The Cost of Free Lunch: Why GrubHub Takes the L

Thought Leadership

Written by We Are Social U.S. Copywriter Lauren Weiss

Picture this: It’s 10:59am on an ordinary Tuesday morning. You manage a small restaurant in Manhattan. You’re short-staffed. It’s just you, one server, and one line cook. The clock hits 11am. And that’s when it happens.

Your POS starts ringing. And ringing. And ringing. Grubhub orders are coming in at a rate you haven’t seen even on your busiest pre-pandemic lunch day. You can’t confirm them fast enough. Receipts are piling up. There’s no earthly way you can fulfill this many orders quickly, let alone get enough delivery workers to take them.

This was the reality for restaurants across New York City on May 17, when Grubhub decided to offer the entire city (plus parts of NJ and LI) a free lunch between 11am and 2pm. That’s right. Millions of people. All at once. For just three hours. At one point, Grubhub was getting 6,000 orders a minute.

Yes, they warned restaurants and drivers. And no, with a post-pandemic worker shortage and no concept of how big this would be, they couldn’t possibly be prepared.

Restaurants across the city struggled to keep up or gave up entirely and turned off Grubhub and Seamless, losing any business they might have gotten from them that day. Orders sat and went cold and finally got canceled as there weren’t enough delivery people to take them. The Grubhub app and website immediately crashed under the strain. Grubhub’s complaint line had a queue in the thousands. Workers have since talked about how much food waste it generated, how much stress it caused, and how many customer complaints they had to field.

So, how did it happen? What was the insight that brought us here?

People don’t take their lunch breaks. Grubhub is going to give everyone a break.

It’s nice! It makes sense! It lightly ties into Mental Health Awareness Month! On the surface, it’s an easy win.

It even got that elusive organic reach. (As a social media person, I was absolutely jealous of that.) I watched as countless friends shared TikToks and tweets and Instagram Stories about it, free of charge. I totally took advantage of it, and so did everyone I know. In that way, it was a tremendous success.

But besides the success of having impressive organic reach on social, the campaign ended up doing way more harm than good to the very people keeping Grubhub going. It was an idea that benefited office workers – ones just like the people who created it – while hurting service workers.

It’s a classic example of a group of marketing people absolutely loving an idea for their bottom line, but failing to see the real-world impact it will have. In the echo chamber of the Zoom meeting, we often forget to examine the nitty-gritty logistical parts of our ideas.

And it makes sense. No one wants to be the downer in the room. No one wants to be the person piping up to say, “Well, actually, this idea might not be so great” when everyone else is gushing about it.

No one likes the logistical part of creative ideation, but someone has to do it. Cases like this one make that abundantly clear.

And for a company like Grubhub, which has been plagued with accusations of cutting into profits for both restaurants and workers, it’s a huge misstep. When working on a brand with an already-fragile reputation, every idea should be poked until it’s out of holes to poke.

But, ultimately, this is what happens when we don’t have everyone in the room. Of course office workers would love a promo that benefits office workers…while completely forgetting the service workers that make it possible. Oof. What a perfect reflection of our “post”-COVID world. It’s the same lack of non-marketer thought that leads to things like the (you know what I’m about to say) Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad in which she fixes racism with a Pepsi.

If even one service worker (or former service worker) had been in the room, they could have pointed out what a mess this would create. Unfortunately, they were busy prepping salads at Sweetgreen for the Grubhub team while they thought about how cool it would be if those salads were free.

The worst part? They haven’t apologized for it. They only vaguely acknowledged the issues. 

In a purely marketing-hat-on sense, it may still be a win. There are probably more people happy about free food than there are people upset about service worker treatment. I’m sure the case study video will paint a nuanced and unbiased picture of how it went, though.

In the end, it’s on us as creatives to take a holistic look at our ideas and think: who will this help? Who will this hurt? How do we make it work for everyone involved? Am I forgetting anyone? Do a top-to-bottom analysis. Think up the worst-case scenarios. Really sit with the idea in a deeply un-fun way to guarantee it’ll be good.

I know, I know. That sounds awful. We just want to throw out every wild idea and make something cool. We crave that viral content. But if you don’t take the 30 minutes to think through logistics and the impact on people who aren’t like you, you end up like Grubhub. And all the organic reach in the world won’t make up for the real-world problems you create then.