On the surface, the triple Michelin-starred chef Arnaud Lallement of L’Assiette Champenoise in Reims, France, and the owners of Holybelly, one of the most popular casual dining establishments in Paris, have little in common. But they are both among the 109 signatories spanning culinary genres of a recent open letter published in France's Journal du Dimanche.
The letter, published last week, highlighted the need for France’s restaurant industry to fight against delivery platforms with contestable ethics in favor of more socially-minded and environmentally sustainable alternatives, an issue all the more urgent since the start of the pandemic.
The entire restaurant ecosystem, the letter argues, is in dire need of an overhaul.
When food delivery became a primary means for chefs and restaurants to continue operating, couriers, often students, recent immigrants, and refugees—among the most precarious of gig economy contractors—became de facto essential workers. Paid notoriously low wages and without social protections for delivery labor, couriers have been mistreated, and restaurants that operate on apps such as UberEats, Deliveroo, and JustEat face steep commissions, often exceeding 30% per order.
The letter’s supporters, which include high profile chefs like Régis Marcon, Céline Pham, and Bertrand Grébaut, the Omnivore food festival director Romain Raimbault, food journalists, and ethical delivery organizers, acknowledge the need to accept delivery and to-go business as a permanent element to operating in the future, particularly in light of the ongoing national lockdown and a tentative reopening date for bars and restaurants of January 21, 2021. But for that to happen, says Stéphane Méjanès, the culinary journalist who spearheaded the letter, there needs to be greater oversight to curtail abuse and establish a more equitable system.
“The food delivery market is a jungle that goes largely unregulated,” Méjanès told VICE World News. “There’s tremendous food waste, unsustainable packaging, a business model that isn’t profitable, tax avoidance, and delivery workers treated like serfs from the Middle Ages.” In the letter he wrote, “It’s about understanding that a dish that arrives in 20 minutes, for a delivery fee of 2.50€, means there is an underpaid worker without social protection, who earned nothing while waiting for another order. It’s about understanding that a dish that comes from afar, by gas-powered vehicles, is a carbon footprint we can refuse.”
The inspiration for the letter came from an investigative report on the state of the restaurant industry during the pandemic from the French show 66 Minutes. “What I saw on this show shocked me: some very talented chefs and restaurateurs—Pierre Sang, and Céline Chung of Gros Bao, both with high quality establishments in Paris—having cooks pump out food like they’re on an assembly line from a shared dark kitchen in Saint-Ouen,” said Méjanès. “Meanwhile, a Deliveroo representative is pushing them to go faster because clients are waiting. It was gutting to see them like this, backed into a corner.”
While restaurants across the country have qualified for generous support from the government, from a temporary “partial unemployment” measure to prevent mass unemployment to waived or delayed payroll taxes, many have turned to delivery platforms to stay connected to customers and prepare logistically for what might be another several months of disrupted indoor dining business.
Still, industry professionals have been aware of the delivery app industry’s ethical failures for a long time. In February 2020, for instance, Le Monde reported that Deliveroo was charged with undeclared labor and forced to pay 30,000 euros to a courier. The delivery couriers who traverse the city as quickly as possible to satisfy their clients are hungry as well: In an interview with France Inter in November, Patrice Blanc, President of the charity Restos du Coeur, expressed concern about seeing young workers in Uber and UberEats uniforms line up at the organization’s food banks. “They’re delivering food for others but don’t have enough to eat for themselves—and it’s getting worse and worse.”
The proliferation of dark kitchens (also known as ghost or virtual kitchens) has also grown in lockstep with the popularity of global delivery apps. The more volume a restaurant produces with high ratings, the more visible they remain to customers using the app. Eventually, that means securing additional kitchen space to keep up with demand. Established business owners frequently have negotiating power to lower commission rates or, in some cases, drop it to zero. But these are also the same entrepreneurs who could afford to unite their customers around a more ethical alternative, and it is precisely that inequity that has kept Nicolas Alary, co-founder of Holybelly, uninterested in ever working with giants like UberEats and Deliveroo.
“Our values have always been clear: Treat people well and put quality first. What kind of message would we be sending if we jump on those apps at the first bump in the road? We have to uphold our principles,” said Alary from Holybelly 19, one of his two restaurants, where staff were preparing for the next day’s orders on Resto.Paris, a new platform launched eight months ago. “The standard 30% commission amounts, more or less, to a restaurant’s profit per meal. So how do you make that calculus work? Some start jacking up prices and cutting corners on quality ingredients, where they shouldn’t. And they look the other way when it comes to delivery conditions.”
As the head of a fine dining establishment and hotel, chef Arnaud Lallement isn’t directly impacted by to-go or delivery pressures, but is concerned about the long-term impact of unchecked exploitation and problematic practices. “I’m not against everyone involved in food delivery making money—in fact, it’s better for the consumer if chefs and restaurants do well and make improvements to quality and service. But the current system is unbalanced,” the chef told VICE World News over the phone from Reims. “We were promised a new world, post-Covid. Is this going to be it? A place that’s even more inequitable?”
The moral quandary around engaging with versus boycotting these apps may be the source of ongoing discussions within the food industry but the same level of skepticism, industry experts say, has yet to be felt by enough customers. When Alary, one of Paris’s most vocal restaurant owners about transparency and quality-control, announced on Instagram his reluctance to pursue delivery for his menu, he elucidated a multitude of reasons. Chief among them: Who really profits from the model. “I broke it all down for our followers and 95% of the messages I received were from well-meaning clients who said they had no idea these companies were so exploitive. And then there are those genuinely good, smart people who know it’s not great. but order from them anyway. It’s like kicking an Amazon habit.”
Convincing the public to do the right thing is part of the long game, but in the meantime, Bouilloux and Méjanès insist that France needs legislation to protect workers and to force mainstream apps to modify their practices. “An open letter only goes so far,” Méjanès acknowledged. “The next step is to work with experts on the topic and push through change.”
But some change is slowly occurring: Méjanès observed the potential of ethical delivery alternatives back in March, during the first national lockdown in France. Tiptoque, a chef-driven delivery service initially created for corporate orders, partnered with prominent chefs to deliver more than 300 meals per day to hospital workers. The service adhered to its core values: Local chefs, using local ingredients, served in reusable or fully recyclable packaging, and delivered by salaried couriers.
For more affordable restaurants, Resto.Paris has emerged as another compelling alternative. A joint initiative created between Ecotable, an ethical certification for restaurants, Coopcycle, a national federation of bike couriers, and Olvo, low-carbon delivery specialists, Resto.Paris imposes strict environmental and ethical guidelines for member restaurants and requires some advanced planning on the part of customers. Delivery orders carry a 35 euro minimum and 5 euro delivery fee, and must be placed at least two hours in advance. The restaurant gets 85% of the total cost, the salaried courier takes 14% and the platform collects the remaining 1%—a tiny margin for the service when compared with the industry standard.
“It’s the right way to do business. For the moment, we’re profitable with orders as of 100€, and our long-term goal is to push grouped restaurant orders within companies or even within families to minimize costs,” said Chloé Bouilloux, a bike courier and project manager for Resto.Paris. “But the biggest challenge is making restaurants and consumers understand that behaviors must change.”