Restaurateur Jason Chang is caught between a tech giant and dissatisfied customers and his staff are copping abuse as a result.
The owner of Calia at Melbourne Emporium says "pandemic rage" is exacerbated by online platforms and causing hungry customers to vent their frustrations while oblivious to the human impact.
In recent months, a driver shortage on food delivery platform Uber Eats means orders are often not collected at the restaurant and meals are left to go cold.
During Melbourne's current lockdown, Chang says the number of angry phone calls and threats of one-star Google reviews has increased when food isn't delivered in the time period expected by the customer.
Many restaurant operators used social media on Friday night to express their anger at Uber Eats not collecting multiple orders, and their distress at customers not receiving food that was ready but not being picked up.
Venues left with thousands of dollars of cancelled orders included Chicken Central, Off the Boat Pizzeria and Broadway Fish & Chips in Reservoir, Preston's Noi Pizzeria, Ollie's Pizza Parlour in Brunswick, Surrey Hills' BurgerBurger, Prefisso 3088 in Greensborough, West Melbourne taqueria Hello José and many more.
Uber Eats messaged drivers and restaurants to say there had been a technical outage, however they continued to accept orders they were unable to dispatch. Mum's Burger Kitchen in Boronia had 26 meals wasted.
"I was on hold for three hours to the Uber Eats hotline while dealing with angry customers complaining at the other end," says Mum's Burger Kitchen owner Esther Sun. "This has been an issue for years. Our restaurant's reputation has been so damaged."
Chang, who also operates Calia Grill in Chadstone, doesn't make a profit from Uber Eats, but says he can't afford not to be on the dominant ordering platform, especially when his restaurants are closed.
"All I'm doing is covering my staff and food costs so I can keep people employed, Uber Eats takes 30 per cent plus GST. I'm not keeping any money in my pocket."
Restaurants using the platform are not provided with a customer's contact details when an order is placed. "It's our food, but they are Uber customers," says Chang. "We only find out where the order is supposed to go if the customer calls us."
Lately, those customers have been lashing out more often. "They abuse our staff, they create fake Google accounts and spam us with bad reviews," says Chang, who is also a City of Melbourne councillor.
"I understand that customers are upset because they didn't get their dinner but we have fulfilled our part of the transaction," he says.
"We will always try to help them but we wish they would be patient and calm. Some set up 20 fake accounts in one night. Sometimes they leave staff members' names on reviews. I would call it cyber-bullying. Customers are too entitled nowadays."
The impact on Chang's staff is considerable. "Their mental health is affected, there's a huge psychological impact, you wouldn't believe the amount of tears I've seen during the pandemic," he says.
Uber Eats pays the restaurant for orders that aren't picked up but Chang says it's not good enough. "It's a billion-dollar tech firm – they could manage orders and customer expectations better. If they don't have drivers, don't accept the order."
According to a spokesperson for Uber Eats, "When a restaurant accepts an order, our system connects the restaurant with the nearest available delivery person. We only accept orders if there are delivery people available to deliver in that area.
"We continue to speak with our restaurant partners on a daily basis about how we can support them through this challenging time and improve both the restaurant and eater experience."
But Chang says there is no recourse when things go awry. "There's no relationship manager, there's no one to contact."
Alper Turgut drives for Uber Eats, its rival DoorDash, and courier platforms Yello and Sherpa. He has noticed an increase in the number of orders that aren't picked up from restaurants.
"When I go to a business, I usually see dozens of packs waiting and the owners and staff look at me desperately, asking if I am going to come back," he says.
Most apps only allow drivers to take two orders at once but some game the system to pick up more.
"There are a lot of dodgy drivers that use different applications or maybe their partner's account at the same time," says Turgut. "They come to a business and gather four or five different orders. That means cold food but businesses don't have another option."
Sometimes the restaurants take it out on him. "They can be rude," he says. "Sometimes they treat you like a thing, a drone, not even looking at you."
Turgut identifies the reasons for the driver shortage: "Usually, it's international students doing this work. A lot of them have found jobs in their fields now, like my engineer friend who came and did deliveries but now he found a job.
"[But] there are no new students coming in. Also, some drivers might not understand that food delivery is essential work – they think they aren't allowed to do it in lockdown and are afraid to get fined."
Sally Calabro owns pizza restaurants in Richmond, Elwood and Hampton. "Our orders are being collected and then drivers do seven or eight orders in the vicinity," she says.
Customers blame the restaurant if the food doesn't arrive quickly in optimum condition. "The kids in the restaurant get abused because their food is late or something's been dropped," says Calabro.
"One of my managers rang me in tears because a customer abused her and said he's coming tomorrow to ask for his money back. There doesn't seem to be a consumer connection that they are using a third party.
"If you order a vegetarian pizza and we send you a meat-lover's delight, yes, that's on us, but if we have cooked your food and given it to the driver, we have done our bit. It's hard enough at the moment without that carry on."
And what about all the meals left uncollected in restaurants? "I asked my staff about that the other night," says Chang. "We had $1000 worth of food sitting there. My staff walked the streets giving it to the homeless. I was so proud of them. They are amazing."