Grubhub’s ‘Free’ Lunch Program Was a Disaster for Restaurant Workers

Claudia Leo, the marketing director for Jing Fong, was in her office when she got the call. “There’s no delivery men coming in,” an employee at the Chinatown dim sum restaurant told her over the phone, an unusual lull for a 100-seat dim sum restaurant. Doordash Driver, a service that connects restaurants with food delivery workers across the city, had unexpectedly crashed, she says. The closest courier was more than 40 minutes away.

At this point, New Yorkers may be familiar with what comes next. On Tuesday morning, Grubhub released its “free lunch” promotion onto the world — up to $15, not including tax, tip, or delivery fees — a promise that ended up being too good to be true. As Eater previously reported, the Grubhub app and website crashed within minutes of the promotion launching at 11 a.m. Users flooded Twitter with screenshots of error messages, rejected payments, and delayed delivery times.

“Who at Grubhub thought it was a good idea to promise 8 million New Yorkers free lunch during a 3 hr period,” one Twitter user wrote. Eater has reached out to Grubhub for more information.

“Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., all hell broke loose,” says Max Zumwalt, chef of Hana House, a forthcoming Korean food hall at Borough Hall. The two-story operation, which is currently open for takeout and delivery ahead of its full opening this year, typically receives between 40 and 50 lunch orders on a normal Tuesday afternoon. Yesterday, it received more than 100 in the first 20 minutes of the promotion.

Zumwalt didn’t mince words: “It was a shitshow.”

That surge was led by the more than 400,000 customers who participated in the promotion, which was available to residents of New York City and parts of New Jersey, Long Island, and Pennsylvania. Promotions advertising discounted delivery aren’t uncommon in New York City, but something about “free lunch” spoke to New Yorkers on Tuesday. At its peak, as many as 6,000 takeout and delivery orders were being placed through Grubhub in the greater New York area each minute.

Dorien Russell, a New York City resident who works in influencer marketing, witnessed the spectacle unfold at Zest Sushi, a Japanese restaurant on the Lower East Side, around 1 p.m. on Tuesday. “It was a free for all,” he says. “There were probably six or seven people that were there for the same thing.” Orders packaged for takeout were strewn out on tables usually reserved for indoor service, he says. As he stood there waiting, the orders poured in.

“I feel like I was seeing another 40 orders come in every 10 to 15 minutes,” Russell says.

For some restaurants, more orders didn’t necessarily mean more money. “Even though it was our busiest day ever, we made less money,” Zumwalt says. The Hana House chef says the restaurant’s average order size dropped by about $10, with most people placing orders of $15 or less to make use of the promotion, while he had to refund roughly 15 customers for orders he had already prepared due to technical difficulties on the delivery app.

At Jing Fong, Leo says the dim sum restaurant’s kitchen was able to keep up with demand, but there weren’t enough delivery workers available in the area to turn a serious profit from the promotion. Some of its orders for shrimp siu mai and lava buns made at 11 a.m. were not delivered until 2:30 or 3 p.m., she says.

Several restaurant owners say they saw the “shit show” coming — due to two emails sent by Grubhub to businesses earlier this month — and made proper preparations. Others learned of the program in the minutes after 11 a.m., when orders started pouring in. “The numbers were typical of a Saturday or Sunday brunch,” Leo says, the busiest days of the week at Jing Fong. “It would have been nice if they emailed all of the restaurants.”

Grubhub notified some restaurants of the promotion on May 9, according to emails obtained by Eater. “Get ready for a serious lunch rush,” the subject line states. A second message from the delivery company on May 12 encouraged businesses to “get ready” without actual guidance on how to do so. “We’re expecting a big boost in new customers ordering on Grubhub,” the email reads.

If the third-party delivery company was aware of the sheer volume of orders to come, it didn’t let restaurants in on the secret.

“It was a little bit cryptic,” says Oscar González, an owner of newly opened Mexican restaurant Cruz del Sur. There weren’t any specifics about the “free lunch” program, aside from its time frame, he says, or any data on how popular last year’s version of the program was. He asked several of his line cooks to start earlier in the day as a precaution, only for Grubhub to crash within minutes of the promotion starting.

Part of the problem is that discounted delivery deals are fairly common in New York City, where companies like Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Doordash continue to compete for dominance, causing some restaurant owners to lower their guards in anticipation of the typical deals. “Every day I get, ‘Get $15 off $20’ things,” Zumwalt says, referring to the discount codes hawked by delivery apps. “We weren’t too worried about it.”

None of the restaurant owners interviewed for this story expressed surprise at the outcome of Tuesday’s promotion — “I have issues getting my order on a normal day,” as Zumwalt put it — especially from Grubhub. The third-party delivery app has a pattern of prioritizing profits over the people its apps serve and employ, whether it’s listing restaurants on its platform without permission or suing New York City over delivery fee caps.

A day after the promotion, the Hana House chef is still disputing the refunds and other charges incurred by the promotion via phone calls and emails to Grubhub customer support, with little success. “They said they were being overloaded right now,” according to Zumwalt, who says he was quoted a three-hour wait to speak with a Grubhub representative. “I get it. They have some damage control to do right now.”