this month gets even more specific: “Because factors like cuisine type, popularity, location, and expected delivery times affect the dynamic delivery zone, slower performance can diminish your zone.”

But the company may not be doing enough to communicate the way UberEATS works. Because complaints are still pouring in.

“I just had a customer call last week angry because they used to be able to request delivery from me,” said Paprika’s Abdullah. “I keep hearing customers saying ‘I can’t find you.’

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation, including the membership program. She is a former food and...