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Grubhub’s free lunch promotion causes chaos for New York City restaurants

Grubhub said that 6,000 orders were placed per minute, as customers faced two-plus-hour waits for their food

What started out as an exciting promotion — Grubhub offering a free lunch worth up to $15 to all New York City customers on Tuesday — soon turned into chaos for both restaurants and hungry customers.

While Grubhub touted the promotion as a success, with more than 6,000 orders placed per minute during the three-hour promotional window of 11 am to 2 pm, restaurants were faced with more orders than they could handle, and many had to cancel orders or stop taking them altogether. One employee at a Mexican restaurant in Harlem told BuzzFeed that drivers were so swamped that she ordered an Uber to drop off 11 lunch orders herself.

New York City pub Harlem Public apologized to customers in an Instagram story:

"If you ordered from free GrubHub lunch day, sorry for the delay,” the craft beer pub said in a statement. “We didn't know this was happening and couldn't adjust ETA. Delivery drivers are riding all over the city and are hard to find. Sorry."

While Grubhub said that their operator customers were notified ahead of time about the upcoming deal, many restaurants were still not aware until the day it happened, like Harlem Public.

“To help businesses prepare for yesterday’s promotion, we gave advance notice to all restaurants in our network, which included multiple forms of communications across email and in-platform,” Grubhub told Nation’s Restaurant News in a statement. “We also increased driver incentives to help support demand, and our drivers generally made 2-3 times more than usual during the promotion.”

New York City-based barbecue chain Mighty Quinn’s also said that they were not informed that this promotion was happening. Several of Mighty Quinn’s locations received 10 times the usual number of Grubhub orders and the number of orders received was “in the triple digits,” Mighty Quinn’s CEO and cofounder Micha Magid told Nation’s Restaurant News. Magid said that they were able to fulfill almost every order but at some point, had to turn off third-party ordering.

On the other end, customers were faced with two-hour waits (or longer) for their food.



In fact, many customers were unable to place orders at all because during the height of the promotion window, the promo code had stopped working, and several times, the Grubhub app and website had crashed due to the unusually high traffic.  

“The overwhelming demand initially caused a temporary delay in our system and some users experienced an error message with their code, but that was quickly rectified, and we were able to fulfill more than 450,000 lunch orders connected to the promo,” Grubhub said in a statement.

Fresh & Co CEO George Tenedios similarly said he had no idea about a promotion, and only ever remembers getting an email from Grubhub sent to him as a customer, not as an operator.

“I plan on reaching out to my Grubhub account representative,” Tenedios said. “I just opened a new location last week and I’ve been in constant communication with my Grubhub account rep, so why didn’t he tell me about this? And for all of the food that we produced for orders that were never delivered and eventually canceled, who’s going to reimburse me for those?”

In my own experience, after ordering lunch from a virtual poke restaurant in Queens at 11:45 am, I still had not received my food an hour later. I was on hold with Grubhub customer service for an hour, while simultaneously trying to talk to a customer service representative in the chat window with 3,500 people ahead of me in the virtual queue. After an hour of listening to hold music, my order was canceled and I was able to get a refund.

For the inconvenience, Grubhub said that the company will be sending a $15 dining credit to customers who experienced issues.

This latest kerfuffle with Grubhub is an apt example of the ongoing tension and disconnect between operator customers and third-party delivery companies. As we have previously noted, during the pandemic, third-party delivery giants were sued for everything from anti-trust violations to deception and unfair business practices.

“This was a great example that illustrates the problem with third party delivery companies,” Micha Magid told Nation’s Restaurant News. “[…] I understood after the fact that there was some talk of this promotion in advance. I consider myself fairly plugged in and had not heard anything about this. We also have a rep that covers our account that did not notify us. This could have been a successful effort for Grubhub and the restaurant community if they better understood slamming orders through a channel is not the way to gain back share. Restaurants are more than happy to listen, assist and participate, but there needs to be more of a partnership mindset.”

Delivery companies are trying to do anything and everything to stay in the good graces of hungry customers and increasingly digitally savvy restaurant operators, including adding on grocery, alcohol and even super-quick drone delivery.

While the Free Lunch Tuesday promotion might have been seen as a failure, Grubhub has now been trending on Twitter for 24 hours and the story of New Yorkers’ overwhelming response to free lunch made national news, so in that sense it was a marketing success.

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

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