At the Food on Demand conference in Las Vegas, the food service industry laid out its vision for a future in which customers never have to wait. Just don’t think too hard about how that’d work.
The conference room at the Bellagio hotel swelled with the horns of “Ride of the Valkyries.” On a theater-sized screen set up at the front, I watch as a drone flies over a low, sunny suburb, bypassing highways and beaches and nondescript homes, where in the backyards everyone cranes their necks to see what this spidery black object is zooming across the sky. Finally, the drone reaches its destination — a home much like all the others it passed — and a panel opens on one side to reveal a bag from El Pollo Loco. The bag, held by a grappling hook, lowers to eager customers gazing up like guppies at flakes. Finally it hits a pristine green lawn, where it’s picked up by human hands and its contents presumably enjoyed for dinner. “INTRODUCING AIR LOCO FROM EL POLLO LOCO,” reads the bright white screen. “THE FIRST NATIONAL RESTAURANT TO DELIVER BY AIR.”
“We’re here to disrupt the food deliveries industry,” says Ben Thein, COO of Flytrex, an Israeli drone delivery company. Partnering with the Mexican grilled chicken chain, the drone system has completed about 500 deliveries so far, mostly in North Carolina, with plans to expand in the Dallas area soon. The drones can’t deliver to apartments, and can’t fly in the rain or in high winds. But if you live in the suburbs within two miles of an ordering location, and the weather is mild and still, you could order food or groceries and it will get to your home in about five minutes, “faster and fresher” than if a human drove it, Thein says. What a bold future.
After a year of hearing about the unstoppable rise of food delivery, I expected a truly wild and alien vision of the future to be presented at the Food On Demand conference in Las Vegas, a convergence of various food-service delivery, production, and mobile ordering companies — delivery robots bumping into my legs, self-driving vans filled with pizza freshly baked en route, maybe that noodle vendor from the Fifth Element hovering outside my hotel window. These conversations, after all, were happening within the halls of exxxcess: past the glass Chihuly blossoms hanging in the lobby of the Bellagio, past the extravagant autumnal display of mushroom and dragonfly sculptures towering overhead in the hotel’s conservatory and botanical gardens, past the all-Christmas store and the chocolate fountain in the bakery, away from the caviar bar and the casino and the wedding chapel and the tourists with foot-long daiquiris and the famous dancing fountain and the life.
In the windowless beige back rooms, a hundred men (it was vastly men) championed their data collection and organization apps. They asked seemingly easy questions: Why shouldn’t you be able to order not just food, but flowers, toiletries, and shoes? Why should geography determine what restaurants you can order from? Why should you ever have to leave the house? Andy Rebhun, SVP digital and marketing officer for El Pollo Loco, noted during the drone demo that “I really don’t feel like customers should have to travel to pick up their food.” And I sat, watching the drone video and dudes exchanging business cards while making small talk, thinking, oh fuck and is that it?
Is the American dream never having to go outside? I thought of this in the long walk through the Bellagio back to my hotel room, which distorted my sense of just where the hell I was; signs led the way to corridors and trams to other hotels, with other restaurants, bars, and casinos I could enjoy without ever having to step onto a street.
I did go outside, because it is one of the great joys of being alive to experience a place you’ve never seen before. I watched the Bellagio fountain show and pretended that pocketing the bathroom lotion counted as my Ocean’s 1. I wandered to the Cosmopolitan, and promptly lost $20 on a Mad Max: Fury Road-themed slot machine in 45 seconds. I waved hi to feathered showgirls, and as the sun set and the fake Eiffel Tower lit up, I felt earnestly dazzled by this city in the middle of a desert — holy shit, look at the ridiculous things humans can build.
But everywhere I looked in Vegas, I saw something I had already seen. I ate one meal at Sadelle’s, a restaurant from Major Food Group whose first location is in New York’s Soho. To get to my room from there, I passed a JuicePress, which also originated in New York. On the other side of the hotel were Spago and Le Cirque, across the street was some property by Gordon Ramsay, and of course somewhere nearby was a Starbucks. For dinner on my first night, I ate at Night + Market, a Thai restaurant from LA. The next night, I was at the counter at Momofuku, a restaurant whose first location was half a block from my childhood home.
The point that so many attendees of the Food On Demand conference made was that Momofuku should not just exist in New York. In fact, according to Michael Beacham, president of kitchen business for REEF, a company that allows restaurants to expand using ghost kitchens, sticking with solely physical locations — rooms of warmth and design where friends gather, third spaces that anchor communities — is a limited view of what a restaurant can really be: Everywhere at once. He offers, for example, TGI Fridays, a casual chain that has national recognition but little presence in densely populated American cities. “When you have that level of customer affinity, but you’re not able to get close enough to them to serve them, you’re missing a lot of opportunities,” he said. REEF is one of the largest companies (including C3, Virtual Dining Concepts, the Travis Kalanick-backed CloudKitchens, and even DoorDash) to enter the virtual restaurant space in the past few years.
Virtual restaurants technically allow anyone to create and expand a restaurant brand without the costs and hassles of a restaurant location. REEF essentially works as a franchisee by setting up chefs cooking a brand’s food (could be a small restaurant just getting started, could be Wendy’s) in mobile kitchens in parking lots and on street corners, as well as in the kitchens of other restaurants. That way, restaurants can grow their delivery footprints without opening up new physical locations — or having one at all. “REEF brings the world to the block,” says Beacham.
Walking out at the Bellagio, looking across the fountains at the faux Eiffel Tower sitting on top of the Cabo Wabo Cantina, I couldn’t think of a better place to sell the concept of everything you want, all the time, immediately. This is what the Food On Demand attendees want to build — celebrity concepts, national brands, and anything you could think to want brought to you with no time to second-guess your choices. If they’re bringing the world to the block, the block they’re modeling it after is the Vegas strip.
Then they take it a step further: Imagine a world in which your neighborhood, as shown to you on an app, resembles an entirely different neighborhood than the one on your street, where storefronts have nothing to do with what’s available for you to eat. “Eventually the word ‘virtual’ is just going to be dropped,” hopes Alex Canter, co-founder of the virtual restaurant platform Nextbite. “It’ll just be restaurants that live online the same way that when you shop online for clothes, you don’t call it a ‘virtual store.’” The draw of a virtual restaurant is that of online shopping: The same products no matter where you are, or sometimes products exclusive to the virtual world. It’s fast food on an even grander scale.
However, like the real world, the virtual restaurant world is driven mostly by people who already have a ton of money and influence. The most successful players are established brands, whether it’s chains like Popeyes or McDonald’s (which is trying to wrest delivery control back from the apps), chefs like Tom Colicchio, or celebrities. “When you look at a celebrity brand, they already have an audience, and you’re leveraging that trust that someone has in that celebrity to say, ‘I want to try that,’” says Beacham. For instance, REEF partnered with Robert Earl’s Virtual Dining Concepts to bring the wildly successful Mr. Beast Burger to international markets, and recently launched a wing concept with DJ Khaled. You can have anything you want, but only if a famous person has approved of it first.
All of this is moot without the power of delivery platforms, however, which are still on the rise. “Pre-pandemic, we had something like 22 million diners, right? Fast forward to April of this year, our last earnings call, we had 33 million,” said Kenny Klein, senior director of sales at Grubhub, during a panel on the “big three” delivery apps. That the pandemic “accelerated” delivery’s success was the most popular talking point at Food On Demand: “We’re never going back to not being able to have what we want, when we want it, and how we want it,” REEF’s Beacham said. We are emerging in a world in which more people are choosing to order dinner than go grocery shopping, more people have downloaded delivery apps, and more people are willing to try restaurants that only exist online. So of course this brave new world is not about flashy tech; it’s about anything that tinkers with the gears that keep the delivery machine running.
If delivery being available to everyone, everywhere, is the future, then restaurants are left to figure out how to not be left in the dust. And of course, the platforms that created this world want to be in on that action. Some of that is by encouraging restaurants to operate virtual restaurants, and some of that is having apps, not chefs or seasonality, guide menu planning (“You don’t pare down forever but just pare it down to what makes more sense,” Klein said the company has told restaurants).
So here is the future, maybe: You get your Italian subs from Pauly D and your wings from DJ Khaled, or maybe just from a generic brand you’ve never heard of before, food that’s satisfying and unsurprising, things that can be easily executed and delivered to you no matter where you are. In-person restaurants don’t die; to experience the avant-garde, the interesting, or anything that doesn’t do well sitting in a box for 20 minutes, you need to leave your home. But as the heating and transportation technology gets better, there are fewer experiences that can’t be brought right to you. It’s so convenient and efficient, the time that you would have spent driving and sitting and waiting for the check can now be spent on… well, whatever you want, but work probably. And there’s no need to fret when you travel somewhere far from home. You can get the same experience, everywhere, instantly.
This is meant, I think, to make one feel both comfortable and pampered, the overwhelming choice buffered by the safety of familiarity. Yes, you have the world at your fingertips, but you know all the names — it’s nothing you haven’t heard of before. And while there is novelty and convenience in having the same options in New York or LA or Peoria, Illinois, or Butte, Montana, it also becomes uncanny. The duck ramen at Momofuku inside the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas was as perfectly executed as it could be, but when I exited the restaurant and turned to the right I remembered I was essentially in a mall food court, not a neighborhood. My meal at Night + Market, imported from LA to the Virgin Hotel, was set to the tune of ringing slot machines from the casino floor. These restaurants were here, but not because Vegas offered them anything new: In fact, the strategy behind opening there was exactly the opposite.
The other thing Vegas is trying to sell — outside the concept of Vegas itself — is luck, which as Penn & Teller (err, just Penn) put it the night I saw their show, is “probability taken personally.” There is a reason these conventions take place in Vegas, or a reason Vegas built itself to accommodate them — it is easier to spin in your head, among the hospitality and sequins and free drinks, the story of success. That you didn’t just happen upon your winnings, but you made them happen with your wit and your choices. The story being spun at Food On Demand was: A world in which everything exists for you to buy in an instant was one we, the consumers, chose. This is what the people want, said the men in the bulky sports coats and flimsy lanyards, and we’re just here to give it to them. Like many stories, you have to wonder how much of it is true.
Conferences are boring and exhausting, and despite being at a food delivery conference in a city built to cater to every whim, many of my food options flat-out sucked. I spent too much on a dry room service omelet stuffed with raw hothouse tomatoes, and a box of coffee for four, which happened to be the smallest size available. A lunch provided by ezCater, a corporate catering company, gave off the whiff of Fyre Festival, with a wilted salad topped with two chickpeas, and a veggie wrap that was soggy and so, so cold. In my whiniest voice, I saw the appeal of everyone’s vision: I’m in Vegas for fuck’s sake. Spago should just deliver to my room.
But a world like that needs to be built, and like the temples and cathedrals and Bellagio fountain, its novelty and impressiveness is meant to distract you from just how it’s done. The draw of drone and robot delivery, for instance, is that it saves restaurants from having to pay delivery drivers. “It’s about 30 percent cheaper for us right now to do drone delivery versus standard delivery,” said Rebhun. “I really don’t think, with minimum wages rising, that we’re going to be able to continue to do [dispatched driver delivery].” Thein elaborated that “instead of multiple drivers, we can have just one person controlling many drones. This is our way to reduce cost.”
Most businesses presented their cost-cutting or logistics-organizing services as a boon, especially to independent restaurant owners who are still struggling due to the pandemic. Saving 30 percent on delivery costs by adding drone delivery is self-evidently positive. In the best-case scenario, this could mean the money saved would be used to pay the remaining workers a higher wage. “I would love to see a more sustainable wage for not just restaurant workers, but for the drivers and everyone involved,” said Canter. “The way that there’s more to go around is when automation starts to kick in a little bit more than it is today.”
It’s through a combination of some exploitative labor practices and crafty salesmanship that the idea of cutting labor seems like the natural future for restaurants. During the conference, the ongoing trend of food service workers rethinking jobs that have provided them with low wages and no benefits was euphemistically referred to as things like a “scarcity of drivers,” “labor problems,” and “cost pressures.” And, like with most businesses, workers were mostly framed as a liability rather than an asset. Like, at least Las Vegas is a union town.
At best, drones and apps lead to a sort of fully automated luxury communism, a world in which most labor is automated, leaving humans to leisure and enjoyment. But for that to exist, you need the communism to come before the automation. Apps and automation may create an opportunity for restaurant owners to treat their workers better, but they don’t require it. As it stands, without something like a universal basic income, automation becomes a loophole to pay fewer people. It also assumes restaurant owners would use surplus profits to bolster wages for the remaining workers, which is a bold assumption. While there is evidence that wages are going up for food service workers, it is largely in response to workers refusing to work for anything less, and restaurant owners acquiescing because they need to stay in business. If a restaurant owner decides to pocket the extra cash and pay their workers a minimum wage that is nothing close to a living wage, that’s their choice. The company that lets it deliver food via drone has no skin in that game.
The same goes for virtual restaurants. Every representative from a virtual restaurant company who I spoke to, or who spoke at a panel, was selling how easy it was for owners to implement. Mostly, the work was assumed to be so low-lift that it wouldn’t even register as extra. “Restaurants already have fixed rent. The lights are already on. The staff is already in the kitchen, whether they’re doing one brand or multiple brands. So why not do more orders?” asked Canter. “Why not make more food?” But there’s nothing stopping a restaurant owner from essentially doubling someone’s output without passing on any of the theoretical profits from a robust delivery business. According to workers, that’s what’s actually been happening.
Fast-food workers recently told Modern Retail that an increase in mobile orders over the past year and a half has them feeling like they’re doing two jobs for no extra pay. “Mobile orders in 2021 and 2020 were hell for employees: It was stressful and overworking, and we saw no extra pay for that extra work,” said a former Starbucks employee in Toronto. Other workers say that online orders also tend to be bigger than in-person orders, and that the staff on hand is inadequate to handle the volume. “[Corporate’s messaging was] you’re just doing what you’re always doing,” said a former McDonald’s employee, who left in June. “But it’s like, [our work] just quadrupled.” At Starbucks, “technology was made for customers and not for employees,” one barista told Reuters of the company’s mobile ordering app, which frequently inundated a Buffalo location with so many orders they fell 40 minutes behind. And five former Chipotle employees also told Insider they quit after a surge of delivery orders created “impossible” conditions.
This is what happens when a company prioritizes growth and “capturing the market” over the day-to-day reality of the workers. The Wall Street Journal reported that REEF has used $1.2 billion in investment to buy up parking lot companies and expand its operations, and is now urgently trying to meet investor expectations. This is all done on the backs of cooks who are expected to work at a breakneck pace, and sometimes in unsafe conditions. Three REEF workers allege being harmed by fireballs erupting from propane burners in a mobile kitchen, with one former market director telling Insider, “our team was deadly afraid to work every day because they thought their face will get burned off.” Others said the pressure to send out orders as quickly as possible resulted in lax health regulations, and with customers receiving uncooked or raw food. In a meeting of kitchen division managers, one executive presented a slide that apparently read “Speed: If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.”
Klein insisted that customers “understand that delivery’s a convenience and it is a service,” and that we’re all, restaurants and customers alike, willing to pay our share for this convenience to exist. But consumers have basically always had their restaurant meals subsidized by poverty wages, and so far, the entire delivery industry has been set up so that the consumers are shielded from how much this convenience truly costs. That disconnect has become more pressing as delivery has become all but a necessity for many restaurants. Restaurant owner Andrew Ding told Eater’s Land of the Giants podcast that delivery apps have “morphed into … basically modern-day mafia,” insisting restaurants need them or they’ll perish. “I’m not going to say that the platforms don’t have a place, because it’s a marketplace. It helps for discovery,” says Ding, but that’s the platforms’ argument — the market demands this, we’re just here to deliver. Some cities, like Chicago, have gone so far as to sue delivery companies on behalf of restaurant owners and customers alike.
Even if customers understand delivery is a “convenience,” apps have regularly fought to erode any remaining friction between desire and satiation, whether it’s by keeping gig-worker delivery drivers from unionizing or demanding higher wages, or listing restaurants without their consent so it looks like they have a wider selection. And these men are right — delivery is here and there is no going back.
But if we stay on this trajectory, in which both restaurants and workers are squeezed for the convenience of the customer, and delivery platforms operate on losses in the hopes they’ll become a monopoly, it’ll look much like every other venture capital-funded “disruption” play that has yet to turn a profit. We’ve seen how Airbnb’s initial pitch of renting out your apartment when you’re on vacation has fueled a gentrification and housing crisis. We know that Uber’s and Instacart’s initial offers of “use your own car to make money in your spare time!” has turned into thousands of people whose wages are reliant on their algorithms. We see that for every independent virtual restaurant brand there are double the amount of celebrity-driven ones churning profit for the already successful, or ghost kitchens just dedicated to making Burger King. And we know that delivery apps like DoorDash and UberEats paid millions to fight legislation that would have allowed drivers to have employment benefits. There is nothing in their Food On Demand pitches that requires a change from how things already are. Like Vegas itself, it’s not about creating anything new, just giving you more of it.
It is impossible to unhinge the jaw of the ouroboros of desire when it comes to delivery on demand. Did customers already dream of having their 7-Eleven order brought to them from a different ZIP code via an autonomous vehicle, or by someone on an e-bike who basically has to break traffic laws to get it to their door on time, or did they begin dreaming once it was offered? Does it even matter? I admit the immediacy of it all feels off-putting to me in the way walking out on the Vegas strip did, the mistaking of plenty for joy. If every brand becomes a national one, if the only choice I have is between one corporate chain or another, if every meal can be driven or shipped or droned to me from everywhere, if I don’t “have to” go anywhere — why be anywhere? Whose problem was that, and did it really need immediate solving?
In some corners, though, we see how different choices can be made. Matt Howard of EatStreet, an independent online delivery service based in Madison, Wisconsin, said the company’s drivers are W2 employees and it still manages to be profitable. David Cabello, founder of Black & Mobile, a delivery app that focuses on Black-owned restaurants, spoke about being a “second chance” company, hiring drivers who may have backgrounds that make it difficult for them to be hired elsewhere, and how they focus on treating drivers well. More restaurants continue to experiment with ending tipped wages. Unionization pushes at fast-food restaurants are gaining attention and support. The Buffalo Starbucks location where everyone was burned out on mobile orders? They just unionized.
Having the same means-tested dinner options on every corner (or app) in America does not create value, but neither does scarcity. Opening an app and hiring someone to drive to your house with some burgers and sodas does not have to be an inherently exploitative task. It is pretty objectively a nice thing to have. Using a drone to deliver medicine to people who may live up to 50 miles from the closest pharmacy? Also, in a vacuum, a great idea. What’s exploitative is the way it functions: These apps, services, and even restaurants are not built from the standpoint that every worker should be making a living wage on every order. Instead, they’re built on the idea that waiting or effort is the same thing as being denied, and on the fact that building a business on the backs of exploited workers isn’t considered a fundamentally failed model.
The world these executives are advertising is one of abundance. But by not focusing on the worker, they cannot build this world, and in fact will probably build the opposite of what they claim — a world in which access to takeout dinner from an international slate of virtual restaurants is only available to a few.
Klein is right — building the world of delivery requires consumer education. But squint and you can see it, the actual world of abundance, where drone delivery doesn’t have to be traded for lost jobs, where drivers are paid living wages, where line cooks aren’t expected to double their output, where consumers understand and pay the true cost of this convenience, where there is a great diversity of offerings from independent businesses, and where everyone can actually afford that convenience both when they need and when they want it. That sort of equity is the actual issue at hand, and what we have the choice to build. Spago arriving at your hotel room door for a mere $2 delivery fee was never the problem that needed solving. The first step is understanding what the real problem is.
Isip Xin is an NYC-based illustrator from the United States.