They are now part of the Berlin cityscape: cyclists with pink boxes on their backs and their competition, with a green kangaroo on their back. Both startups, Foodora and Deliveroo, deliver food from restaurants that previously did not offer delivery. On many Sundays the bike messengers are lining up in front of burger shops between Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain. Overall, more than 1,000 drivers in 14 German cities deliver dishes for Foodora.
There is an army of messengers who don’t need much more than a smartphone and bicycle. What drives these drivers? In recent weeks, several media outlets reported about the poor working conditions at the delivery startups. But is it really so bad?
For three months, Alex, who wants to remain anonymous, has delivered food for Foodora. Since he quit, a few months have passed. Nevertheless, he paints a good picture of his life as a messenger.
Alex, what went through your head when you were cycling through Berlin with a pink box?
I constantly thought about whether Foodora was making a profit or loss with me. (Laughs)
Mostly it was a loss. I earned nine Euros per hour and delivered maximum three orders. And that was rare. There were many hours when I had no orders. Foodora gets 2.50 Euro delivery fee from the customers and about 30 percent of sales. Whenever I made that calculation for my shift, Foodora made a loss with me.
I also wondered why some shifts were so busy and chaotic – and others not.
What was your conclusion?
I have come to the conclusion that whenever Foodora spread vouchers in an area – in mailboxes or at bus stops – then it went well for orders. And a few days after it was again less. Everyone was hot on the 8-Euro voucher. That marketing does not seem particularly sustainable.
Through your job you constantly got direct customer feedback. Do you think this model of Foodora’s will work long term?
In the niche, perfectly. There is a certain type of customer, the one around 30. He does not necessarily splurge on a gourmet meal, but wants it a bit cooler and hipper. Otherwise he would have ordered with Lieferando. This customer wants a pizza from a Spanish restaurant that is slightly different, with a slightly different ingredient. The food is fast and comes with a bike, that fits into his lifestyle. In Berlin districts like Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain have this audience. But if it works in Charlottenburg, I’m not so sure.
What was your daily routine?
Five minutes before the start of the shift, I put on my bike clothes, I logged in into the app, and turned on the GPS and waited for the first order. Then the phone rang, it was a terrible noise, very, very loud. I heard it also on my bike. One click on the app shows me the restaurant and I get a route on Google Maps. I only saw the very next step, first what restaurant I have to go to and then where to drop off the food.
The app was therefore your superior?
Yes, I had no idea of the overall flow of my routes. Actually, that’s not bad, but I felt that the driver is less appreciated. My employer did not trust my abilities. Only if I had checked the current order, could I look for directions to the nearest restaurant or order. So I never knew where I should go next – maybe it’s right the next house? This, actually, occurred pretty often. Or do I have to cycle two kilometers uphill? That cost additional time.
What have you experienced as a messenger at Berlin’s apartment doors?
Many have immediately slammed the door behind them, some were curious and have asked me questions. Once I went to a “Späti” (convenience store) for a group of stoners living on the 5th floor to buy a bottle of Coke. They found it very funny, laughed and applauded me.Though they still didn’t tip me.
Another guy, English, a little older, who had a small Paris-Hilton-dog in his arms, was really upset that he had to wait 40 or 50 minutes for his food. This was a Sunday night and it was extremely busy. I told him that it is not my fault, I got the order and delivered it promptly, and that I’m sorry. But he just didn’t listen.
Is this a general problem?
That was sometimes a vicious cycle: As a driver you want to get tip, but people don’t want to give any if something goes wrong. Even though it’s almost never the fault of the driver. Or they are pissed if something is cold or too late. The driver is only the executor. The app tells me where to pick up and bring food. In the headquarters, they always told us: “You are the face of Foodora.” But that could be frustrating because we always had to pay for the trouble.
Was it weird to have so little human contact, not to work in a team?
A little bit. It’s always nice to feel part of a team. In many startups there is this founders myth. It is: You have to believe in the product, so you can sell it, you have to love the vision. All employees in the Foodora offices probably feel that way, and order gladly through Foodora. But we as drivers have often felt that we’re second-class employees. We wonder: How do I benefit if the customer is happy? I only bike around the city. Only the tip makes me be nice.
And you do not get feedback whether you’ve made a good shift or not. I usually don’t do anything in my life half-heartedly, but in the end I asked myself: Why are you doing this at all?
What exactly bothered you?
The communication, if we had problems, was incredibly bad. The mailings to us sounded very condescending. If I had questions they weren’t answered until much later. The Foodora staff were overwhelmed.
[Editor’s note: The startup has already commented publicly on the criticisms. The reactions are at the end of this interview.]
Why did you start with Foodora?
I had finished studying and needed a job. A buddy of mine had worked at Foodora and told me “It’s very easy and they’re always looking for people”. And indeed it was very fast, a few hours after my online application they called and asked: “Do you have a smartphone and a bicycle?”
What were the conditions?
I had a contract for 22 hours, for 850 Euros, with social security. That was important to me and is the big difference compared to the conditions at Deliveroo. [Editor’s note: Deliveroo has commented on the working conditions, the statement is at the end of the text.]
Did you always bike 22 hours per week?
No, not once. I have always asked for more shifts, usually 26 to 30 hours, so Foodora could give me the full number. Many drivers have complained because they did not get enough hours. For me there was no week in which I came to the full number of hours. That means, I’ve always worked less than it said in my contract.
But you did get additional tip, right?
This varied. While with some shifts I got ten Euros tip, sometimes I didn’t get anything. Per person there were always between one and two Euros. I always put the money in an envelope, that was my beer money. Because the revenues were unpredictable. People with the coupons were always fairly stingy or didn’t have much money anyway. Neukölln gave the least tip.
Could you live off the money made from your job?
It paid my rent and health insurance. And the wage was 50 cents higher than the minimum wage. I had no other option at that time.
What does Foodora say about the competition from Deliveroo?
As I said, the conditions there are worse. Otherwise, it was not a big issue. In the presentation when we started it showed the kangaroos of Deliveroo that had been crossed out. Everyone laughed. Also we couldn’t use the bags of the competition because that makes a bad impression with customers. This point was important because almost all the restaurants work with the two startups.
You delivered Foodora food for three months. Was there any pressure to deliver very quickly?
No. And I myself was very surprised by that. It was important that we worked carefully and everything looked presentable. The speed did not matter. Although Foodora measured our speed, I was never punished when I drove a little slower.
And were the other drivers under pressure?
No, none of them. I also drove purposely slower at the end. And for Foodora that’s not bad, they believe in an algorithm that can calculate everything and plan. I therefore got shorter distances and they have enough drivers, overall.
Can you explain that?
In the beginning, I drove very quickly. Up to 20 kilometers per hour on average. And the app then assigned me very long distances. When I realized that, I became the nicest bike rider in the world: I let all people through and I waited at every traffic light. My goal was to keep the speed always below 10 kilometers per hour, because then I got much shorter distances, that weren’t so strenuous and got me more tip.
How was the behaviour of the restaurants?
I always found it very interesting how the different restaurants treated the drivers. A vegan restaurant in Kreuzberg was always very nice to me, they made me some tea, even if I did not have any orders. But other restaurants wanted me to go quickly. They didn’t want any messengers to sit around in their restaurants. I thought that was not very nice.
One thing has always annoyed me: I had to deliver dishes that are almost impossible to deliver. For example soups or Mango Lassi. The streets of Berlin are too broken for those kind of dishes.
Did you have contact with the other couriers?
Only in the restaurants. We said hello or asked how it’s going and we’d talk a bit. Like bus drivers we sometimes greeted each other on the street. The couriers came from all around the world. The Germans were very young, some only 18 years old and the international people had often just moved to Berlin and were older. It seemed like a stopover for many, because they didn’t know what they wanted to do and how long they would stay. Some had such rickety bicycles I often thought they wouldn’t hold up for nine months. For many it was an opportunity to get easy money.
Did you have fun?
Initially yes. There are a lot of crappy jobs. Sitting at a desk can be much more depressing. I was outdoors a lot and very active. But the shift planning was simply bad. Sometimes I had two or three shifts a day and was seven to ten hours on a bicycle on the road. Other weeks, I had almost no shifts. That was not fun. Whenever I had a lot to do, the time passed quickly, but the waiting times were stupid.
Criticism of “Alex” the bike messenger has already been expressed in other media reports. To the online magazine Krautreporter the startup said: “There can be no question about a lack of shifts”. Also the communication should be improved. So-called “Rider Captains”, drivers of the messenger fleet are responsible for recording any trouble. Already in May Foodora announced that staff from headquarters had gone on their cycles in order to understand the difficulties, they said to Krautreporter.
In Berlin the conditions changed to the worse, the wage was lowered to 8.50 euros. “We want to build our young company sustainably and especially to create sustainable jobs,” the company announced to Krautreporter, but at the same time, they wanted to be profitable.
Deliveroo has responded to the Foodora-driver statement: “About 50 percent of our drivers in Germany are employed and thus insured by Deliveroo” The self-employed drivers are required by law, to join the association of traffic as bicycle messengers when they sign their contract so they are insured that way. “Towards our self-employed drivers we are not authorized to issue directives and thus are not allowed to impose them to insure themselves,” says Deliveroo to Gründerszene. They would, however, advise their drivers to take insurance.