Last week, a group of angry DoorDash drivers blocked off traffic on a tony Pacific Heights street, frustrated with their work and wages. They had picked the exclusive San Francisco neighborhood to target the company’s CEO, who they believed lived in the area.
A few blocks away, the staff at Philmore Creamery were dutifully preparing for another busy day. Here, DoorDash drivers, or “Dashers,” receive a scoop of gelato while they wait to pick up orders. The staff appreciates the Dashers, says owner Phil Malik, because he knows how hard they work. One of his employees used to drive for DoorDash in his spare time.
But that doesn’t mean Malik is prepared to wade into thorny conversations about Proposition 22, the measure for which companies like DoorDash invested over $220 million to make sure drivers would not become employees and would remain independent contractors with limited benefits. “We’re just so buried in the business that our head is in the sand on a lot of these issues,” he said.
The Examiner interviewed restaurant owners, managers and employees within walking distance from the site of the protest. This much was clear: DoorDash and its upscale cousin, Caviar, generate between two and three times as much business for restaurants in Pacific Heights and Cow Hollow than alternatives like Grubhub and Uber Eats. Customer service is also significantly more expeditious and helpful, restaurant owners say.
That doesn’t mean restaurants and their owners don’t care about drivers. But while they don’t completely see how driver pay and benefits affect their business, they are far more concerned about delivery fees and inaccurate online listings.
Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and owner of two Cow Hollow Restaurants, negotiated policy with DoorDash since before the pandemic. Discussions started in 2020, when DoorDash listed her restaurant, Terzo, without her consent — a practice the state outlawed on Jan. 1 after months of pushback from restaurants like hers. Around the same time, she also started negotiating with delivery companies to lower fees, which before the pandemic hovered around 25%-30%.
In April 2020, San Francisco became one of the first cities in the country to cap delivery fees on restaurants at 15%. The City made the caps permanent in June 2021.
The high delivery fees and non-consensual listing of restaurants frustrated Thomas, but she says DoorDash was more cooperative than its competitors. “Having worked on both sides of the aisle, trying to work on policy with them since before the pandemic and then working with them as a restaurant customer, there’ve been a lot of issues, but they’ve also really come to the table and fixed a bunch of them,” she says. “They’re the most industry friendly of the app companies.”
Thomas does draw the line, however, at DoorDash’s response to The City’s permanent caps on delivery fees. The app company sued San Francisco just a month after the limits went into effect, halting any future negotiations. Geoff Vetter, a spokesperson for industry group Protect App-Based Drivers and Services Coalition, said at the time that fee caps resulted in price increases for customers, thus decreasing demand and creating indirect effects for both restaurants and Dashers.
Ironically, the Protect App-Based Drivers and Services Coalition was formerly named the “Yes on Prop. 22 Coalition,” before the proposition passed. Vetter’s first job was to go to bat for companies like DoorDash in the debate over whether should be employees or independent contractors — the issue Dashers were protesting last week. Now, he also issues statements on behalf of gig companies in the debate over fee caps for local restaurants.
Thomas doesn’t see a connection, but the parallels are clear. While Dashers complain that gig companies aren’t transparent about how much money they take in fees, Thomas says that DoorDash needs to be clearer with restaurants about their fee structure, online listings, as well as other services like marketing and search engine optimization. “It’s fine to do really whatever, so long as it’s clear to the parties signing the contract, what they’re getting into,” she says.
On an individual basis, the intimate relationships between restaurant owners and some regular drivers highlights this tension. Linda Delgado, a manager at Pizzeria Delfina, for example, brings up how one of the eatery’s regular DoorDash drivers once performed a personal delivery for them. The City Taqueria owner Filbert Garcia says he knows a handful of regular drivers by name, and is certainly disappointed when he hears reports about drivers being underpaid and overworked. “I’ve seen the prices skyrocket, while drivers say they’re still not getting paid, and it’s just crazy, you know? How do you sustain that?” he asks.
Whether the protesting Dashers can tap into that solidarity, however, remains to be seen. For all the shared empathy and concern, restaurateurs rely on third-party delivery now, and have to put their own survival first.
“DoorDash is just better than all the rest of the apps,” explains Garcia. “It’s that or me hiring another employee to do deliveries. The app is just way better.”