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Grubhub offered free lunches in New York City. That's when the chaos began

Yesterday was a bad day for Grubhub. The food delivery service launched a free lunch promotion for people in New York City. And spoiler alert: it backfired.

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Tyler Merfeld co-owns Toad Style BK in New York and says his restaurant was overwhelmed by the promotion.
Tyler Merfeld co-owns Toad Style BK in New York and says his restaurant was overwhelmed by the promotion. Manuela Lopez Restrepo | NPR

When I first saw that Grubhub was running a free lunch promotion for New Yorkers on Tuesday, my mind did not begin to ponder logistics or labor shortages.

All I thought was what kind of sandwich I would be treating myself to that day. Spoiler alert: I did not receive my sandwich.

The reality for myself, and many others who tried to redeem this deal in all five NYC boroughs, was a slew of canceled orders, undelivered food, and restaurants that found themselves overwhelmed by sudden — and unexpected — demand.

The problems began when Grubhub, the food delivery platform, began advertising a $15 credit for New Yorkers from 11am-2pm. Demand surged and at one point there were 6,000 orders a minute coming through the app.

Then it appeared to crash.

Social media was swamped with people complaining of long waits or that restaurants they frequented appeared to be unavailable for delivery, or just offline.

I did manage to successfully place my order at a local restaurant, Toad Style BK, but half an hour later received a message saying it had been canceled. The merchant had failed to accept my order.

So I went to investigate.

Abby Horetz, a line cook at Toad Style BK who was working at the time of the Grubhub promo, says that her first reaction to the influx of orders was plain confusion.

Abby Horetz is a line cook at Toad Style.
Abby Horetz is a line cook at Toad Style. Manuela Lopez Restrepo | NPR

"We were getting six tickets at a time. I tried to pause it, but more just kept coming in," she said.

On top of the flurry of orders, the restaurant was training a new hire, receiving a produce shipment, and getting a health inspection.

Tyler Merfeld, who co-owns Toad Style BK with his wife Jillian Camera, said that they were completely overwhelmed by the promotion. He said Grubhub didn't directly inform them about the deal.

"I would totally welcome this kind of promotion," Merfeld said. "It's awesome to get so much business, but we would have liked to have had foresight. We could have had more people working. It was busier than the Super Bowl."

Other restaurants reported food waste because of the mismatch in orders and drivers. One user on Tiktok showed bags and containers of unclaimed orders being thrown away, writing: "This is what free lunch looks like."

Horetz said that after a flood of orders, she noticed cancellations, and began saving finished orders for other customers so that they wouldn't go to waste.

In a statement to NPR, Grubhub said it had sent advance notice to restaurants in preparation for the promotion and increased "driver incentives to help support demand", but added that "no one could anticipate the level of demand and unfortunately that caused strain on some restaurants."

For many hungry New Yorkers this week, there really was no such thing as a free lunch.

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Transcript :

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Yesterday was a bad day for Grubhub. The food delivery service launched a free lunch promotion for people in New York City. Spoiler alert - it backfired.

MANUELA LOPEZ RESTREPO, BYLINE: Basically, what they offered was that if you placed an order on the app between the hours of 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., you would get $15 of credit to use towards getting yourself a free lunch.

KELLY: That is our producer, Manuela Lopez Restrepo. Yesterday, she tried to use the promotion to order from one of her favorite local spots in Brooklyn.

EMILY FENG, HOST:

But the process wasn't easy.

LOPEZ RESTREPO: When I first opened the Grubhub app, it seemed like everything had either crashed or the restaurants had decided to disclose themselves as not delivering.

FENG: After trying different methods, she was finally able to put in her order - a salad and a veggie burger. The order was confirmed. A driver was assigned. And then the order was canceled.

LOPEZ RESTREPO: When I looked into the fine print of why I hadn't received my order, it told me that the merchant had failed to confirm the order.

FENG: Scores of people had similar problems. Grubhub said at one point, 6,000 orders a minute were coming through their app. And eventually it crashed.

KELLY: Our producer wanted to find out what went wrong with the promotion from the restaurant's perspective. She sent us these voice memos on her way to talk to folks at Toad Style BK. It's the same restaurant she tried to order from yesterday.

Abby Horetz is the line cook there. She says she was confused about the sudden influx of orders.

TYLER MERFELD: We were getting six tickets at a time printing.

ABBY HORETZ: Yeah.

MERFELD: And then tried to pause it for 30 minutes, and then more just kept coming in.

FENG: In addition to the promotion, which they say came as a surprise, they also had a health inspection, a produce delivery and a new team member coming on board. They were overwhelmed. And then out of the blue, they started seeing the orders getting canceled. With all those cancellations, they ended up having a lot of orders that no one picked up.

Tyler Merfeld co-owns Toad Style BK with his wife, Jillian Camera. He says Grubhub didn't directly tell them about the promotion.

MERFELD: Totally would welcome this kind of promotion. It's awesome to get so much business.

JILLIAN CAMERA: Right.

MERFELD: But we would have liked the foresight. We could have had more people working.

CAMERA: Yeah.

MERFELD: It was busier than the Super Bowl.

CAMERA: Yeah.

KELLY: Merfeld's restaurant and his guests were not the only ones caught off guard. Some Grubhub users complained online that it took more than 6 hours for their food to arrive.

We reached out to Grubhub's team about their promotion. In an emailed statement, they told us that to help make sure restaurants get the food picked up, the company says they added driver incentives. They also said no one could anticipate the influx of orders, but they were able to fulfill 450,000 of the promotional lunches. They call that a, quote, "win-win for businesses and diners." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.