Part 2: Another economic indicator


By Bill Taylor



It seems to me that the tranquility of my life as a seasoned citizen gets disturbed all too often – you know, my computer does weird things or the car starts making an unusual noise. Well, one of the more recent annoyances materialized when I found my “Eating Out Index” – that decade-old, reliable indicator of how well the economy is doing – is in jeopardy. You see, this technique relies on an “eyeball assessment” of the lines of vehicles at the drive up type restaurant windows and how well filled tables and booths are at “sit-down/server” restaurants.

Long drive up lines and filled tables and booths are indicators that the economy must be in pretty good shape while short or non-existent lines and empty tables and booths suggest a sluggish economy because folks don’t have enough “extra” money to indulge in “eating out.”. So what’s happened to jeopardize this approach?

Well, in the past few years a new industry has been developing that provides customers who wish to enjoy “drive-up” or “sit down/server” food with a way to do so without visiting these facilities. Several companies hereabouts provide this service but I have looked into the procedures of only one – which I think is typical – and if other companies differ greatly, I apologize for any inaccuracies.

This relatively new scenario involves four “players” – a customer, the company, a restaurant, and a driver. A customer starts the process by activating a “smart phone app” that connects the customer to the company’s computer control center. Icons then appear representing a host of restaurants with which the company has agreements – such as Italian, Mexican, family, chicken, burgers and fries, Chinese, and so on. After a particular restaurant is selected by the customer, a menu appears from which the food for delivery may be ordered. Payment is made electronically by the customer to the company using a credit/debit card. The company, in turn, places the order with the restaurant and pays for it electronically.

To deliver the food, the company has a pool of available drivers – “independent contractors”, that is, they are not company employees but have a “fee for service” agreement with the company to deliver orders from restaurants to customers. I won’t go into the details of how a driver is selected for a particular “run” as it’s called, but suffice it to say the company control center does an “electronic handshake” with a driver to pick up and deliver the customer’s order for a specified fee which varies with the situation. Pickup and delivery time windows are set; the restaurant’s location is sent to the driver along with GPS routing if necessary; and the driver’s progress is tracked by the company control center.

The diver, upon arriving at the restaurant, picks up the prepaid order and checks to make sure it matches that requested by the customer. (Note: occasionally a restaurant will require payment upon pickup in which case the driver obliges by using a company credit card.) The driver notifies the company of a successful pickup and proceeds to deliver the order to the customer once again using GPS as a guide.

The company control center provides tracking information on the driver’s progress to the customer to assist the delivery process. Once delivery is made, the transaction is completed; the driver’s company account is credited with the agreed-upon fee; and the driver is available for another “run”. Note that the driver doesn’t receive any cash or credit card payments and so is in less danger of being robbed.

This process obviously costs the customer more than a visit to the restaurant of choice and so indicates “extra” money is available to splurge on restaurant-prepared meals. On the other hand, it also messes with my “eating out index eyeball assessment” of the economy because the driver simply does a quick pickup of a prepaid meal at a restaurant and thus doesn’t occupy a table or booth or wait in line at a drive up window. This results in a skewed appraisal using my simplistic technique because these driver pickups would not be easily observed.

Well, there you have it – an abbreviated summary of a relatively new industry that takes advantage of the availability of what appears to be “extra” money to provide for delivery of restaurant prepared food. Furthermore, unlike other food delivery enterprises, this industry doesn’t have any part of the meal preparation process. It simply provides a service for which the customer is willing and able to pay – but this new economic indicator, which I don’t know how to assess, also kinda messes with my “eating out index.” At least that’s how it seems to me.

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By Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at solie1@juno.com.

Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at solie1@juno.com.