For the last few years, the well-designed Abe’s Pagoda has been fashioning a kind of Tiki-tinged take on Chinese fare on Wyckoff Avenue. But earlier this month, they noticed that someone else was also using the handsome, Godfather-y moniker to sell a similar selection of miso-spiced dishes on DoorDash.
The only problem was that Abe’s Pagoda already listed its menu on other dining apps, like Grubhub and its subsidiary Seamless. Nonetheless, there Abe’s Pagoda was on DoorDash, offering a strange version of their menu, its orders disappearing down whatever account had registered the restaurant. After prolonged online protest, the listening on DoorDash quietly disappeared.
The phenomenon of online counterfeits in the digital dining marketplace is not uncommon. In early April, the San Francisco Chronicle delivered the news that a well-known blowfish sushi joint, shortly after shuttering amid the pandemic, had discovered its name was listed on DoorDash, UberEats and Seamless, operated mysteriously by parties unknown. More interesting, perhaps, than the futuristic maze of ghost kitchens that the apps are excited to celebrate is the mysterious world of ghost listings, menus that appear on the app as a familiar facsimile of corner bars and bodegas but correspond to nowhere real. Of course, the fictional restaurant has long remained a part of the dining app experience: in 2015, a local NBC affiliate reported that 10% of the top restaurants listed on Seamless and GrubHub in New York “had names or addresses that failed to match any listing on the city’s database of restaurant inspection grades.”
A more recent local experience involves accounts operating on the site entirely disconnected from the restaurant owners themselves.
“We had a driver show up, looking for a delivery, and I rummage to find the [app] and there’s three active deliveries going on,” Fernando Strohmeyer, who runs I Like Food out of Aunt Ginny’s in Ridgewood, told Bushwick Daily. After trying out Grubhub briefly at the start of the pandemic, Strohmeyer decided that it wasn’t worth the hefty cut that the app makes on deliveries, so he decided to manage deliveries on his own.
But Grubhub wasn’t done with him. Orders continued to flow in and confused drivers continued to show up, waiting to pick up sandwiches he hadn’t made in months. This was grating. He would call each customer who had ordered back and attempt to explain the confusion. “Please don’t associate me with this bad transaction,” he would implore.
Calls to Grubhub had not helped either, he says. The account would go down and then appear again. More recently, an account appeared under Aunt Ginny’s name, the bar that his pop-up has long operated inside. Nobody from the bar was involved in making it and the menu it mysteriously generated bore a faint, strange resemblance to the one he operates himself. Where it came from and what purpose it serves remains unknown.
As companies like Grubhub have become larger and more ubiquitous, their operations have become automated and operated by algorithms that mercilessly sweep the internet for data. A class action lawsuit filed against the company in federal court last year claims that Grubhub automatically creates landing pages and generates menus for most restaurants in major cities, even ones that don’t use the app at all, in order to trick Google into listing Grubhub’s site above whatever website the restaurant operates. The site will often, then, tell customers that the restaurant they searched for is currently closed and alert them to nearby restaurants that do partner with Grubhub, according to the suit. Earlier this year, Grubhub agreed to pay out $450,000 in legal fees in a settlement with some of the restaurants in that case, but declined to admit any wrongdoing.
In Ridgewood, Strohmeyer is demoralized.
“They just won’t stop. They’ll take it down for a little while and it’ll be back up like three weeks later,” he says about his own experiences with the app.
The experience has steeled Strohmeyer against working with delivery apps, and he’s not alone.
Colleen Bock, a bar owner who had been behind Father Knows Best in Bushwick and now operates the recently opened the Acre on Forest Avenue, confirmed to Bushwick Daily that she had experienced the same during the restaurant’s tumultuous opening amid the pandemic last year.
“I despise the delivery apps,” she said.
Top photo credit: Andrew Karpan
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