For food delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats, business is booming in Sonoma County

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Tiffany Evergrace graduated from the Culinary Institute of America with a degree in culinary arts. She used that education to become a front-of-the-house manager at a nice restaurant in the Old Town neighborhood of Pasadena. It’s a background that ultimately led to her current job, which had Evergrace standing in front of Chick-Fil-A on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa on a drizzly Wednesday.

She now delivers food for DoorDash. She’s a Dasher.

“People get us in the comfort of their own home,” Evergrace said, summing up the service. “They don’t have to tip as much as in a restaurant, they don’t have to pay for a babysitter. It makes me happy that I’m making other people happy, but it also blows me away that I can make a living delivering food.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic triggered stay-at-home orders in Sonoma County and beyond, many businesses have gone into decline, radically changed their operating models or ground to a complete halt. But one, at least, is booming.

With restaurants not yet allowed to seat customers and a hungry populace suddenly wary of human contact, app-based delivery services like DoorDash, Uber Eats and GrubHub have shifted into high gear.

“Our grocery delivery portion of the business has more than doubled since people sheltered in place. And as the weeks have gone on, I’d say our restaurant delivery business has more than doubled as well,” acknowledged Mark Urenda, the local owner of FoodJets, a franchise company that partners with Raley’s Supermarkets in addition to picking up hot food takeout orders.

The arrangement has proven to be a huge boon for the delivery companies and for consumers, who can enjoy a restaurant-quality meal without so much as donning an N95 mask. It’s more of a mixed blessing for restaurants, who are charged commissions as high as 30%, and drivers, who forfeit medical benefits and sick leave when they choose to work in the gig economy.

Like so much in our current lives, the transaction begins with the tap of a phone screen. If you have an app such as GrubHub or Postmates, you can search a list of available restaurants in the area, pick one and order right from the menu. The order goes directly to the restaurant, then to the screens of drivers like Evergrace, who can accept or reject individual pickup wages.

Not every dining establishment chooses to work with the tech services. For some, the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t add up.

“Our feeling was, when we got busy enough with deliveries, we’d buy our own rig and do it ourselves,” said Matt Spector, who owns Zoftig Eatery in east Santa Rosa. “That time hasn’t come yet for us.”

So Zoftig uses GrubHub and FoodJets to transport its food. In doing so, the Montgomery Drive restaurant agrees to pay GrubHub 30% of the money it generates from those deliveries, and to pay FoodJets 25%.

It’s worth it for many restaurants. They get a low-overhead method of delivering food and, in effect, a source of marketing. If you launch the GrubHub app in Santa Rosa, Zoftig will be among the options. Establishments that don’t partner with GrubHub will not.

“You don’t have to worry about schedules, insurance, workers comp (for the drivers),” said Gus Gutierrez, general manager of Los Tres Chiles, which uses several of the services. “If we don’t have the traffic from these different companies, how do we advertise? We have Facebook. But with the new generation, it’s through the apps. If we hire drivers, how many do I have to get? One? Two? Three? It has its cons and draws.”

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Gutierrez summed it up like this: “The way I look at it, we’re keeping this door open and having employees getting paid by using those apps. It’s not the same revenue, but some revenue is better than none.”

With local economies tanking and restaurants operating under extraordinary circumstances, several U.S. municipalities have capped the percentages delivery companies can charge. San Francisco Mayor London Breed, for example, set the rate at 15% on April 10.

No similar measure has been discussed in Santa Rosa at the city level, City Council member Victoria Fleming said. While cautioning that she hadn’t studied the issue closely, Fleming said she’d need to know how a cap on fees would impact delivery drivers and restaurant employees.

“When I look at these things, the first thing I look at is how the percentage would affect the business and the person working for the business,” she said. “So here, if we were to cap it at 15%, my first thought is that’s not really even considered a good tip. If the tech platform is taking some of that, what is the driver left with?”

As it stands, those drivers seem pretty happy with the work they’re getting. Some, like Evergrace (who lives in Guerneville and is saving money to move out of state), do it for a living, if not a career. Others, like Annie Le, are just looking for a little supplemental income.

Le, 20, had quit her job in anticipation of a move to Southern California when the pandemic blew up. Stuck in Santa Rosa, where she grew up, she moved in with a cousin. To contribute, she started driving for DoorDash two weeks ago. She has been amazed by the ease of signing up and the simplicity of the app, and she finds it relaxing to drive around and listen to music while working. There are challenges, though.

“I have to eat something before I DoorDash, or I’ll be too hungry,” Le said. “Sometimes I’ll pick up Wingstop and the whole car will smell like that. It’s like an air freshener.”

More than any other factor, the Dashers enjoy the flexibility of the job. They can work 12 hours in a day, or zero. They can accept lower-paying deliveries, or reject them. They can choose the communities they drive in, and the restaurants they pick up from. If Evergrace visits her sister in Oregon, she can work a few hours there if she wants.

“It’s based on what you like to do,” Le said. “I really appreciate it. I can spend time with my family, then go dash.”

And the money might be better than you think. The DoorDash app allows drivers to see their weekly earnings and time logged. Le said her “active time” in the most recent recorded week netted $25.40 per hour, while her “dash time” (which includes sitting stationary with the app up) hourly rate was $18.50. Evergrace, who has done this longer and is probably faster, said she makes about $24/hour in dash time.

Of course, the task has changed during the coronavirus scare. Food deliverers are taking more risks than most of us. They handle dozens of packages prepared by others, and occasionally interact with diners. DoorDash has made masks and gloves available to drivers through a website.

“We are out there quote-unquote on the frontlines,” Evergrace said. “We don’t necessarily feel that way when we’re working. But we are out there, and we had to figure out how to not get sick. We had to answer the question, should I stay home or deliver food?”

DoorDash agreed to change its tipping model last year when it came to light the company was deducting tips from drivers’ delivery fees.

Urenda believes FoodJets avoids some of that corporate mentality. It began not as a tech company looking for a sector to saturate, but as a small delivery service called Food2U. Urenda, who grew up in Santa Rosa, used to drive for the company. When Food2U became FoodJets and adopted a franchise model, he “jumped in with both feet” when presented a chance for ownership.

Urenda currently employs 23 drivers, who range only from Santa Rosa to Rohnert Park and Cotati. He can’t offer as many app users as the big guys but, he says, he is easier to reach when a problem arises. And FoodJets does charge that smaller commission.

For all of them, big and small, the virus has presented an unexpected explosion in business. Urenda admits that’s a source of mixed emotions.

“After the first couple weeks, when I noticed a significant upswing in business, I did for a very short period of time have uneasy feelings of doing well while so many other people were not doing well,” he said. “I guess the best way I can describe it now is that I feel fortunate my team and I are in a sector of business that caters to local neighbors, and that we’re able to be useful and helpful getting people the food items they need.”

The stay-at-home order will go away at some point. Considering human nature, the hunger for app-based food delivery may not.

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