Postmates review: On-demand food delivery, but at a cost

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Postmates review: On-demand food delivery, but at a cost

Food delivery, where I live, is dictated by the distance a delivery-person can travel by bike before the costs to the restaurant become outweighed by the benefits. The restaurant sets this range, submits it to the food delivery apps to which it outsources order taking, such as Seamless or Delivery.com, and when you punch in your zip code, you’ll know instantly what’s available to you or not.

In my old neighborhood, that meant a lot of bad Indian food and sushi, with the occasional burger shop being run out of a refurbished auto-parts store that’ll send you a cold patty between a pair of moist buns for $16.99, plus tax and tip. Back then, we almost never ordered delivery, because the fastest way to get something edible was to walk 15 minutes to the nearest taqueria.

But I recently moved to a neighborhood with a different problem. There is plenty of great food within a given delivery range, but almost all of it is bank-breakingly expensive. The good, cheap stuff — a plate of dumplings for $5, for example — was out of reach as long as the restaurant couldn’t spare the cost of running its delivery staff up to my apartment.

Postmates: A possible solution?

Postmates is an attempt to solve this problem. Unlike Seamless, which outsources only the business of placing an order, Postmates allows restaurants to outsource the actual delivery. Rather than tying down a delivery-person to one restaurant, Postmates workers wander the city waiting for an order to come in, like Uber drivers waiting for a fare. This significantly expands the delivery range, pinging the Postmate (as a courier is called) nearest to your desired food and telling him or her where to pick it up.

Not only can you expand your selection of cuisines, but you can also get your food faster. The traditional restaurant delivery operation typically entails a single person making a bunch of deliveries at once, taking time in between trips, plus periodically returning to home base to grab a new batch of orders. I’ve never had to wait more than 20 to 45 minutes for my Postmate to arrive because he or she’s not waiting on the restaurant.

Postmates charges for the convenience

You pay in the app and the amount you’re invoiced can include a number of fees. If your order is less than $12, you’ll pay a $1.99 Small Cart Fee, so suddenly I’m adding soup and an extra pork bun or two to my $5 dumplings in order to meet the minimum. Postmates also charges you a fee for the delivery itself, and another fee on top of that for the service.

The delivery fee is a flat fee of $3.99 for deliveries from restaurants that have “partnered” with Postmates, and $5.99 for restaurants that haven’t. Postmates offers a subscription service called Postmates Unlimited that cancels the delivery fee in return for a monthly ($9.99) or annual ($83.99) charge that is generally lower than the sum of paying the delivery fee twice a month. The catch with the premium service is that you have to order at least $20 worth of food to lose the delivery fee; easy to do if you’re ordering for yourself and a roommate or live-in partner, but not so much if you only expected to order $5 dumplings. Order less than $20 and you’re in the awkward and expensive position of paying money for free delivery and still having to shell out for the delivery.

The service fee is 19.99% of the total, and Postmates caps the fee amount at $20. You’ll only pay the service fee when you order from a restaurant that hasn’t partnered with Postmates — a list which, more and more, seems to be growing. “Partnering” with Postmates means the restaurant pays the fee itself. If you ever have to pay a service fee, that’s Postmates passing this cost onto you.

“The service fee is how we're able to offer ‘anything from anywhere’ to customers,” April Conyers, senior director of communications at Postmates, told me. She explained that the service fee helps to cover Postmates’ operations, including paying its fleet of couriers and keeping the lights on at the company offices.

In the app, restaurants that do partner have a green check mark next to their name, which indicates that you won’t be assessed a service fee. (You’ll still have to pay a delivery fee if you don’t have Unlimited.)

Late last year, I placed a Postmates order for Milk Bar, Christina Tosi’s neon-inflected, ultra-sweet chain of bakeries. Thanks to Postmates essentially obviating the concept of a delivery range, I had my choice of locations throughout the city, although I ordered from the closest one because I’m not a monster. The delivery was fine — the Postmate earned his five stars and a nice tip. The cake-batter truffles were to die for. And I didn’t pay any additional fees, because at the time Milk Bar was a Postmates partner.

Recently, I wanted to recreate that order. But Milk Bar had since ended its partnership with Postmates, or so I deduced from a large service fee that Postmates had attempted to charge me, and the fact that the green check mark, though erroneously visible in the app’s search function, had vanished from the order page of every last Milk Bar location. I canceled the order and picked up my desserts the old-fashioned way: face to face with a Milk Bar employee.

When Postmates works, and when it’s not price-gouging you, it’s a blessing. Because the food arrives so fast, there’s a better chance it’ll be hot than when ordering directly from the restaurant. The Postmates app, while often confusing in design, has a GPS function that tracks your Postmate from beginning to end, so you never wonder about where the hell your delivery is as the pangs in your stomach grow increasingly debilitating.

But the service can be frustrating, too. Restaurants frequently go “offline” when you attempt to order from them, something that’s up to the restaurant to decide.

“Our partner merchants are able to pause orders from coming in via the tablet we give them when they join us as a partner,” Conyers explained. “If the restaurant is too busy, they can simply pause orders until they're ready to accept them again.”

However, these restaurants still appear in the list of search results, with text indicating that they’re offline, so that adds an unnecessary delay to the ordering process as I have to scroll past the merchants I can’t order from. And if you try to reorder from a restaurant via the Past Orders section, you won’t learn whether the restaurant is offline until you’ve already loaded its page.

If I’m too tired to cook, I still find myself first logging into the Postmates app, messing around with it until I find a restaurant that’s online and doesn’t have a service fee. Even if you do decide to pay the fee, you might discover that it’s worth the cost of convenience. You’ll open yourself up to a range of dining possibilities that make the cost worth it. If you’re sick of eating at the same restaurants in your usual delivery range, or if you don’t have a lot to choose from, give Postmates a try. But be prepared to splurge for a great meal.

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Image: RyanJLane