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As Health Concerns Mount, Prominent Los Angeles Restaurants Turn Off Their Delivery Apps

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Even as they adhere to strict sanitation practices, restaurant owners worry that their delivery drivers aren’t maintaining the same standards

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A worker at a restaurant bags food while wearing black gloves.
A worker bags food to go
Wonho Frank Lee
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

A number of prominent Los Angeles restaurant owners are finding that the current glut of delivery app options may not be suitable, or safe, for them to use during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. From Hail Mary Pizza to HomeState to the venerable Apple Pan, more and more restaurants have been pulling back from delivery services like Postmates, Caviar, DoorDash, Uber Eats and GrubHub, citing health concerns for employees and customers. What’s more, they say that the tech giants behind these apps are doing little to solve the problem.

“To be honest, I was already starting to feel challenged by it months ago,” says David Wilcox of delivery apps. As the owner of Hail Mary Pizza in Atwater Village, Wilcox had been using Caviar at his casual dinnertime restaurant for some time, but an influx of new drivers and their lack of safety protocols led him to scrap all delivery for the time being. “I just asked myself, ‘Do these people have any food service training at all?’” Wilcox says.

The answer is often no. Restaurant workers themselves face sanitary scrutiny from a variety of different sources, such as random health department inspections or necessary ServSafe food handling compliance certifications. But these sanitation standards don’t exist for app delivery drivers, many of whom have come on board during a time of skyrocketing unemployment and a dramatic increase in demand for at-home delivery under California’s Safer at Home mandate, which is in effect in Los Angeles until at least May 15.

Last week, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced a requirement for all essential employees and their customers to wear face coverings when in public; other independent cities like Pasadena have since followed suit. “You’ve got people coming in here that weren’t wearing masks, weren’t wearing gloves,” says Wilcox. “It seemed pretty elemental.”

Briana Valdez, owner of the Texas-inspired restaurant chainlet HomeState, witnessed similar issues before turning off her own delivery app access for her currently operating locations in Los Feliz and Highland Park. “We are basically running a clean, laboratory-like restaurant,” she says of her staff’s initiatives to sanitize both inbound product and outbound delivery packages, “only to then hand it off to someone who isn’t wearing gloves, who isn’t wearing a mask, who is putting the food in an environment that we could not control. It felt wrong, and it was unsettling.”

Last week, HomeState sent out an email to its customers stating that they would be ceasing all app delivery for the time being. “Effective immediately, we are no longer able to offer delivery through third-party companies,” the email reads, adding:

While they provide a valuable service (and much-needed revenue), we have lost confidence in their ability to maintain safe standards during this viral pandemic. It is too risky to entrust your food with someone who may not share our total commitment to safe-handling practices, and it undermines all our efforts to keep our team and guests healthy. It is a risk we are no longer willing to take.

Over the weekend, Westside burger staple Apple Pan announced on Instagram that they too would no longer be using apps. “We’ve completely rearranged our operation to spread our team out and take all the precautions we can to provide a safe meal,” says one employee in the comments, “and it didn’t seem right to promote with a company that isn’t insisting on having the same standards.”

Every restaurant owner that Eater talked to for this story was quick to note that the decision to stop offering delivery was a personal one, and that they could not say whether or not other restaurants should follow suit. With the current delivery and takeout-only mandates in place statewide, turning off delivery apps (even with their high fees and sometimes questionable practices) could be a financial death blow, they say.

Without Postmates, says Blackbird Pizza Shop owner Luis Ulloa, “I would have to close. If I turn off the app, there goes 90% of my remaining business.” Ulloa says that Yelp reviewers have complained about potentially unsanitary practices from delivery drivers, but that he has little control over their actions once they leave his property. “I still feel like I have an obligation to try to sustain some sort of living for my employees.”

There are no easy answers. “It was clear immediately: we saw our sales drop by 30 percent or more,” Wilcox says of Hail Mary’s decision to stop using Caviar. “But we decided to be open about it, and shared it on our Instagram. It didn’t take long for people to see that we were doing the right thing.” Wilcox is hoping to offer his own in-house delivery service in the coming days, staffed by employees who have self-quarantined for two weeks. As for HomeState, Valdez quietly rolled out in-house delivery with contactless drop-off at the restaurant’s Los Feliz location late last week, though only within a one-mile radius.

Wilcox said that before turning off delivery, he tried to have a conversation with a rep at Caviar about his concerns. “Caviar said they weren’t willing to create a strict set of protocols or a screening process for who is actually driving for them,” he says. “They’re just bringing in bodies.” Companies like Caviar and Uber consider drivers to be contract workers, not employees, making blanket mandates a more complicated affair, particularly nationwide when different jurisdictions may have different standards.

A rep for Uber Eats sent an email to Eater stating that the company has been “sharing tips” with restaurant owners and delivery drivers on “social distancing norms,” adding that the company is “working” to provide sanitizing products to its drivers. A rep for DoorDash says that, among other things, the company has provided five million masks to its drivers, and has also distributed hand sanitizer and gloves, and made contactless delivery its default for all drivers.