The ‘dark shops’ offer everything you need in 30 minutes. But there is a human cost | Food

EITHERn an otherwise busy stretch of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood sits an old black-painted auto body shop. Long papered-over windows hide its inner workings and lend a somber presence to an otherwise brunched street. A hopeful shopper stands in the doorway, taking inventory of shelves stocked with Doritos, Kettle Chips and sodas as a worker explains that he’s closed to the public. “You can, however, order on the app for delivery,” he says.

This store-like extension is a micro-fulfillment center, or “dark store,” for Gopuff, one of the many hyper-fast delivery companies that have launched in recent years in large US cities as the The pandemic shifted the focus from the consumer, for those who could afford it, to ordering.

These companies offer 10- to 30-minute deliveries of everything from candy and booze to coffee filters and batteries. It’s a speed that sets them apart from regular grocery delivery apps like Instacart and FreshDirect, and it’s achieved by opening dark stores in the communities they serve.

In early 2022, near the peak of its prevalence, there were 115 dark stores dotting all five boroughs of New York City. according to a map commissioned by City Councilwoman Gail Brewer, they are mostly concentrated in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

A dark Gopuff store painted black with wallpapered windows
Gopuff’s dark store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Cinematography: Lela Nargi

Backed by billions in venture capital funding, hyperfast delivery companies including Getir, Gorillas and FastAF have promised buyers speed and ease. But critics have argued that they are bad for workers, local businesses and communities. And in New York, local officials have accused some obscure stores of violating zoning Y consumer protection laws by settling in areas not zoned for warehouses, by not allowing customers to shop, and by not accepting cash.

Apps including Buyk, Fridge No More and 1520 are already drawing from cities or have gone bankrupt, some without increasingly profitable; 23 remained in Manhattan, according to the most recent count from Brewer’s office.

His departure may create a more favorable playing field for those who resist with more determination or more money to spend. The market is already undergoing consolidation with only a handful of major players remaining in the US, including Turkish company Getir, Germany-based Gorillas and US-based Gopuff.

Capital infusions have flooded in. Getir raised $768 million in March 2022weather Gopuff raised $1 billion in 2021. Between 2020 and early 2022 investors will plow over $5.5 billion on instant delivery companies based only in New York City, even though they lose money. Jokr, for example, was losing $159 per order nearly a year before it closed its US operations in June, according to a report on information. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Chart showing the biggest digital grocery deals outside of China, with Gopuff at the top.

Bill Herman, who teaches business ethics at Denver Metropolitan State University, says fast-delivery apps want to be to groceries what Amazon became to books and are willing to lose profits in hopes of coming out on top. “Imagine being an early investor in the grocery delivery app that becomes the dominant player and ‘disrupts’ the space,” says Herman.

But the rapid ebb and flow of apps raises questions about the responsibility of the broader tech industry and its myriad other “disruptions” to provide fair and stable jobs and equitable cities.

While these companies have an obligation to do the right thing for the communities, customers, employees and vendors they interact with, Herman says, too few take it seriously. The economic trend that has led to so many precarious jobs “is unethical and actively harmful to people,” says Herman.

They also benefit from the “casualization” of work, he says. Once upon a time, a delivery job could offer a decently paid hourly job with employers who took risks such as injuries on the job. These jobs now look very different.

At first glance, ultra-fast delivery companies seem to offer their workers a better deal than many other delivery companies. Classified as employees, workers are paid hourly wages and are promised 100% payment of tips.

It’s a contrast to restaurant delivery companies like DoorDash, whose freelancers, classified as “independent contractors,” can end up earning less than minimum wage. (A DoorDash spokesperson said workers earn “more than $25 an hour on average during delivery.”)

But instant delivery app workers have said that when tips or paychecks disappear, a constant complaint from workers, it is often not clear who to turn to, making it difficult to ensure that they are paid everything they are owed. “I got tired of them only turning me around”, a delivery man from the now defunct Buyk he told New York Focus In May. “They told me to talk to my manager about tips. When I spoke to my manager, he told me that he had nothing to do with our tips.”

Companies treat workers “not as a source of profit that keeps the company going, but as one more expense on a spreadsheet to minimize costs and cut back when times are slow,” says Shelly Steward, director of the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute.

“One of the things that has made people turn to this type of work is how fragmented the job market in general is,” Steward says. There aren’t enough good jobs, he says, which means workers have nowhere to turn except “jobs where the conditions are horrible, the risks are high, and the earnings are volatile and unpredictable.”

Express delivery companies also have impacts on the communities in which they are located. Residents around the dark Gopuff stores, whose workers deliver in partnership with Uber Eats and by bike, to complain of idling freight trucks, extra traffic from delivery cars, and the late-night blaring noise of car stereos. Bike delivery men, rushing to fill orders, have been injured at work and accused of endangering the safety of pedestrians.

Bodega owners, staples of New York City neighborhoods, have expressed fears of being undermined for the lowest prices offered by the applications.

Entrepreneur Jose Bello, who teamed up with two New York City warehouse associations to try to create a warehouse-specific express delivery app that failed due to lack of funding, says that when Gopuff opened near a Chinatown warehouse in 2021 , the store owner initially did not see it as competition. “I went through everything [Gopuff shopping] list and showed it to him. You’re selling this for $5 and they’re selling it for $3. At which point she said, ‘It’s a problem.’”

Bello says there are some apps that seem to want to help smaller businesses. He was in talks with Gorillas about selling cellar sandwiches through his app. “His founder is also an immigrant and he did not want to damage the wineries,” says Bello.

Sharon Zukin, Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology and author of The Innovation Complex: Cities, Tech, and the New Economy, says “there is this huge contradiction that is built into all kinds of digital businesses.” Although they operate locally, the money they make often “comes out of the neighborhood, out of the city, out of the region,” he says.

Companies and investors feel little connection to or responsibility for the communities in which they operate, says Zukin. “You can never really look for ethics on their part,” Zukin says, “starting at the lowest level without…cleaning the sidewalk, [or] contributing to local events, or limiting… the noise.”

Gopuff and FastAF did not respond to a request for comment from The Guardian.

A Gorillas spokesperson said: “From day one, we have opted for permanent jobs and hourly wages above the minimum wage.” Riders receive electric bikes, have access to sick leave, paid vacations and fair wages, the spokesperson said, adding that the company also supports small businesses, including wineries, “amplifying their community-driven missions and allowing them to compete with established industry giants.”

Adam Wacenske, Gorilla’s US General Manager, said “we strongly reject suggestions that we are not part of the New York City community,” adding, “we always comply with all applicable laws…including zoning regulations.

Langston Dugger, head of US operations at Getir, said his employees “earn benefits and retain 100% of their tips” and receive training, “high-quality safety gear” and electric bikes and mopeds. The company has integrated stores into cities, says Duggan, “by encouraging walk-in shopping at many of our stores, getting to know our neighbors and beautifying our storefronts.”

Getir “welcomes the regulations” around dark shops, says Nico Probst, head of government relations, and “complies with all applicable laws.”

But worker groups are pushing for more attention to be paid to these instant delivery companies and their impact on workers and neighborhoods.

Hildalyn Colón Hernández, director of policy and strategic alliances for the advocacy group Los Deliveristas Unidos (LDU), wants fast-delivery grocery companies to clearly define themselves, whether as grocery stores or anything else, and then comply with existing guidelines. Food stores in New York City have to follow a multitude of rules and regulations that the apps have been able to circumvent, says Hernández, “it is as if the law did not apply to them.”

In July, the New York City Council introduced three bills to regulate these businesses, including the ability to issue violations for false advertising and prevent apps from guaranteeing delivery in 15 minutes or less. Outside of the US, European cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the Netherlands have implemented a freeze in dark new store openings for a year, after complaints about its impacts.

Experts who spoke to The Guardian called for better local and national regulation and advocated for workers to unionise. Perhaps most importantly, Steward says, is to “focus on promoting good jobs, in all industries in all communities,” rather than allowing substandard jobs and working conditions to proliferate.

“There’s nothing inherently bad or dangerous about working from an app for tech-driven businesses,” Steward says. “It’s the business model and the decision makers behind the apps that are bad.”

Leave a comment

Stay up to date

Register now to get updates on promotions and coupons

Shopping cart

×