Food at Your Fingertip

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Several readers have responded to Robin Sloan’s piece on app-based food-delivery services. (Sprig, Caviar, and Good Eggs are featured in the above video.) The first reader vents:

What the screaming F**k is WRONG with people these days? You’re honestly going to eat food that some part-time “chef” cooked in their home kitchen? How is the health department not having a coronary over this? And if your work life precludes your ability to cook and provide sustenance for yourself (which is pretty much #1 on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), you are are working WAY too many hours and need to have a long, soul-searching look at what you are doing with your life.

From a reader with a lot of work experience in the sharing economy:

I found Sloan’s piece to be both an interesting take on an important topic and philosophically problematic. By sharing his experiences regarding Sprig and Josephine, Sloan was able to use the juxtaposition of two stark examples to frame his argument around the app-based-delivery space. However, by reducing the conversation to these two examples, he oversimplified the “Uber-for-Food” indicator in his headline, a term that belies an incredibly complex industry.

The piece includes a few fears regarding a “Sprig Future,” including the belief that no one would be employed to cook excepting folks employed by Sprig.

While Sprig may be the food-delivery example he’s most familiar with, this future doesn’t account any success for the majority of food-delivery services, which connect existing food establishments and potential customers. Those services actually offer a means to ensure survival by expanding their potential customer base, increasing name recognition, and simply providing more food to more people.

I also found his characterization of the treatment and life of workers for these companies at best unfounded and at worst offensive: “Because the way they treat humans is at best mildly depressing and at worst burn-it-down dystopian,” “...and feel bad for a moment about the differences between your lives.”

I spent multiple weeks this calendar year working for a variety of what are deemed “sharing economy” services, delivering food for TryCaviar, driving for Uber/Lyft, and grocery shopping for Instacart. While a discussion of the future implications of the sharing economy on the associated workforce is important, I fear the rhetoric has gotten a bit too extreme. I have experienced nothing that could be accurately described as “mildly depressing,” let alone “burn-it-down dystopian.” The worker entering these engagements is given every opportunity to understand the employment situation they’re accepting, and most do so for reasons that likely don’t align with the traditional understanding of “work” or your dated servant-employer mindset. Having been through each of the related training programs, I found varying levels of information and training, but no shortage of transparency.

I’ve never worked Sprig, so I don’t believe I was the food deliverer who made you feel bad about the “differences between your lives,” but I can assure you I am plenty fine with the differences in our lives, as I’d imagine most sharing-economy workers are. While you may feel guilty for taking advantage of a service and, in order to make yourself feel better, choose instead to ride your bike to pick up food you didn’t make, to assume the entire service population operates in a certain manner or feels a certain way based solely on your experience shows faulty logic.

In fact, I see far-reaching positive implications for the sharing economy, ones that may be described as uniquely utopian, should we decide to utilize them correctly. It’s a future where Instacart has ended food deserts while Uber and Lyft have played a role in ending dependence on cars and oil. That’s not probable, but ‘tis certainly possible.

Another reader:

I really liked this article, but Robin Sloan misses the point of the described transactions. All the models have two things in common: They seek to interpose themselves into a transaction and charge a fee, and they are designed to do that in a way that shifts capital and regulatory costs to others. If one really wants to support the neighborhood, there are plenty of brick-and-mortar businesses that offer delivery. Sloan doesn’t address why these options are not acceptable. I suspect that price is part of the issue. It’s expensive to turn on the lights, meet health regulations, and pay taxes, so he makes the economic decision to buy from entities that escape those burdens.

A response from Robin:

In my piece, I claim that “gotta eat” is, among other things, a public health crisis, and I think restaurants as they exist today are hurting us on that front more than helping us. There’s simply no incentive to produce healthy, simple, sustaining food.

Many of the dishes offered by Josephine cooks, if you saw them on a restaurant menu, you’d say: “that’s it??” For me, that's a huge part of the appeal. Josephine is not that cheap, frankly. And as I said in my piece, it’s not actually that convenient.

So why give my business to these home cooks and not the panini place on the corner? Because of the way it feels, both before and after I eat. I don’t think you should always believe what a company writes about its values, but in Josephine’s case, I do.

I’ll add that Josephine complies with California’s cottage food laws; this isn't some regulatory run-around.

A bit more on that:

While even the new cottage laws do not allow people to profit from food made in their own kitchens unless it meets certain requirements, the pair say they are going by the same model used by and, in which diners pre-pay for a meal cooked by a chef at her own home. All Josephine chefs have a California food handler’s certificate.

If you have a question for Robin or want to respond to his piece, or want to sound off on the food-app phenomenon in general, hit up the hello@ address.