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Conor Sen

Food Delivery Looks Like Another Gig-Economy Dead End

There’s no money in bringing meals to consumers. That might mean trouble for the restaurant industry.

Maybe this was as good as it got.

Maybe this was as good as it got.

Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

As third-quarter earnings season rolls on, a paradox confronts the restaurant industry. On the one hand, restaurant companies are touting the rise of off-premise and digital sales, which includes delivery, as an increasingly important source of growth. On the other, GrubHub Inc. just announced disappointing quarterly results and said that food delivery is only a means to an end, unlikely to ever be profitable on its own. The risk heading into 2020 is that the inevitable reckoning for the food-delivery businesses will spread to the broader restaurant industry.

Restaurants have based much of their recent growth on consumer deliveries and rely heavily on just four companies — GrubHub, DoorDash Inc., Postmates Inc. and Uber Eats — which combined have about 95% of the market. That's what makes GrubHub's latest quarter so ominous. In a letter to investors, it said it didn't believe "that a company can generate significant profits on just the logistics component of the business." In other words, delivery will always be a low-margin business at best. GrubHub also reported some troubling trends: new customers tend to order fewer deliveries than earlier users; customers are losing their brand loyalty, and are more willing to switch to rival services; and those rival services now tend to offer delivery from a wider ranges of restaurants than GrubHub. All told, the bottom line was net income of just $1 million versus $22.7 million in the same period a year ago.

But GrubHub also made the argument that its value to restaurants lies in its potential as an online advertising partner, and that delivery services are really just a vehicle for generating ad sales.