(Author’s note: This article discusses some very ethically dubious practices by delivery apps. It should not be taken as legal advice and if any of these companies are doing this to you, speak to your legal representation.)
I’ve gone off on GrubHub before but that was before COVID-19 devastated the restaurant industry. 2019 was roughly a billion years ago, and things have only gotten worse.
When COVID initially hit major delivery apps like GrubHub, Slice and noted tip thief DoorDash put out the usual platitudes and token gestures. They talked about how supportive they were of small businesses, waived independent restaurant fees and made it clear that they had your back as a small business owner. They also really wanted you to forget all of the shady stuff they were getting criticized for beforehand, but let’s stay focused.
Unsurprisingly, this magnanimity lasted for a few months at most before major delivery apps went right back to their old tricks. I’ve only found that restaurant delivery apps have only gotten more aggressive, more predatory, and more intent on dominating the local restaurants they put on a big show of “serving.”
Recently I noticed a shared post in a local Facebook community that was set up to help community members rally around the independent restaurant industry. It’s still going strong, and this post caught my eye. For privacy reasons the restaurant name and contact number have been blocked out accordingly, and also because a lot of restaurant owners legitimately fear retaliation by GrubHub.
I explained this in a reply but the restaurant’s profiles were perfectly safe. The reality of what goes on here is more more insidious.
What GrubHub and other platforms often do is set up “shadow websites” for restaurants, without their knowledge (they often bury the fact that you’re agreeing to this in contracts) that can rank above the official site in Google rankings. These websites are often purposely designed by deceptive, especially given similar names. So for example, michaelsawesomerestaurant dot com could be URL, but GrubHub would register michaelsveryawesomerestaurant dot com. There’s a subtle craftiness to it; even a regular customer might stumble upon the “new” URL and just assume you had a domain change.
Or worse, the restaurant owner doesn’t have their own website, which effectively allows the delivery app to monopolize the restaurant’s presence online.
Regardless, GrubHub will heavily promote their phone number on the shadow website. The problem is that large platforms like Google and Facebook crawl the Internet looking for the most up to date information, which includes phone numbers and website URLs. In a worst case scenario that unfortunately has become quite common over the last few years, Google or Facebook will often assume the GrubHub phone number is the real phone number and automatically correct it on public listings.
This in turn causes a knock-on effect because smaller tier public listing sites like Yelp or Urbanspoon often draw data from Google or Facebook. As a result, you may unwittingly find that the entire Internet seemingly points to the wrong website, phone number or hours. Except this didn’t happen in a vaccuum; it’s exactly what these delivery apps want. For all the talk of how much they want to empower and serve small businesses, their intent is to control your online presence. Every last crumb of it.
Is it legal? Bearing in mind that I’m not a lawyer, but unfortunately, in my experience and based on my own speaking to lawyers about it, yes. These practices, while deeply unethical, often don’t meet the legal threshold of actually impersonating a business. Delivery apps are very careful to claim that the website is simply brought to you by GrubHub or Slice.
Back in 2019 CEO Matt Maloney responded to a barrage of criticism in an E-mail in which he characterized the allegations of creating shadow websites without permission as “outright false.” He insisted that restaurants using its food delivery platform had agreed to web domain purchases and “the creation of websites advertising their businesses.”
Except…these shadow websites aren’t meant to advertise. You wouldn’t put in a completely different phone number if you just wanted to advertise your customers to people. What you’re trying to do here, Matt, is insert yourself as a completely unneeded middleman between the customer and the website they want to access so you can take a cut from it.
Yes, technically restauranteurs are “opting into” having these websites created, but really, these delivery apps know enough about their target market to know that the average small restaurant owner is way too busy or simply not savvy enough to 1) Even read the contract fully 2) Know that they can opt out of it. Restaurant owners opt into these delivery platforms because they need to automate things. What they don’t expressly sign up for is a deliberately vague clause that allows you to fall just short of legally impersonating them. I can vouch for that myself given the number of outraged restaurant clients I’ve had to show these shadow websites to.
Or, as Sharokina Shams of the California Restaurant Association puts it:
Sharokina Shams of the California Restaurant Assn. said even if permission to create the microsites was given in Grubhub’s terms of service, the lack of communication and clarity on activity the company was undertaking on restaurants’ behalf is a problem.
“It seems like every time we hear from restaurateurs about their experience with third-party delivery services, words like ‘rip-off’ and ‘gouging’ come up,” Shams said.
GrubHub alleges that they stopped “automatically” creating shadow websites for restaurants back in 2018, but make no mistake, they’re still doing it. Not only that, but they’re getting more brazen about it because of how much online ordering has exploded in the wake of COVID.
There’s also the fact that getting them removed will often be like pulling teeth. Delivery app customer service will refuse to speak to anyone but the restaurant owner rather than an employee, assistant or some other helper like a web developer. They’ll also insist on scheduling a specific time to speak with you, often well in advance, and I’ve noticed they have a very curious habit of responding much more slowly when it comes to the removal of things you don’t want like shadow websites.
Just recently I spoke to one delivery app employee and I actually asked him if they had a specific policy in place to stonewall or delay people from getting shadow websites removed. His response was to tell me to “Just leave it.” While it’s certainly possibly that wasn’t meant to imply foul play, it sure sounded suspicious.
My recommendation is to search for any “shadow websites” of your restaurant’s title if you’re already working with a delivery app. Call the delivery app and demand they take it down. Be forceful and don’t back down or let them tell you that it’s a good thing. If you’re a new website, get it in an E-mail from these delivery apps that you’re opting out from these stupid “microsite” creations. Let’s take back our corners of the Internet.