Wasted food and staff abuse: Uber Eats driver shortage hits Sydney restaurants

Fat Franks owner Antonio Tarzia and general manager Carmelina Catanzariti at their cheesesteak store in Wetherill Park.
Fat Franks owner Antonio Tarzia and general manager Carmelina Catanzariti at their cheesesteak store in Wetherill Park.  Photo: Wolter Peeters

The delivery apps keeping Carmelina Catanzariti's business afloat during Sydney's current COVID-19 lockdown are also causing stress and heartache for everyone at Fat Frank's, the cheesesteak specialist she manages in Wetherill Park.

"It's frustrating," she says. "[The apps] are costing me wages and food, my staff are being abused, and we get bad ratings."

Most days, and especially at busy times, food orders are taken and paid for online via third-party delivery platforms, cooked in good faith, then not picked up by drivers. Food gets cold on the counter and Catanzariti and her staff cop the flak from angry customers.

A shortage of delivery cyclists and drivers during lockdown means food is often left uncollected at restaurants.
A shortage of delivery cyclists and drivers during lockdown means food is often left uncollected at restaurants.  Photo: James Brickwood

"They call and blame whoever picks up the phone and they leave negative online reviews without understanding it's an Uber issue, not our issue," she says. "We explain they need to call Uber. We can't cancel their order for them and we can't return their money."

Fat Frank's uses delivery platforms Menulog and DoorDash, but around 90 per cent of its business comes through market leader Uber Eats. Catanzariti believes the company doesn't have enough drivers to fulfil orders they accept, especially in her store's local government area during lockdown.

"We're in the Fairfield LGA where people have been told to stay home," she says. "Our customers are too scared to come into the store so they rely on delivery. It's so frustrating that we can't get our food to them, hot, fast and in good condition. There's nothing more awful than putting food in the bin, especially now."

Calling Uber isn't really an option during a busy night. "You're on hold, you don't have time for that, then they will tell you to email them," says Catanzariti. "There is no particular person looking after our area. It's very frustrating."

Uber Eats pockets 30 per cent plus GST of each transaction. "They are taking a fair chunk," says Catanzariti. "You would think at a time like this we would be more supported."

Resurrection of the federal government's JobKeeper payment – whereby lockdown affected workers were supported with to $1500 a fortnight paid through their employer – would make a big difference, says Catanzariti.

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"If I knew I had that extra income, I would put my staff on as drivers. I have staff I don't have enough shifts for. They have been so good to us and I've had to cut their hours dramatically. JobKeeper would give us so many other options."

George McLean owns three JB & Sons burger shops on Sydney's lower North Shore. He would also make use of a reinstated JobKeeper to reduce his vulnerability to issues with delivery platforms. "It would definitely help us out," he says.

In the meantime, McLean is also crunched between dissatisfied customers and faceless apps. "Uber Eats, Deliveroo, Menulog: we experience the same issues with each of them," he says.

"We have a lot of uncollected food, especially Friday and Saturday nights. There aren't enough riders on the road to cope with the demand."

Most people understand they have transacted with an app, "but some don't," says McLean.

"We have irate calls and negative online reviews about food not coming or arriving cold. Everyone is on tenterhooks at the moment, stress levels are high and it's easier to vent at a restaurant than an app."

Despite the difficulties, McLean is grateful for the business the apps send his way, especially during lockdown. He just wishes they would work better. "You would think with the sophistication of their platforms, they would be able to better match orders and demand," he says.

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."

Thomas David works at a creperie in Randwick and also rides for Uber Eats. He sees the situation from both sides.

"From the restaurant side, it can be tricky because we make an order, it gets cold, so we have to make it again," says David. From the rider's side, he suspects there sometimes are shortages because the app asks him to travel further.

"Usually it's two kilometres away to pick up food and go to a house, but now you can be asked to go six kilometres," he says. Though that suggests more demand and fewer delivery drivers and riders, there is an upside in responsive pricing. "This year I can make $30 an hour, while last year it was more like $15 to $20."

On the other hand, David has noticed many new Uber Eats couriers turning up to the creperie in cars. "In the past it was usually internationals on electric bikes but I've noticed a lot more Aussies taking orders," he says. "I think they may have lost their job in lockdown and are trying to make some money."