One of the coolest things about city living in 2018 is that, if you have enough money, you can use an app to order essentially anything, and an underpaid courier will deliver it to your door in a matter of minutes. Seamless is the giant amongst this futuristic new set of services that cater to your lazy needs, so much so that the company has earned its own verb. “Let’s Seamless some sandwiches for lunch,” you might say, and it might feel good. It shouldn’t, though, because Seamless is bad, and you should stop using it.
If you use Seamless and you don’t hate yourself a little bit, read no further. What I have to say about the reality of food-delivery apps will probably just upset you and your entitlement. But if you’re wondering what’s so wrong with the little red icon on your iPhone that leads you through a series of menus before you place an order and sustenance appears at your door, keep going.
Regardless of your opinions on capitalism, you might be surprised to learn that services like Seamless aren’t just ripping you off—they’re ripping off the entire food industry.
Believe it or not, Seamless has been doing this for nearly two decades. Founded in 1999 as an enterprise business for catering, the company survived the dot-com crash and started connecting restaurants directly to customers in the mid-Aughts. The company merged with GrubHub in 2013, creating a near-monopoly over internet-based food delivery until recent years when a flurry of newer, more specialized services like Caviar, Uber Eats, and Mulberry & Vine entered the market. Food writer Elizabeth Dunn highlighted the trend and its consequences in a recent New Yorker article. Dunn reports:
A representative for Curry-Ya, a Japanese restaurant in Harlem that has become one of my favorite spots for delivery, told me that “sometimes it seems like we’re making food to make Seamless profitable.” At the same time, she said, “it’s really becoming a bulk part of our business, so it’s not something we can cut.”
It gets gnarlier:
Another New York restaurant owner told me that a colleague described delivery as “like crack cocaine,” an income stream that his business had become dependent upon but that might ultimately be running them into the ground.
We reached out to Seamless for its response to the criticisms raised in the New Yorker article—issues that have been around for years—and we’ll let you know if they respond. (Update: Seamless responded. See below.)
The numbers are understandably bleak from the restaurant’s point of view. Seamless takes a cut from every sale, of course. Then, the restaurant has to hire a courier, if they don’t have an in-house delivery person—and most restaurants do not. The owners of Mulberry & Vine told Dunn that 20 to 40 percent of their delivery revenue goes to pay platforms like Seamless, and what’s left sometimes doesn’t even cover their overhead, including food costs. Assuming this conundrum is common at most restaurants, the reality is grim. Restaurants can’t afford to be on Seamless. They also can’t afford not to be on Seamless.
But what do you care about the restaurant business? I’m biased because my parents owned a restaurant, and I grew up working in the kitchen and hustling large pans of food in and out of a van for our catering business. Those were the dial-up days, so Seamless wasn’t anywhere close to affecting our bottom line. I also realize that Seamless is a bigger threat to restaurants in cities where the app is popular, although the company is bound to keep expanding as it rakes in record profits every year. Regardless, I know how hard it is just to break even in the food industry, and Seamless isn’t helping.
Let’s think about this from your point of view, though. When you order food on Seamless, you’re not just paying the price on the menu. You might be paying a delivery fee on top of that, and as long as you’re not a monster, you’re also giving the delivery guy a tip. If you’re not tipping in person, you should also assume that your tip isn’t going to the delivery guy, because these new contract couriers typically don’t work for tips like most waiters. I wouldn’t be surprised if restaurants were using the tip revenue to offset the cost of the Seamless fee.
That Seamless fee is a tricky little shit, too. The Tribeca Citizen, a local blog based in downtown Manhattan, reported a couple years ago that Seamless actually charged restaurants a commission based on how high they wanted to appear in search results. A 20 percent commission, the highest, might get your pizza place on the front page. A 12.5 percent commission, the lowest, might condemn it to the dark depths of the tenth page. Still, Seamless gets the final say on who shows up where, and Seamless also decides when restaurants get paid for orders placed through Seamless.
Inevitably, it’s the customers who end up paying for these extra costs. The restaurants don’t want to go out of business or operate at a loss after all. Their best strategy might be to jack up menu prices and hope that you’re willing to spend a few more dollars for the indulgent luxury of sitting on your ass, waiting for dinner instead of cooking or walking to a restaurant. Seamless, which is in charge of keeping restaurant menus and prices updated on their site, even sabotages the situation sometimes by being disorganized. Some restaurant owners have reported that they’ve actually made prices cheaper on their menus, but Seamless failed to update the price and reportedly pocketed the difference.
Like I said before, if you’re happy doing this and you’re happy with the inevitable future where every service industry works like Uber and nobody has health insurance or retirement plans, that’s okay. The next big thing, Seamless likely hopes, will be cities full of restaurants that operate in unmarked commercial kitchens exclusively producing delivery orders. This is already happening in places like New York, where celebrity chef David Chang tried it with his delivery-only restaurant, Ando. Ando failed after two years, and Uber Eats bought it for an undisclosed sum.
If you’re a good, self-aware American, think twice before that next Seamless order. Sure, food delivery can be a lifesaver if you’re sick and unable to leave your bed. It’s also a nice treat to get a pizza sometimes, and Seamless makes it easy to get your order just right without picking up the phone. Pizza is still the best delivery option, too. But before you tap that little red icon, consider using the phone instead. If you order directly through the restaurant and tip in cash, the restaurant gets to make a profit and the delivery guy gets to keep his tip. Talking on the phone isn’t that hard. People used to do it all the time in the 20th century.
Better yet, you should just delete your Seamless account. You should delete the app from your phone, and go ahead and delete Uber Eats and Caviar and any other money-sucking food delivery apps. Just stop participating in the tricky economy of online food ordering. If you want food delivery but your phone phobia is truly paralyzing, try Blue Apron or one of those meal kit services. The food still comes straight to your house, and as a bonus, you get a fun evening activity: cooking. Dinner for two through most food kit services is also oftenmuch cheaper than dinner for two through Seamless.
At the end of the day, quitting Seamless might just be that New Year’s resolution you forgot to make. It will save you money. It will make you healthier. It will help countless restaurant owners make more money. It will probably make America better. But it will definitely make you feel better.
Update 6:00pm EST - Seamless sent us the following statement:
It is our number one priority to bring value and opportunity to our restaurant partners and help them thrive. Seamless has a proven, positive impact to help restaurants reach new customers and drive incremental orders, with one in five restaurants doubling their takeout revenue a year after working with Seamless.