What I've learned so far as an NYC food courier

I spend most of the time declining jobs and have a single digit acceptance rate

Depending on who you follow on Twitter, you might be led to believe (or hope) that folks are tipping food couriers better, or at the very least, have reminders to consider doing so.

But then there are the times when you see a tweet like this and have to take a breather before replying. If you click through on David Lazarus’ tweet, you will, though see a lot of folks articulating the differences between delivery charges and tips, and why the driver deserves a gratuity.

I wanted to better understand what food couriers can earn, so I signed up to be an Uber Eats courier this past week. To get the immediate question out of the way: no, you do not have to be an Uber driver to be a courier. You can sign up to deliver using only your bicycle or your own two feet (yes, there is an option under vehicles called “Uber Walker”).

How did my first trip go?

Signing up was pretty straightforward. The steps were:

  • Fill out a short application that includes standard information (i.e. name and address)

  • Consent to a background check

  • Provide a piece of photo identification (in this case, my NYS driver’s license)

  • Take a selfie for your account profile picture

It took about six to eight hours after submission before my application was approved and I could start taking gigs.

The first delivery job I accepted was a trip to a nearby 7-11 to pick up three bottles of orange juice. For each delivery, you’re given an estimate of the amount of time that it will take to complete it; however, that estimate is contingent on: a) you not having to wait to pick up your order; and b) that the drop off is pretty seamless.

When I arrived at 7-11, there was another person ahead of me in line, which already meant that I would be spending more time on this gig than anticipated. After picking up the bottles of orange juice, I found out en route that I’d be heading to a hotel (you’re only given the intersection when you accept the trip). Going to a hotel for a drop-off throws out the seamless delivery assumption because of the additional time spent doing the following:

  • Going through the lobby and letting security know why you’re here

  • Waiting for reception to be available

  • Having reception get in touch with the customer

  • Riding the elevator up to the proper floor

  • Navigating the maze to find the correct room

  • Returning to the elevator bank

  • Riding the elevator back down

  • Passing through the lobby to exit

What was supposed to be a 10-minute drop-off ended up clocking in at 14 minutes. Four minutes may not seem like a lot, but the time lost definitely adds up if delivering food is your main source of income.

Several observations thus far

With a few days under my belt, I’ve come to realize that most of my “online” time is spent declining trips. At one point, I had an acceptance rate of 2.7%. And I still have less than 10 deliveries completed thus far.

Here are a few of the things that I’ve learned this past week:

  • Without the surge bonus (when drivers are in demand, you can see on a map where you stand to earn additional dollars per trip) or other promotions, making minimum wage is extremely difficult given that:

    • Your base fare hovers around $2.00 (based on my experience)

    • Trip supplements (defined as an “earnings component that takes into account… total time and distance” on their Sept 2020 earnings structure policy) are too random to predict

    • Timing is unpredictable because of possible delays in pickup and drop-off

    • You’re reliant on gratuity to make up the rest of your wage, which as we will see below is unreliable

  • Of the deliveries I’ve completed (again, a note that I have a small sample size so far), folks do not tip more than 20% of their order’s value, even in inclement weather or when it’s late at night. Remember, I see what is in the packing list to make sure everything’s there when I pick up your order and can eyeball how much it’s worth.

  • For a lot of the trips that I am offered and subsequently decline, customers don’t even bother tipping >15%. You can usually do some quick back-of-hand math when you look at the estimate and factor in the average base fare, trip supplement, and current surge to determine an approximate gratuity.

    • Here’s an example where I was offered an $8 trip, where I average my standard rates based on the day’s deliveries thus far (I was walking my orders today instead of biking):

      • Average base fare if I were to walk was $1.90

      • Average trip supplement was 60¢

      • The current surge was $5.50

    • Based on this calculation, Uber was subsidizing my $8 trip wage entirely, and the customer wasn’t tipping at all in this estimate. Even if it’s a short distance (six blocks), I am still doing someone a service in a snowstorm, which should not excuse anyone from a gratuity.

  • To follow up on the previous point, customers might tip in cash upon arrival, but is that a chance I’m willing to take? When you have the option to take a trip that is going to yield more dollars, I don’t want to take the gamble of perhaps being rewarded in cash.

  • It may not be apparent to some customers how far you have to travel. I was reading a thread on Reddit where the OP noted that because Uber automatically suggests the tip % based on your order, the OP had been unintentionally undertipping this entire time. And honestly, I’ve been guilty of that too up until fairly recently.

If you’re going to order delivery, what should you consider?

I’m not going to tell you to not order delivery. I’m not going to tell you about the fees that platforms take from restaurants right now. I’m not going to tell you that takeout is the better option. You have your own reasons for ordering delivery, which may very well be as simple as because you want to and don’t want to venture out right now—and you know what? That’s fine. All I ask is that you make your choices with an awareness of how it affects all the players in this equation. If a restaurant is promoting one delivery service over another, it’s probably because they have a lower rate or a better relationship with that platform—honour that ask.

And here are a few things you can do for your delivery couriers:

  • Tip at least 20% if you can afford it.

  • Consider the weather and time you are requesting a delivery: add dollars for inclement conditions or late nights (especially when it gets bone chilling cold here)

  • Think about the distance your courier is traveling and provide additional compensation as you see fit. The trip supplement doesn’t do a good job at recognizing a 60-block trip vs. a 10-block one.

  • And hey, if you want to provide a cash tip, do it! But please include a tip on your initial order, and make the cash incremental. Orders are viewed at as already having a tip included. It’s better to be pleasantly surprised by good actors vs. disappointed by bad players.

Further reading and listening: