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

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

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

"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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Manuela López Restrepo
Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.