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In an amusingly “too-good-to-be-true” campaign, popular delivery platform GrubHub offered every single New Yorker a free lunch on Tuesday — prompting an unsurprising system crash, mayhem at local restaurants, and thousands of hangry customers shut out of the gratis meal promo. 

“What a disaster! I placed an order from a local restaurant 2.5 hours ago. No way to cancel thru GH, no food, and when I try to chat, check out the queue of angry customers!”: Jeremy Kaplan.

As you may have guessed, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and hungry hopefuls were hit with a bit of predictably fine print to accompany the offering. The “FREELUNCH” code was in fact, a $15-off coupon — which, as some users pointed out, left Grubhub’s not insignificant taxes and fees on the bill. 

Though many New Yorkers were more than willing to pay the taxes, fees, and tips in exchange for a break from their increasingly pricey work lunches, some were unable to claim the promo at all when a massive spike in GrubHub’s app usage left many with abrupt error messages. 

Others who did get through found that the scrum of picking up their order was just not worth the chaos and risk amidst rising COVID cases. Jake, a freelance audio producer based in Brooklyn, was planning to use the promo after quarantining. 

“My wife finally tested negative for COVID after being sick, and I was looking forward to the opportunity just to go to a restaurant to pick up some food — because the only times I’ve been out of the apartment since then have been to get groceries or to go to the pharmacy,” he said. 

“I went to Just Salad in Park Slope on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Seventh Avenue and it was an absolute mob scene. There were probably 30-plus people crammed into the corner where people pick up their orders and a number of them were not wearing masks. I mean, I know there’s no longer a mandate, but still, given my circumstances, that kind of weirded me out,” he added. 

Delivery Workers block the sidewalk outside Sweetgreen on the UES just before 2pm as Grubhub Free Lunch orders back up. Photo: Phil O’Brien

“The employees were running around like crazy — some people were starting to complain and get antsy, there were people who had placed their orders an hour beforehand and were still waiting, and there was a woman next to me who was kind of like a passive-aggressive-Karen-type. So I just decided to leave, and told my wife that either I’d go pick it up later when it wasn’t crowded anymore or just let it be.” 

Jake acknowledged that while “we are definitely victims of their very clever and addicting marketing campaigns,” the GrubHub campaign hadn’t swayed him to order more regularly. “We use the delivery apps on average, probably two or three times a month, but we’ve tried to cut back quite a bit, knowing the multitude of issues, especially in New York City with the delivery apps and especially with their treatment of a lot of the drivers,” he said. 

While presented as a friendly gesture, GrubHub’s campaign was more likely than not an attempt to rehab a damaged reputation for exploiting small business owners and employees with punishing fees and unethical policies. While delivery has remained a popular option throughout the pandemic, customers who have returned to in-person dining or eschewed delivery app fees for direct ordering have impacted business, as NBC News reported that GrubHub’s parent company Just Eat was even exploring a potential sale of the platform. 

Mike Bergemann at Corner Slice. Photo: Phil O’Brien

For local business owners — now used to relying on lunchtime pick up and delivery in the continued era of remote work — the rush, while good for revenue, did create additional complications.  Mike Bergemann, owner of Corner Slice in Gotham West Market said: “The Grubhub free lunch promotion today seemed to go smoothly for us, as most customers opted to pick up their orders themselves. The demand did break our courier services platform,” which, he added, was down for approximately an hour during the peak of the promo. 

GrubHub, perhaps aware that offering a city of 8 million people the exact same time-sensitive promo code could indeed short-circuit the company’s technical bandwidth, sent out the following message to restaurant partners at 3:44pm today: 

“Dear Restaurant Partners –
As you might have noticed, we are experiencing technical difficulties at the moment due to an unprecedented spike in order volume from Grubhub’s “Free Lunch” day. Our engineers believe they have found a solution to the issue and we should be slowly coming back online as we speak. We ask that you pause accepting orders for delivery on all your ordering platforms. We sincerely apologize for this inconvenience and appreciate your continued patience.”

Robert Guarino, co-owner of Nizza, 5 Napkin Burger and Marseille on 9th Avenue, shared Bergemann’s frustration. “It boggles my mind that Grubhub thought it was a good idea to try this promotion again after last year’s unannounced disaster. We were forced to shut down delivery before noon because no delivery drivers were available to pick up orders. I am pretty sure screwing up a whole lot of people’s lunches didn’t generate the goodwill they were looking for,” he told us by email this evening.

Ray Park from Red Poke added: “It was a big disaster for Red Poke. We got 400-500 orders even we stopped taking the orders as Grubhub failed to control to stop — as a result, customers did not get food, our team members went through stress to communicate with all angry customers, and our phone line was all busy with angry customers who had waited for food,” he said. “They tried to promote Grubhub and it left bad taste for both restaurants and customers.”

The orders pile up at Red Poke during Grubhub Free Lunch. Photo supplied

While GrubHub’s Twitter-Meme-Cat appeared to be addressing app glitches, it seemed that few in real life could reach the platform to address lost or canceled orders.

Rebecca, an attorney based in Brooklyn who placed a delivery request for 15 minutes after the promo began, immediately had doubts that her order would go through. “As soon as I placed the order, I said to myself that I should have done pickup, but I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. As of almost 5:00 I do not have any food — which honestly, I’m not too mad about,” she added. 

Having contacted customer service for a refund at 3pm, “I still haven’t heard back,” she said. “I also tried to chat and I was number 4,000 in line.”

Rebecca, like many others, chalked the pandemonium up to a quick cash grab combined with a stunning lack of foresight on the company’s behalf.

“I blame Grubhub for this fiasco — they should have built in place a system that limited the number of promo codes per restaurant and prepared ahead with more focused assistance in high usage zip codes,” she said. “We know they launched this thing with zero support to the restaurants, and the restaurants are the ones who are going to suffer, not Grubhub.” 

Join the Conversation

4 Comments

  1. I had problems with the Grubhub site as well, so I ordered directly through the restaurant’s website and chose Grubhub for delivery.
    Food arrived hot & delicious less than 20 minutes later.

  2. Seems I was one of the lucky ones. Around 1:35pm: Ordered a French dip sandwich with fries on Grubhub from my regular haunt! Went thru “seamless”ly!
    2:05pm Delivered 15-25 minutes EARLIER than estimated.
    Thank you Grub Hub! #freelunch #ny1

  3. I was one of the 400-500 at Red Poke in Hells Kitchen who never got food, and didn’t get a cancellation message until hours later. The location was completely overwhelmed. GrubHub did more damage than good.

  4. What a GrubHub flub! In today’s professional world, we must not overpromise. That goes double in tech.

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