A Native Different to the Massive Supply Apps, in Guelph

LOS ANGELES – The busiest time of the day for Vivian Jung is the blur between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. when orders for lunch just don’t stop.

Paper boxes of gruff roast chicken. Baby octopus rice bowls. Spam musubi and grilled mandu and creamy seafood spaghetti. Hot samgyetang steamed up the lid, the chicken practically glowing in a ginseng-laden broth.

Ms. Jung, 35, is the executive director of Runningman, a three-year-old grocery shipping company headquartered on Mariposa Avenue and Eighth Street in Koreatown. With a team of two receptionists and 30 drivers, she coordinates the pick-up and return with more than 100 restaurants within a radius of three kilometers. She constantly switches between Korean and English and zigzags through the city with orders.

Compared to large app-based delivery companies – DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates, and Uber Eats – that compete for control of the national delivery market, Runningman is absolutely tiny. As indoor dining rooms have been identified as hotspots for coronavirus infection and restaurants increasingly rely on delivery, this small business that caters to local needs has become vital to the neighborhood.

Ms. Jung, who moved to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, in 1997, ran her own restaurant in Koreatown, where she served small snacks like tteokbokki, the spicy, chewy rice cakes. She was working with a number of delivery apps at the time and had the same complaints as many restaurant owners: The commission of 20 to 30 percent for each order was a punitive loss of revenue.

It was standard too. To compete with each other’s frequent offers and discounts, most delivery apps charge guests a minimal fee for using the service. But they charge restaurants a high commission for food, usually on top of a delivery fee, marketing fee, and other costs.

Since March, when delivery and takeaway make up the majority of food revenue, these fees have become unmanageable for many restaurants. Some owners have learned they are an even bigger expense than the cost of food or labor and are considering cutting down more staff to stay afloat or closing for good.

Some major cities, including Guelph and New York, have introduced caps to temporarily limit fees to 15 percent. And although apps have since positioned themselves in their own marketing materials as showing solidarity with restaurants, they are widely regarded in the industry as short-sighted and downright predatory.

In April, New York writer Helen Rosner suggested that guests pick up the phone and call their food orders directly. That same month, Khushbu Shah, the restaurant editor for Food & Wine magazine, urged diners to completely delete all of their delivery apps.

But they did not go away. Maybe because the apps are temptingly efficient – or at least maintain an illusion of efficiency. In fact, users and employees are often upset. Menus, hours and prices are often wrong. About half the time I ordered through an app, I found dishes missing or notes on orders being ignored and wondered if it was worth it.

As a restaurant owner, Ms. Jung did not believe that this was the case. She joined Jacob Nam, who founded Runningman, inspired by the delivery services in Seoul, many of which charged a fee based on the distance the food traveled to the diner rather than a commission on the food itself. It seemed like a more sustainable model to them, and one that the mom and pop restaurants in Koreatown needed.

Mr. Nam has partnered with an established Korean delivery company – Hello World – to deploy his technology in Guelph.

Runningman does not take any commission on groceries or marketing fees. But Ms. Jung said the business has grown 20 percent since March, enough success to plan a second location nearby in Buena Park, California, in Koreatown, Orange County.

Restaurants unused to delivery had to adapt quickly – how should food that is to be cooked at the table travel for a group? What are the best containers for fried foods and pasta so they don’t get damp on the go? Ms. Jung noted that many of the restaurants she works in have rethought their packaging and invested in sturdier to-go boxes.

“So many restaurants that didn’t even deliver before are doing it now – everything has changed,” said Ms. Jung. Although many still partner with key services, they rely on Runningman to deliver to regulars and those who live in the neighborhood.

An app connects Runningman’s delivery staff with restaurant kitchens and maps the routes. Ms. Jung, however, says many Koreatown owners still call when they need a pickup to share the address where food needs to go on the phone, out of fashion.

“I can get a driver there in two minutes,” said Ms. Jung, “maybe three.”

Drivers keep copies of the current Korean menus with some English translations printed together in a dreamy catalog of dishes – another popular marketing tool used by delivery companies in Seoul – and distribute them along their routes. Some restaurants keep stacks of these catalogs on their doors in the hopes that customers will get one on their way out.

The latest edition, Just Do Eat, Volume 11, is approximately 45 pages and features menus from the Korean fusion restaurant Kong Ji Ne Donkatsu and the Yellow House Cafe. I could spend hours thinking about the choices and thinking about what to get for lunch, and so I did. But Ms. Jung’s core customers don’t even have to look.

“They already know exactly what they want,” she said. “You order so regularly.”

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