Food by VICE

The Agony and Ecstasy of Food Delivery Apps

For some, apps like Seamless and UberEATS are just an easy way to grab dinner. For others, they're a source of anxiety and shame.

by Allie Volpe; illustrated by Alina Petrichyn
Oct 11 2017, 4:00pm

Illustration by Alina Petrichyn

Jim Perlingiero was going on day three of bed rest for a chronic back injury, and didn't think there was anything wrong with ordering four quarts of Ben & Jerry's ice cream to his door (in my opinion, there isn't) until he saw the delivery woman's face.

"She looked at me like no human needs to make this order ever, [like,] you are the most fat, disgusting person," Perlingiero, a teacher in Amsterdam, told me. "I'm not a fat disgusting person, I don't think. I knew that she thought this is not something you should be doing."

It's not uncommon for takeout customers to feel judged by the person holding the goods on the other side of the door. There are dozens of posts on online message boards that address this issue, including a Reddit thread from 2014 asking food workers for their opinions on delivery orders. In March, a takeout order that included three portions of mozzarella sticks with the note "Please don't judge me. I'm having a bad week," went viral.

With the rising popularity of online ordering and apps such as Grubhub, Caviar, Postmates, and UberEats, a solitary food selection process can seem like a voyeuristic experience when you add a delivery courier into the mix. But feelings of unease don't cease once the doorbell is rung; roommate and neighbor perspectives come into play, as does internalized shame or guilt. Like most things that involve food, there are a plethora of implications that come with ordering in, from the financial to the social.

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"It doesn't matter if you are a junk food lover or a healthy eater," said eating behavior and habit change coach Tatiana Kuvardina. "Both types of eaters might get worried that the person who takes their order, or people behind them in line, might judge them for what and how much they choose to eat. People who order the same foods all the time are afraid to be seen as boring, people who order a lot of food are anxious about being judged as gluttons, people who place small orders might worry about being seen as lazy and time wasters, or that they can't afford more food."

"We're not wrong in assuming people are going to judge us for what we're eating," added Julia Hormes, licensed psychologist, assistant psychology professor and director Health Behaviors Laboratory at the University at Albany. Hormes' work in cravings studies revealed that people tend to yearn for commonly stereotypical food options—like pregnant or PMSing women jonesing for chocolate —but that there isn't anything physiological going on to peg to these desires. These societal frameworks can tie into the embarrassment some experience when ordering takeout, Hormes said. Does what we're "supposed" to be eating match up with what's in the bag?

"People make inferences on who we are as a person based on what we eat, not surprisingly more for women."

Some folks, like the viral mozzarella stick enthusiast, justify the takeout choices they've made by using online ordering "special instructions" sections to attempt to offer explanations to restaurant staff, indicating that they've had a stressful week or that they only need one set of utensils for what might be perceived as a large order.

Other notes include specifications for couriers delivering surprise meals to unsuspecting recipients, sometimes apologizing for the inclusion of "good" or "bad" foods. "Don't give them the receipt (it's a gift). Also, if you could leave a note that says, 'Sorry, I know cheesecake isn't healthy, but it was a hard day and you can take a salad to work tomorrow to make up for it,'" one such memo that Grubhub shared with MUNCHIES read.


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"People make inferences on who we are as a person based on what we eat, not surprisingly more for women," Hormes said. "People who are seen eating smaller meals are seen as being thinner. People who are seen eating 'good' food are rated as more attractive, more ethical."

But there is no research that suggests this way of thinking translates to the people who deliver our takeout orders. "My sense is we're really projecting more than what the person is thinking," Hormes said.

Dan, who asked that I omit his last name and delivers for a restaurant in Philadelphia, admits he does sometimes judge orders, but based on logistics such as an off-balance ratio of food to beverage. "You got two large pizzas and one bottle of water? So only one person is thirsty?" he said. Dan and his coworkers also develop fictional backstories for regulars, drawn from what they can interpret from the person's surroundings and appearance.

Gary Pay, a Postmates driver in Long Beach, California, only gets critical if customers don't tip. They say drivers are also pretty annoyed with overly complicated or confusing apartment building entry instructions, and if the customer doesn't make much of an effort to meet them at the door of the complex. Everything else is relatively excusable, even if the restaurant they're delivering from is actually across the street from the customer's apartment.

"It was bizarre," Pay said, referring to a recent delivery when that was the case. "The fees costed more than the one item they purchased."

It doesn't take much math to realize that ordering out adds up. Most takeout apps take a delivery fee and a service fee, and many restaurants have order minimums; this is all before tax and tip. Even if the financial aspect isn't a burden, sometimes the privilege of disposable income for food incites guilt.

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Anna and her husband frequently work from their apartment on the top floor of a walkup in Brooklyn. Because of their 16-hour days and lack of nearby healthy food stores, the couple orders delivery for just about every meal (usually stretching one haul over multiple sittings). The old building's thin walls paired with the trip down to the ground floor mean just about everyone in the facility knows when they're eating.

"We've gotten the side eye, the snide, 'You order a lot of takeout, huh?' and even the, 'Do you guys ever cook?'" Anna said. "It feels pretty shitty. We've done our math and takeout does actually save us money in terms of time cost, but the judgment from the neighbors might just cancel out any benefit."

"One of the main principles of human behavior is to avoid difficult, unpleasant situations, feelings, and emotions and seek ease and pleasure instead."

Knowing many of their neighbors don't have the luxury to order out as often as they do makes the process of ordering out complicated; ultimately, the couple feels guilty. They hope a relocation to a neighborhood with a nearby health food store will inspire them to cook at home.

Marc Snitzer hardly ever cooks at home. His roommate, on the other hand, does. Through the handful of years they've lived together in Philadelphia and subsequent salary increases along the way, Snitzer's expendable income has grown, and thus the financial repercussions for spending $25 on an order of spaghetti and meatballs has become less important. Snitzer senses a bit of resentment from his housemate, who's made it a point to disclose Snitzer's lack of culinary activity among friends. Snitzer then internalizes these comments.

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"I think [ordering takeout] is such a habit for me because I also have a lot of anxiety in feeling inadequate about my own ability ... to put effort into making food for myself," he said. "I don't know if I'm lazy or if maybe there's this larger theme of feeling inadequate about doing things, including making a meal. Rather than confronting it and feeling like I'm failing, I'd rather not confront that at all."

"One of the main principles of human behavior is to avoid difficult, unpleasant situations, feelings, and emotions and seek ease and pleasure instead," Kuvardina said. "We don't like to be reminded of our imperfections. If cooking is not seen as an important skill and alternatives are easily available and affordable, the person will prefer to get food from somewhere rather than cook it himself."

Jim Perlingiero hasn't ordered Ben & Jerry's ice cream to go again. He hasn't written off delivery completely, though. What he does notice now when he spends time at friends' places is the number of takeout bags by the trash.

"It just made me feel so much better that I'm in this with everybody else. There's no shame in it."