$388 in Sushi. Just a $20 Tip: The Brutal Math of UberEats and DoorDash
Brantley Bush couldn’t shake the fear that he was about to be ripped off.
It was a chilly Saturday evening, and Mr. Bush, a delivery driver for Uber Eats, was waiting in an alley next to a dumpster in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood — a decidedly unpretentious spot in the middle of a wealthy enclave near Santa Monica, Calif.
He had just snagged an order from a nearby high-end sushi restaurant, for three separate deliveries, giving him a chance for a hefty tip.
The first delivery was to a two-story house with a manicured lawn and a large magnolia tree. The second was handed to a teacher at a late-night music class in an office complex.
The third was the big item, the reason Mr. Bush had accepted this delivery: a bulging paper bag filled with $388 of sushi and miso soup. If he was lucky — and if the customer was generous — Mr. Bush could hope for a $50 or $70 tip, which would make his night worthwhile.
He drove his 2000 Subaru toward Brentwood, past multimillion-dollar homes decorated with fountains and neatly trimmed bonsais. A man emerged from a house and exchanged a few pleasantries with Mr. Bush before accepting the order over a picket fence.
Then he had to wait. An hour later, the tip would appear, and the man’s generosity would determine whether Mr. Bush’s night was a success.
Food delivery soared in popularity during the height of the pandemic, when delivery drivers were called heroes who risked getting sick so others could stay home. But the novelty has faded, and drivers say they’re being taken for granted.
Some restaurants have ended their delivery options. And customers, conditioned during the pandemic to prefer “contactless” deliveries that drivers say now feel dehumanizing, seem less inclined to generously tip someone with whom they’ve barely interacted.
“For a little while,” Mr. Bush said, delivery drivers were “essential.”
“People were almost applauded,” he added. “Now we’re just the bottom of the barrel.”
When customers place an order through DoorDash or Uber Eats, they pay through the app and decide in advance of the delivery how much to tip. Drivers often cannot see the full tip until after they have dropped off the food, so they must cross their fingers and hope for at least a 10 percent tip. (Uber and DoorDash themselves pay drivers only a few dollars per trip, so most workers’ income comes from tips.)
Mr. Bush, 56, is among the veteran food delivery drivers who employ a particular strategy: Go big, or don’t bother at all.
Their premise is simple. The profit margin on run-of-the mill delivery orders, like a pizza or a burrito, is quite low, especially factoring in gas prices. So these drivers focus on affluent areas, like Beverly Hills and the Pacific Palisades, rejecting scores of low-value orders while waiting for hours for a big get from a high-end restaurant.
The best orders come from prime establishments frequented by celebrities. One or two big ones can turn a fruitless evening into one with $100 to $200 in earnings — a lucrative shift by gig-work standards.
Even for savvy drivers, trying to earn a living is often demoralizing and unpredictable, though the companies they work for are growing. In its most recent quarterly earnings report, Uber said its delivery business generated $14.3 billion in sales, a 6 percent increase from the same period a year ago. DoorDash reported $14.4 billion in sales, up 29 percent from a year prior. Neither company is profitable, but the growth signals that food delivery remains popular even as more customers have returned to in-person dining.
The delivery work itself appeals to a wide variety of people — from those who like the flexible hours to immigrants who don’t need to master English in order to master the apps.
But as independent contractors with no steady paycheck or employer to rely on for assistance, making money is a daily gamble. After drivers deliver to gated neighborhoods and surly security guards, the megawealthy often decline to tip them. Some A-list stars give only D-list tips, a common knowledge among drivers.
At about 8 p.m. on that Saturday night, Mr. Bush was back in the Pacific Palisades alley that drivers in the area have determined is the best spot for their phones to receive delivery requests from nearby restaurants. It is often a crowded spot, with several drivers often vying for a prime location while holding their phones aloft. Nearby, couples ate sushi and sipped wine on heated patios.
The tips flashed across his screen.
The first house had tipped $10.
The music teacher left him nothing.
And the Brentwood homeowner, with that $388 order, gave just $20 — about 5 percent.
High Highs, Low Lows
Mr. Bush, from Mobile, Ala., moved to Los Angeles in 1991 for a job with the United Artists Theater Group, a movie chain operator. Then he started working in theatrical distribution with New Line Cinema, a film studio, and was “hooked on what it would be like to be in front of the camera.”
He began acting and appeared in minor roles in a handful of small films. In 2001, he said, he was fired from his distribution job by a studio executive. One of the executive’s gripes: Mr. Bush brought him peanut M & Ms when he had asked for regular ones.
Twice, as a delivery driver, Mr. Bush accepted orders that needed to be delivered to the executive’s house. He canceled both times.
Mr. Bush has also waited tables, tended bar and done catering gigs. He could probably land a full-time job, but he has found being a gig worker gives him the flexibility to take acting classes and go to last-minute auditions.
In the meantime, he spends about 40 hours a week ferrying steak, pasta and sushi around the west side of Los Angeles. Charismatic and gregarious, Mr. Bush, with his gray hair tucked under a beanie and bundled in a red puffy jacket, chats with restaurant staff as he waits to pick up his orders.
There are moments of jubilation, like when he received a $130 tip from Doc Rivers, the former Los Angeles Clippers coach who is now coaching in Philadelphia. During the Academy Awards last month, he made nearly $200 from just two deliveries to parties.
“It’s like gambling,” Mr. Bush said, and the big tips are “very exciting.”
Often, though, the gamble doesn’t pay off. Mr. Bush lives in a studio apartment in Santa Monica — so he can surf nearby — and sometimes makes money from odd jobs in the entertainment industry. He still finds himself living “close to the edge” more than he would like. Last year, he paid several thousand dollars to repair his 23-year-old car’s engine.
“When it’s a bad day and you have to drive 60 miles to make $100, there’s just a negative cycle of having to put money back in your car for gas,” he said.
The challenges of his current lifestyle remind him of his time in Hollywood, where underpaid assistants toil to support the glamorous lives of movie stars.
“I’ve always seen that sort of behavior, and both sides of it, since my 20s,” Mr. Bush said. “So I know that powerful people can be both petty and generous.”
Drivers say that DoorDash, Uber and Postmates — the delivery service Uber purchased in 2020 — are mostly unhelpful, and they live in fear of being barred from the platforms for making an error or receiving a complaint. Some drivers also recently discovered that Uber was blocking tips of $100 or more unless the customer verified the amount.
Uber and DoorDash said a vast majority of their drivers worked only part-time to earn a supplemental income, so the experiences of full-time delivery drivers were not representative.
Still, “it doesn’t make it less painful when they do have a negative experience,” Carrol Chang, global head of driver and courier operations at Uber, said in a statement.
Uber said it had improved its app to reduce “verification confusion” for high-dollar tips, like the $100 tip issue, and it added measures in recent years to encourage better tipping. It said it was trying to reduce the practice of tip baiting, where customers offer a large tip upfront — which the apps will hint at, incentivizing drivers to hurry — and then rescind it after the delivery.
In 2019, DoorDash changed its tipping policy, which had effectively been giving the tips to DoorDash rather than drivers, after customer outrage. It later paid $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit over the issue.
The company also said it had determined the strategy of cherry-picking certain orders was less likely to be lucrative for drivers than accepting a higher quantity.
“The data show that when Dashers accept more orders, they generally earn more during the course of their dash,” Elizabeth Jarvis-Shean, a spokeswoman for DoorDash, said in a statement. She added that the company was open to feedback from drivers on how to improve their experiences.
Some drivers get assistance from Proposition 22, the California ballot measure passed in 2020 that was backed by gig companies and gave drivers limited benefits but prevented them from being classified as employees.
Proposition 22 promises drivers 120 percent of California’s hourly minimum wage. If drivers earn less than that amount, they receive a twice-monthly payment from the gig platform. But drivers are paid for only the time between accepting a delivery and dropping it off, meaning the hours they spend waiting outside restaurants aren’t compensated.
Some drivers say they are close to a breaking point, especially after three years of contactless delivery.
Ric, a driver who declined to share his last name because he worried about being deactivated from the delivery apps, was working around Beverly Hills on a recent evening and snared a $354 order from a high-end Chinese restaurant.
He said he had taken the strategy of accepting quality orders over quantity to an extreme and would rather go home with nothing than accept an order with a demeaning tip.
“If they’re going to take me for a cheap, glorified butler — that’s not what I am,” said Ric, a Latino man in his 30s. He said he felt that customers and the delivery apps “see us as flesh on wheels.”
Competition After Sunset
As the sun dipped toward the horizon, a line of cars started to form behind the dumpster in the Pacific Palisades alley to await the dinner rush.
Stanley Huang and his wife, Jennifer, pressed their phones up against the wall of a building on one side of the alley — one of the many tricks they used to increase the number of delivery requests they get from nearby eateries.
Drivers have discovered specific, seemingly arbitrary locations that seem to give their phones the best chance of jumping the queue for the next order. In general, proximity to a restaurant increases the chances of being offered a delivery, but the best spots are often down the block or around the corner in an alley, rather than right out in front.
At times, orders come fast and furious. Other times, drivers seem to be temporarily kicked out of the system altogether — a phenomenon some call being “throttled.”
Drivers said Uber or DoorDash paid about $3.50 per order regardless of its size, as well as about $1 per mile. (Uber said its pay was based on a more complicated formula.) The apps will show drivers only up to $8 of a tip until they have completed the delivery. The rest of the tip is hidden. That system leads some drivers to reject any order that shows under $11.50 in upfront pay, because there’s no chance of a “hidden” tip.
There are other factors to consider, too, like distance and whether multiple orders are bundled together.
There’s nothing more grating, drivers say, than waiting an hour, only to see another driver pull up and immediately hear the chime of an incoming order on their phone.
That driver is often Mr. Huang, who attributed his special knack for nabbing high-dollar orders mostly to luck.
A former wedding photographer, Mr. Huang, 35, moved to Los Angeles from the Chinese province Hunan about four years ago and discovered delivering food was an easy job for someone with limited English skills. Now, he said, he works up to 10 hours a day, seven days a week, and he often makes more than $250 a day before expenses.
Getting a bad tip is frustrating, he said, “but I understand customers don’t want to tip; customers come from different countries that have different cultures.”
Still, certain orders stuck with him. When drivers hit a certain threshold on DoorDash, they are sometimes offered large orders to venues like sports stadiums. Mr. Huang once spent two hours transporting a $2,500 order of tacos to a music studio. His tip was $50.
On one trip in March, he packed five bags of groceries worth about $500 from Erewhon, an upscale supermarket chain, into his car. On his way to the customer, he guessed the tip might be about $30. Instead, it was a letdown: just $5.
Mr. Huang often dreams of a different career.
“My wife always asks me, ‘If we don’t do food delivery, what job would we do to make big money?’ I say, ‘TikTok,’” he said. “I want to be an influencer.”
‘The more money, the more problems’
Vitalii Kravchenko cracked a rare smile outside a high-end Italian restaurant after getting out of his leased Lexus. He was on his way inside to pick up an order when he ran into Mr. Bush, en route to his own delivery. They posed for a quick photo in the Santa Monica dusk.
“The only time we’ll be friends,” Mr. Kravchenko said.
“We both got an order, so it’s OK,” Mr. Bush agreed.
Tensions sometimes flare when too many drivers circle the same turf, especially when orders are scarce. Mr. Bush and Mr. Huang struck up an on-again, off-again friendship last year, but they had hardly spoken in recent months.
Months ago, Mr. Huang’s wife had an argument with Mr. Kravchenko, who felt that she had swooped in on a prime parking space he had been waiting for.
Usually, Mr. Kravchenko, a 39-year-old immigrant from Russia, sees little reason to smile. In Russia, he said, people never smile at strangers.
“Here, people smile — they even don’t know you,” he said. “They smile, they ask ‘How are you?’ I can’t understand what should I say. How am I? Should I tell them all my problems?”
Mr. Kravchenko came to America on a tourist visa two years ago from Vladivostok, Russia, with his wife, who often accompanies Mr. Kravchenko on his deliveries. Once in the United States, they applied for political asylum.
Mr. Kravchenko says they are much happier in California, although his wife has struggled to adjust because she speaks less English than her husband.
In America, Mr. Kravchenko was looking for a job and learned about food delivery on YouTube. Now, he makes about $750 a week.
But their situation is unpredictable.
“Delivery became very awful,” Mr. Kravchenko said in a text in March, adding a grimacing emoji. He said the volume of orders was declining, competition was increasing and tips were poor. He started driving passengers through the Uber app to augment his income.
Though the couple is struggling to make ends meet, the economic situation in Russia puts things in perspective. “We are used to living salary to salary,” Mr. Kravchenko said. “We are not afraid to stay without money.”
In Vladivostok, Mr. Kravchenko was a handyman, a sales representative and operated a food truck, never making more than about $375 per week. His friends who managed companies made only a bit more.
The challenges in Russia, Mr. Kravchenko said, make America’s seem trivial. In Vladivostok, many people lack basic amenities like electricity, hot water or even working toilets in their homes, he said.
“It’s a crazy difference between life here and there,” he said. “The problems that people have here, for Russians — maybe I will be rude, but — we don’t think they’re problems.”
In the United States, Mr. Kravchenko has marveled at the gaudy displays of wealth. But he is constantly flummoxed by the stinginess of some customers.
“I don’t understand how somebody can have a $5 million house and pay $3 to $5 a tip,” he said in Russian, sitting in his car next to the dumpster in the Pacific Palisades alley. He switched to English: “I guess, the more money, the more problems.”