[By Phil Friend]
Being a food delivery service driver is mostly a lonely existence.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, your only human interactions – with the restaurant workers and the customers – are, maybe, five seconds long.
But a Saturday evening dinner rush in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic brought new experiences to me: 1. Leaving food at the door of numerous customers, eliminating half of that human interaction, and; 2. A brief, expletive-filled argument with a fellow delivery driver at the Chipotle restaurant in East Lansing.
At least I was talking to somebody.
That argument came about because the other driver was, in my eyes, disrespectful to one of the Chipotle workers, who, with restaurant dining rooms shuttered and takeout orders booming, basically worked non-stop open to close Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The other driver called one of the workers “rude” and berated her for a few more seconds. So, sitting off to the side, I stepped in. I told him to quit being “mean” (replace that with two curse words not suitable for print) because they’d been swamped all day. He fired bad words back, I fired ’em back, again, and then we both went on with our lives, probably to never see each other again.
Maybe we’re all just a little tense these days.
The restaurant was following the mandate that only five customers at a time could be inside, which led to lines often extending outside the door for both delivery drivers and customers with takeout orders.
The people waiting in line were mostly understanding of the situation. But some were impatient, especially when being told to wait outside or when others ignored the long line and tried to enter the restaurant, saying, “I’m just here for a pick-up.”
Hey, buddy, guess what? All of us are just here for a pick-up.
How it all started
Along with being a sportswriter at the State Journal, I also participate in what’s called the gig economy as a rideshare driver for both Uber and Lyft. I started in October 2015, when I lived in Lafayette, Indiana, driving home (mostly) drunk Purdue students on Friday and Saturday nights after I got off work as a digital sports producer at the Journal & Courier. I got hired at the LSJ in November 2016 and continued that “side hustle” (as the commercials used to say) here in Greater Lansing.
I’ve been signed up to drive for Uber Eats since it came to the area in March 2018, but had mostly stayed away from that to focus on the rideshare driving.
But with the government requiring social gatherings to consist of 10 people or fewer and a mandate for restaurants to close down their dining rooms, that meant A) there wasn’t going to be a whole lot of people needing rides and B) many people would be relying on food delivery services for their dinner.
Perhaps against my better judgment, considering the health risk, I spent Friday night, Saturday and Sunday (23 hours in all) picking up and delivering food to customers. I took some notes on my weekend journey.
Sort-of-but-not-quite Greater Lansing wasteland
There’s a scene in the Pixar movie “WALL-E” in which the titular character cleans up the garbage in the middle of a vast, empty wasteland, going through its daily routine without a human being – or robot – in sight. If animation is not your thing, think of any time Ryan Gosling is somberly walking in “Blade Runner 2049.”
The streets of Greater Lansing weren’t quite like that this past weekend – there were more cars on the road than I anticipated – but I also witnessed mostly empty parking lots at places usually full of life, such as Frandor Shopping Center in Lansing and Hannah Plaza in East Lansing.
It appears, for the most part, the people in Greater Lansing are taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously, staying at home and practicing social distancing. Customers are ordering online from both local and chain restaurants, but I’d say more are coming from the nationally known names (I’m incredibly guilty of this, too. I placed two orders myself this weekend, from Buffalo Wild Wings and Bob Evans).
Most apps are offering free delivery if you buy local. Restaurants such as Aladdin’s in Frandor appeared to be a little overwhelmed with orders Friday evening, but that’s a good thing. A worker at Apple Jade in Frandor described the night as busy and normal. And I did multiple pick-ups in East Lansing over the weekend at Taste of Thai, Panda House, Crunchy’s, Eastside Fish Fry and Acapulco.
At one Frandor restaurant, a worker told me that they were extremely busy, but expressed frustration because he wouldn’t be making the tips he’d normally make with a full dining room. But he also added, “It’s for a good cause.”
Social distancing and tipping
I asked myself on more than one occasion this weekend if I should be driving. I’m not showing any symptoms of coronavirus, but I’m putting myself in close enough proximity to others who could be. Maybe I am putting myself in harm’s way and, by extension, others.
But I did take precautions. And since you’re reading this, you know that I carried on.
The only upsetting incident regarding social distancing happened Friday at an East Lansing restaurant when a customer purposely coughed on his friend in an attempt at humor. Come on, guys!
Out of the 12 orders I did Friday night, only two requested that I leave their items sitting at their door to avoid human interaction, a feature that delivery apps have recently added. But as the weekend picked up, the percentage of customers making that request increased exponentially as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases rose in Michigan.
If you’re wondering about tips, customers are a little less interested in tipping on apps than they are for dining in. I received tips on 44 percent of trips I did over the weekend, but those who did were generous, as tips made up 28 percent of the weekend income, a much higher percentage compared to Uber rideshare driving.
Despite the anecdote I mentioned earlier, my interactions with human beings were mostly nice, either in person or on the Uber Eats app.
Who knows where things will go from here. I know some restaurants are closing during the week and will re-open only for the weekend. There’s a chance we may end up in a full quarantine by the time it’s all said and done and there will be more to worry about than whether or not I received a tip for delivering a burrito.
But we all must do our part – restaurants, customers, food delivery couriers included. We can get through this together. Compassion, understanding and patience will go a long way.