You’re a smart person. How many people do you think would like an app…

…where the food they order costs more, takes longer to arrive, isn’t what they asked for, shows up cold and messy, and they have to go outside and get it no matter the distance or the weather? Millions in the U.S. alone, apparently.

No one really knows how many, though.

As is always the case, different study sponsors have different motives, interpret findings to suit themselves, and tell stories they want investors and customers to hear. Numbers also get confused when people use incompatible terms interchangeably, making comparisons impossible. We’re all familiar with takeout and delivery and know them to be two very different things. In spite of their differences, some studies combine takeout and delivery into an umbrella category they call off-premise. So of course different numbers for takeout, delivery, and off-premise get cited willy-nilly as if they were all measuring the same thing.

There are a few things we can agree are happening, though.

  • Billions in venture capital are flowing to the food delivery industry.
  • Restaurants feel they have to get on the bandwagon or lose out entirely. 
  • Delivery services are elbowing their way into the game.

Almost everyone agrees the food delivery business has a bright future. 

Like most predictions, numbers tend to be sky-high so as to get our attention. UBS tells us that within ten years, more meals will be ordered online and delivered to us in our homes than eaten in restaurants, picked up on the way home, or made ourselves – combined. Some seers tell us the food delivery industry will be worth a trillion dollars five years from now. Could be they’re right.

U.S. Foods published a study.

The food service distributor surveyed 1,500 people who use popular food delivery apps. Here are the biggest problems those customers had with their food delivery experiences:

We didn’t get what we ordered. We can send it back when it happens in the restaurant. They usually apologize and often adjust the bill. We can take it back when it happens at the drive-thru window, but we are often away and down the road before we find out and say the hell with it. When our food is delivered, we don’t discover the error until the driver is long gone. 

Our food wasn’t hot. In the restaurant we know it right away and send it back, where they zap it in a microwave and bring it back to the table within a minute or two. We are less likely to go back to the drive-thru because of the effort it takes. Again, when the food is delivered, we don’t discover the problem until too late.

Our food wasn’t prepared the way we asked. In the restaurant, they fix the problem right away. In a drive-thru? It depends, but again, once we’ve driven away we rarely go back to correct the mistake. Food delivery apps offer users the ability to customize orders, but too often those special instructions are ignored or misinterpreted. When it’s delivery, will we really go through that entire cycle again?

Drivers are a problem, too, beyond touching the food that is going into your mouth with their unwashed hands, rummaging around in your bag for another one of your fries or picking their favorite toppings off your pizza (try to not think about that next time). Customers complain many drivers won’t bring the food to the door, meaning they have to go outside and get it themselves. They say impatient drivers, angry drivers, and drivers in a hurry will leave your food unattended and drive away. There probably aren’t more than a few hundred thousand drivers like that, though. 

U.S. Foods also surveyed 500 drivers who delivered food to “give them a chance to tell their side of the story.”

Surveyed drivers are angry at having to take the blame for all the problems caused by restaurants because they’re the only ones the customer sees. 

Surveyed drivers say half the restaurants don’t have the food ready when they get there to pick it up. This frustrates them because customers unhappy with long waits tip drivers less. To no one’s surprise, drivers didn’t bother to mention slow delivery times aren’t always the restaurants’ fault. Sometimes your order is delayed because greedy drivers double-dip like taxis in wartime Washington DC, stopping to pick up and drop off other orders and passengers along the way.

Surveyed drivers’ resent how too many customers provide unclear instructions, don’t answer when the driver calls, harass the driver with problems and complaints, keep the driver waiting, and expect the driver to hand deliver the food to the door.

The one thing surveyed customers and drivers agree on? Neither wants to go outside, especially when it’s raining or cold or a long walk between the apartment and the car.

Most of us already know the buzzy story reported everywhere about drivers handling and eating the food they’re supposed to deliver. Yuck. 

What was missing from every one of the dozens of stories I read was this remarkable disconnect: 85% of surveyed customers want restaurants to use tamper-evident labels but only 21% think drivers eating our food is a problem. Why is this “I want to be protected from drivers eating my food” number four times larger than “I suspect drivers are eating my food now?” I would sure like to take a look at that data set.

Too-simple questions produce meaningless “data.” 

The survey’s safety question didn’t include any likely consequences. The big one is that tamper-evident packaging will increase the cost of every order. Special packaging and handling also add minutes to the processing of every order, which delay the delivery which adds to the customers’ wait time which means more food will arrive colder. We wonder what the response rate would have been if the survey question was “How much more do you want to pay for tamper-proof packaging if it means your order – which might well be the wrong one – will cost more, take longer to deliver, and won’t be hot when it finally gets here?”

Restaurant kitchens are purpose-built to cook for the maximum number of occupants allowed by law. 

Adding delivery orders to the in-restaurant orders takes the kitchen beyond its design capacity. Add the problem of having to prepare food for on-site dining and for delivery at the same time. Confusion, congestion, and overcrowding throw things out of whack. More workers make more mistakes and everything takes longer. These problems open a window for a different business model with no restaurant, no seats, and no servers.

We hear them referred to as dark kitchens by some and ghost kitchens by others. What they are is kitchens for takeout and delivery only. 

When dining rooms, waiters, hostesses, bartenders, and floor managers are eliminated, the space needs are smaller and fewer employees are needed. Rent is lower, payroll is lower, and they save a bundle on all those tables and chairs and glasses and utensils they don’t need. And look what they save on bad decor.

Food delivery apps.

We went back to the archives and found research from other sources that reminded us customers who order food via app for delivery are unhappy with more than just restaurants and drivers. They have lots of negative experiences with the apps themselves.

In the app world, negative experiences are real customer-killers. When people ordering food through an app have problems, two out of three abandon their orders. The top reasons customers give for dropping out and going elsewhere are:

  • The app didn’t work properly.
  • Orders were too complicated for the app to handle.
  • The app didn’t allow users to customize their orders.
  • The app didn’t have answers to users’ questions.

All four of the complaint categories above are part of a single issue – those who designed the apps didn’t do a very good job. 

But the app developers are not the ones who pay the penalty for crappy design. It costs the restaurants because customers leave them. It costs the drivers all or part of their tips.

So apps, restaurants, and delivery drivers are screwing things up left and right and still the category grows by leaps and bounds. 

It sounds irrational, but millions of people calculate their personal formula so that convenience + disinclination + laziness + meal preparation ineptitude outweigh all the problems with the current app-based food delivery system that is top-heavy with problems of all kinds.

Will food delivery services solve all their problems, or will they count on people continuing to accept poor quality services? Do you accept the skyrocketing projections, or do you see the possibility of a backlash? Will delivery services continue to stumble along or will one of them turn the entire industry on its head? Wouldn’t that be a cool project to work on?