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Think Piece: The Rise of Food Apps

Since 2019, when food delivery apps began to appear en masse in the App Store, there has been a 168 percent increase in downloads, indicating a dramatic shift in consumer behavior towards ordering through web based third-party services.
Since 2019, when food delivery apps began to appear en masse in the App Store, there has been a 168 percent increase in downloads, indicating a dramatic shift in consumer behavior towards ordering through web based third-party services. By Courtesy of Andrej Lišakov, Unsplash
By Will McKibben, Crimson Staff Writer

Since 2019, when food delivery apps began to appear en masse in the App Store, there has been a 168 percent increase in downloads, indicating a dramatic shift in consumer behavior towards ordering through web based third-party services. Now, several Harvard-based apps, like Toppings, are looking to break into the field. The basic premise of these apps is simple: They collect menus and prices across a wide range of restaurants and present them to the user in a simple and easy-to-understand interface. Instead of searching across different websites and figuring out which restaurants offer delivery, consumers can now easily access apps that collectivize and simplify this information.

Convenience and ease for the consumer are at the forefront of these designs, as they cater to those looking for late-night food after going out or a lazy weeknight dinner. Orders are placed without any direct contact with the restaurants themselves, removing any human interaction from the process. The apps also often involve thinner profit margins for participating restaurants. In this way, the app and its delivery army act as a profit-hungry middleman, and for the average college student, this supposed time saver turns out to be pretty uneconomical and unsustainable.

These apps have delivery and service fees that quickly jack up prices. From order size fees to proximity fees, unrelated to the drivers’ pay, the customer finds themselves paying for much more than the cost of a meal from their favorite restaurants. In addition to these fees, tips are tacked onto the end of the ordering process, further inflating the cost of each delivery, with tip culture severely emphasized to the user. Doordash, a prominent food delivery service, indicates that “The only times that warrant a tip below 10% are situations that need to be escalated to DoorDash customer service,” forcing tip culture within the apps from a customary gesture to an essential part of the experience.

With the combination of fees, charges, and tips, the average price can increase significantly, turning a reasonably priced meal into an expensive and unsustainable late-night habit.

Toppings, an app founded and run by Harvard students, is a part of a new and expanded ecosystem of apps popping up in the food app industry that demonstrate a shift to utilize consumers themselves in lieu of paying delivery drivers. Toppings markets itself to college students as being able to provide users with free food if they order to get food with other people. What this means from a logistical perspective is that instead of paying delivery drivers, Toppings utilizes common ordering trends among users to cut costs and increase profit while at the same time offering perks and benefits that have them coming back to order more.

Food delivery apps rose to prominence during the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing people to get tastes of their favorite restaurants in a time where going inside to eat was beyond imagination. Customers were more likely to overlook fees and taxes for a reminder of the comforts of a pre-pandemic world. Food is so central and important to human connection that it’s no surprise that customers wanted to regain even a bit of this during isolation. However, as society slowly but surely creeps back to pre-pandemic life, the prominence of these apps occupies a precarious spot.

As small businesses and restaurants have been allowed to return to serving people in person, the deep and lasting connection that comes with food and the institutions that provide it returns as well. Food apps disconnect restaurants and the people within them from the customer’s experience, entirely changing the very fabric that lies beneath the culinary world. Environment, staff, cooks, and servers are central to restaurants and the relationship they have with their customers. When the connection to patrons is severed through these apps, so goes the soul of the restaurant itself.

When food apps are the main form of interaction for customers, they derive an essence of a restaurant that is clouded by price gouging, fees, not to mention the time component of delivery. Of course there are factors that make these apps the only way to get beloved restaurant meals for certain customers, like students without cars or ways to access these restaurants otherwise. It isn’t surprising then that the largest group of people using these food delivery apps is young people, ages 18 to 29. This is furthermore concerning, showing that the primary group of people that are suffering this tainted view of culinary institutions is young people who are the next generation of restaurateurs and customers.

These apps can both be the lifeline of restaurants connecting certain customers to their food and, at the same time, the very thing threatening the soul of a restaurant itself.

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