By Joy Bergmann
Council Member Gale Brewer is taking aim at grocery delivery apps, calling their operations “illegal” and an existential threat to mom-and-pop stores across the city, including her Upper West Side district.
“They’re going to kill the wonderful Latino restaurants, the wonderful bodegas, the wonderful delis, every single wonderful mom-and-pop supermarket,” Brewer said at a Sunday press conference with other elected officials and a coalition of small business trade groups held on the Lower East Side. “These Gopuffs and JOKRs and Gorillas gotta go!”
But representatives for some of those companies say their operations are being painted with an unfair brush, with critics ignoring community benefits like the jobs and positive consumer experiences they bring.
On the Upper West Side, at least five delivery companies are now operating what Brewer and others call “dark stores” or mini warehouses. Customers order items via digital apps. E-bike couriers then deliver them, with some brands promising arrival in only 10 or 15 minutes.
WSR located such operations at:
120 Riverside Boulevard (66th Street) – 1520
50 W. 72nd Street (Columbus) – Fridge No More
2409 Broadway (88th Street) – JOKR
2680 Broadway (102nd Street) – Gopuff
2681 Broadway (102nd Street) – Gorillas
So what’s the problem? Isn’t this capitalism at work? WSR asked.
No. It’s an unfair fight with competitors who aren’t following the rules, multiple speakers said.
Such deep pockets can fund marketing blitzes and promotions like $10 or $20 off first orders. Independent bodegas can’t be handing out $20 bills to every new person who walks through their doors, a man in the crowd said.
“We’ve seen this play before,” added NYC Comptroller Brad Lander, citing what Uber and Lyft did to the taxi industry and Amazon has done to bricks-and-mortar retailers. “We allowed a model of finance to come in and drive them out of business for the enrichment of a small handful of people.”
Representatives for bodegas said they’re investing in technology too, and hoping to give consumers more options. But they haven’t yet attracted the same interest from venture capital firms as the new companies.
“We are not against technology,” said Francisco Marte, founder of the Bodega and Small Business Association. “We need business leaders to work with us…to take our bodegas to the next level.”
“We have our own software,” said Frank Garcia, Chairman of the National Association of State Latino Chambers of Commerce, citing My Bodega, a delivery platform for locally owned stores that he says has not received the funding necessary to scale it. “Why isn’t corporate America supporting them? It’s economic racism. Because we’re not white from Wall Street, we don’t get that money.”
One top concern for elected officials is zoning; they say warehouses shouldn’t be in buildings zoned for commercial and residential use.
According to the NYC Department of City Planning website, “warehouses and distribution centers” belong in manufacturing districts.
Brewer raised the zoning issue, among others, in an October letter to multiple City agencies. Answers were not forthcoming.
“All we got from the Department of Buildings and City Planning was ‘we’re talking.’ That’s not good enough,” she said. “We’re going to work with the new [Adams] administration. These dark stores are illegal.”
A City Planning spokesperson referred WSR’s zoning questions to the Department of Buildings.
“These types of quick-service fulfillment centers are a new type of business in the city, and they are not specifically mentioned in existing city zoning regulations,” a DOB spokesperson emailed WSR. “We are actively working with our partners at other agencies to explore the appropriate zoning districts for these types of establishments.”
Safety is another multi-pronged concern.
Many of the app storefronts have windows covered with paper or promotional ads, reducing visibility from both inside and outside. “It screws up the streetscape,” said Brewer, indicating she believes such coverage is a NYC code violation. “It’s illegal.”
And the speed at which deliveristas must complete their assignments puts them and passersby at risk, she says. “It’s insane to ask someone to get an apple to someone in 15 minutes,” Brewer said. “They’re going to make people run to the customer and run over pedestrians.”
In interviews, the people working at the businesses had positive things to say about the new delivery model.
A Gorillas deliverista told WSR he’s happy with his job. He’s paid $15 an hour plus tips and Gorillas provides the e-bike. He said the 2681 Broadway location is busy, operating from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. “Milk,” is the most popular item, he said.
“It’s cool,” said a storefront worker at Gopuff. She said their 2680 Broadway location delivers 24/7 and “Covid tests” have been flying out the door.
“Bread, eggs, milk,” are what’s hot at Fridge No More at 50 W. 72nd Street, a deliverista told WSR.
All three workers called their workplaces “warehouses” and said people could not shop inside them.
A JOKR manager prepping his 88th and Broadway location for its recent opening said customers could pick up their orders in addition to taking delivery.
WSR emailed detailed questions to all five companies operating on the UWS.
Germany-based Gorillas sent back a basic press release and “backgrounder.” It highlighted Gorillas’ treatment of “Riders,” providing training and full-time employment terms and benefits including health insurance and paid vacation.
1520’s message bounced back from the address shown on its website.
JOKR emailed a statement emphasizing its community engagement and policy of hiring full-time W2 workers receiving “a competitive wage and full benefits” as well as “comprehensive safety training.”
“The JOKR community lives and works in the same neighborhoods we serve and, as such, the safety of our riders, our neighbors and our customers is of paramount importance,” wrote a spokeswoman.
JOKR also works with third-party service providers like Too Good To Go for pickups of “discounted goods that would otherwise go to waste,” she said.
JOKR, which lists New York and Luxembourg addresses on its website, says its business is meeting, “an ever-increasing demand from consumers for more spontaneous, more personalized and more convenient delivery of fresh products and favorite local brands.”
Brooklyn-based Fridge No More did not respond to WSR.
But a Gopuff spokesperson did address several of the allegations made by app opponents.
“Gopuff does not operate dark stores in New York City,” she wrote. “Customers can walk-in, or buzz to walk in at all of our New York City locations. Each location has a Point of Sale System and a cash register to facilitate customer transactions.”
“We work to ensure that we are compliant with zoning regulations in any city we launch operations in,” the Gopuff response continued.
“Gopuff has a unique assortment of products…and partners with local brands to support their distribution, as well as work to ensure excess goods from our locations are donated to Feeding America or one of their local affiliates.”
About employment, the Philadelphia-based company said, “If someone wants flexibility and the freedom to work on their own schedule, they can become a delivery partner as an independent contractor (the average U.S. delivery partner earns between $18-25 an hour with Gopuff). If someone is seeking more predictability and benefits, they can join our local or team as a full- or part-time employee.”
Gopuff added, “New York has a rich and storied culture of bodegas, delis, and corner stores, and we want to supplement and complement their offering for consumers.”
Brewer’s not buying it, vowing to pursue every avenue to reverse the apps’ proliferating presence in these pandemic times. “They’re opening up every minute. But we’re going to keep this up,” she said. “We’re going to fight to keep our bodegas and get rid of these dark stores.”
Legislation may be coming.
“We need a comprehensive regulatory framework to get every illegal business off the streets,” said Brooklyn Council Member Lincoln Restler. “We’re going to do everything we can to lift up bodegas, to help provide new technology, to help provide real relief from the city, state and federal government. And, most of all, to encourage each and every one of our neighbors to shop at the stores that make our neighborhoods.”