Will Blizzard Be Boon or Bust for Delivery Services?

Some restaurants and courier services readied for a rush, but travel bans complicated efforts to deliver food to hungry customers

As cities along the East Coast started shutting down ahead of what authorities said could be a historic blizzard, food delivery companies were ramping up in the hopes of feeding hungry customers. But questions remained about how travel bans enacted amid treacherous conditions would affect business.

Popular services in New York City and beyond, including GrubHub and Delivery.com, were expecting spikes in orders from restaurants once the brunt of the storm hit and people hunkered down. The winter storm, projected to pummel the tri-state area with more than two feet of snow and high winds, prompted widespread travel warnings and planned school and business closures. 

“On particularly cold and snowy days, we see an increase in orders of comfort / cold-weather food from our restaurant partners,”  Kate McKee, vice president of marketing for delivery.com, wrote in an email.

But travel bans kept those deliveries from arriving as the storm intensified late Monday. In New York City for example, where restrictions were set to take effect at 11 p.m., Mayor Bill de Blasio declared that delivery bicycles were not emergency vehicles. Several services suspended deliveries overnight in accordance with the travel advisories. 

“Obviously the safety of the delivery drivers is of most importance to us,” said Allie Mack, a spokeswoman for GrubHub, which allows customers to order directly from about 30,000 takeout restaurants in more than 800 U.S. cities and London. “We’re constantly in contact with restaurants not only to determine if they’re going to be open but also to make sure that their drivers are safe.”

GrubHub was analyzing its data from Sunday to determine if people had heeded warnings about an impending blizzard, she said. The analysis could indicate whether order sizes were larger than normal because people wanted to have take-out meals on hand for the rest of the week or if tips were higher.

Like delivery.com, GrubHub was looking forward to orders rising following the snowfall. Neither company would provide figures on hikes or orders. But whether restaurants stay open to fill those orders is their decision, Mack said.

“As the blizzard sets in we just want to take the opportunity to remind diners to be appreciative of their delivery drivers and be patient,” she said.

Seamless, which is part of the same company as GrubHub, echoed those sentiments on social media, telling Twitter followers throughout the evening that the app-driven delivery service "remains open and is in constant communication with our open restaurants to ensure local safety guidelines are met." The app's account told one follower that they "hope customers are generous in understanding & tipping." 

"Shout out to the people on the front line!" Seamless replied to another user urging big tips amid bad weather. 

But by at about 10:30 p,m., that service, too, had shut down for the night.The app said in a statement online that it had "suspended Seamless ordering and restaurant service in the five boroughs of New York (as well as areas of New Jersey and Connecticut)" to allow for emergency vehicles to clear the roads.Yet hope remained that meals could start arriving again Tuesday, as many families and workers remained home due to the conditions.. 

"We are in constant communication with our restaurants, updating status on openings and closures, and we promise we’ll be back online as soon as we get clearance from the powers that be. In the meantime, cuddle up with your leftovers, help out your neighbors, and stay inside," the statement read.

Grocery delivery services were canceling or cutting back. Fresh Direct, which serves parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Delware, would not make deliveries on Tuesday, it announced on its website.

Peapod, which has 24 markets in the United States, limited its East Coast deliveries to metro Boston and Providence and the Washington D.C. area Monday night, said a spokeswoman, Peg Merzbacher. Tuesday’s deliveries will be available only in Washington D.C., she said.

Natureworks Restaurant on Manhattan’s East 31st Street, which got more GrubHub and Seamless orders than any other New York City restaurant during last January’s polar vortex, planned to double its delivery staff for each shift, from 10 to 20. Manager Carlos Arcos was predicting a busy Tuesday.

But as evening approached, the restaurant instead decided to close at 7 p.m and it could remain closed on Tuesday.

"Right now my delivery guy was walking," he said.

Postmates, a courier service that can make deliveries from any restaurant or store, was putting together a plan in response to New York City’s travel ban, April Conyers, the company’s director of communications, said Monday afternoon.

But that has not stopped the company, which works with 6,000 couriers across 18 markets, from boosting its network of available independent contractors to meet increased demand, Conyers said. Postmates readied for the typical influx in orders by sending a message through Facebook encouraging New York-based couriers to sign up for shifts. In addition to a spike in restaurant delivery, she said orders for trips to the grocery store for storm essentials such as water and batteries tend to go up when conditions get bad.

"We know that demand is going to be really high, so we try to get as many postmates on the platform as possible to gear up for the storm,” she said.

Courier community managers send out tips for braving the conditions safely. Suggestions include bundling up with hand and foot warmers, wool socks, boots and trash bags, "because they’re really good ponchos on your bike,” Conyers said.

Recruiting couriers willing to take a job in the snow is not much of a challenge, she said. Postmates’ prices typically go up during bad weather to help temper the high demand, so couriers can expect to make more during bad weather, she said. Tips also increase.

“A lot of our couriers love it,” she said. “It’s kind of fun to be outside in the storm. You’re well compensated certainly in this type of weather.”

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