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Interview with Simon – Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Introduction

I chose to interview my friend Simon (fictitious name) for this project because he frequently used many different food delivery services, additionally, he was quarantined twice in the last year during which time he had no other options for buying food and groceries than through delivery services. Simon is from Portugal originally, but has lived in Berlin for the past 4 years. He is in his mid 20’s and lives in an apartment on his own.

Interview highlights

Simon describes food as serving three purposes: “For me, food has [...] three purposes. One is nourishment, the other one's for pleasure and a third one might be for community and social interactivity. And obviously, this last year, the last point hasn't been very relevant”. None of the delivery services fulfil the same need and experience as going out to a restaurant:

“So far, I don't think there's been one [service] that has the same amount of positives and the low amount of negatives as it is to just go to a restaurant. And so I think there's not a service out there that does, exactly, or translates the experience of going to a restaurant and quite the same way.”

Simon orders food less frequently than he went out to eat before the pandemic. He has become very dependent on these delivery services,“I think the more tired you are of like lockdowns and everything, the more you order food in and you can't be bothered to go buy groceries”. He favours Gorillas, the grocery delivery service the most. This service allows him to avoid going to the grocery store which he feels is unsafe:

“Right now I'm in the phase that I haven't been to a grocery store in a long time and then just been ordering gorillas for maybe the last few weeks. I think I've only ordered Gorillas but that has more to do like we know numbers of Coronavirus increasing, like my [local grocery store] not feeling that safe at the moment.”

“If I just wanted to buy bread and eggs and milk or cheese or whatever before [coronavirus], it was a bit unthinkable to get delivery. And now, might as well. You know if it's a Friday night my Edika is going to have hundreds of people inside.”

As he explains, “Gorillas fills a need, it's more important for me, having safer, not as expensive delivery. I think at this point it is the more important issue for me”. Gorillas’ food delivery seems to have opened new possibilities for individuals in quarantine or people who feel unsafe outdoors. It offers the possibility of cooking for oneself instead of relying on the food options in the area that someone lives. Prior to Gorillas – at the beginning of the pandemic – existing services like Amazon fresh and REWE grocery delivery were very difficult to access, and people had to wait days for an open delivery window.

It seems like prepared food delivery will not be a service that Simon continues to use in the future after the pandemic is over:

“I used to [eat out] once or twice a week, just eat ramen by myself. [...I would enjoy just go there, listen to music, eat by myself, go home. And now I can't do that. So obviously, there's times that I still want ramen, so I just order in, but the moment that the restrictions are lifted, I will just simply go back to the previous behavior.”

His ordering habits are very proximity base, “If I had the ramen plays next door, I wouldn't, I would never order [delivery]”. Simon expressed feelings of uncertainty and awkwardness around the interactions with the couriers delivering his orders. There were concerns of balancing safety, convenience and cost vs sociability, friendliness, offering assistance and the labour required to make deliveries. e.g., If he was to make one large order, that could be very heavy for the courier to deliver, but if he split it into two orders, he would feel obligated to tip twice. This was a moment of realization for me, that this is a relatively new type of social interaction and we as a society have not yet learned or decided on the proper etiquette:

“That's one of the things that I'm not necessarily sure that I enjoy about this type of things. Obviously these people are doing their job, but then it's very conflicting to me to think about, should I give tips? Or how much should I give tips? Or, how is the behavior to have ‘ the courier that is bringing food? Do you offer them water when they come? What are the do's and don'ts of that sort of relationship with [the couriers], I have no idea. I am still trying to figure out that.”

“I have to, I always give a tip. So this doesn't make sense for me to do this in two orders. So I'm just gonna do it in one but then I felt a bit guilty to the poor guy having to carry all that stuff. So I don't know.”

Simon expressed misgivings and concerns when some food orders were delivered via car instead of bike. He was concerned about the environmental impacts of these types of deliveries. It seemed to me that he was more concerned about environmental impacts than the physical/social/mental impacts faced by the couriers themselves:

“When the weather shit is when you most likely want to order that stuff in because you don't want to go out, but other people have to deliver the food for you [...] for people who are driving bicycles, I feel a bit guilty for sure.”

Reflections on behaviours and ordering

This interview is important because it reflects some of the thought process behind choosing when and what to order food for delivery. There are digital traces (Ash, et. el, 2018) that can be seen within Simons geography as he described how he has become very reliant on these service platforms – he stays at home and orders groceries digitally because it provides him with a sense of safety – but paradoxically, this is only possible because he lives in a dense city where these services are widely available. In other words, the places with the most people provide the best options to eat alone. This shows us that cultural geography (Anderson, 2021) is also an important aspect of finding the traces left by food delivery platforms.

Simon’s behaviour creates traces of his lived experience in Berlin during corona times, but I believe his experiences are shared by many others. And while the delivery of prepared foods have seen a sharp increase during the pandemic, Simon’s perspective shows that the social aspect of eating is more important than the convenience of eating at home for some people. This leads me to believe that prepared food delivery will most likely drop down to pre-pandemic levels after pandemic restrictions and regulations are rescinded.

Grocery delivery, however, is another matter entirely. Simon did mention that he prefers to use Gorillas over visiting his local grocery store for safety reasons, but he also mentioned that he was already using Amazon Fresh before the pandemic. He had a very high opinion of the convenience of grocery delivery through the Gorillas service and I believe he will continue using it even after the pandemic is over. As opposed to the social element’s experienced while dining out, for Simon, going to the grocery store seems to be a more solidary and stressful experience. I believe the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed this new market which will continue to shape the geographies of our cities well into the future.

Reflections on courier interactions

This interview highlights some of the tensions and uncertainties people still have about their interaction with food couriers. I found the “cultural geography” methodology (Anderson,2021) useful in analysing these interactions; it allows us to question people's behaviour in these micro geographic spaces of their homes during these interactions. I find it interesting to compare the interaction between a food courier and a restaurant waiter. There are established customs, expectations and interactions in the latter – though they differ from country to country. Tipping for example, is done at the end of a dining experience and often tied to the perceived friendliness, quality of service and quality of food received by the customer. With a food courier, the tipping must be done before hand, often during the ordering process or directly while receiving the delivery. There are almost none of the restaurant tipping expectations that can be mapped onto this new interaction. For the customer, the experience is much more relatable to receiving a parcel delivery for which there is no expectation for tipping in most countries. The interaction with food couriers then falls somewhere in between the two.

Eating delivered food at home is not the same social experience as eating out in a restaurant, and I expect people are not willing to spend as much money for a delivery meal. There is, however, arguably more of work required by the delivery process, and the couriers are paid just as little as waiters. I fear that the false comparison of eating experiences and interactions may lead all parties to be dissatisfied with their experience.

Reflections on food consumption

Simon’s reflections on what he identified as the three purposes of food is interesting from a “more than food” perspective (Goodman, 2016). His remarks highlight how much of the joy in food is being lost through a lack of social interaction. His experience of eating at home has become more visceral since the social elements of eating have been removed. He mentioned that while he was in isolation he ate much more because he had food in his apartment and he had nothing else to do. For Simon, being in isolation changed his experience of food and eating more than just the removal of its social elements, eating became a visceral activity in itself to pass the time.

Authors note

I feel the interview was slightly compromised by my proximity to the interview subject – he is a close friend of mine. Near the end of the interview his responses became more casual and more conceptual rather than answering specifically about his behaviours and habits. I believe he may have shifted his responses in this manner in order to avoid my personal judgments of his behaviours.

References

Anderson, J. (2021). Understanding Cultural Geography: Places and Traces (3rd ed.). Routledge.

Ash, J., Kitchin, R., & Leszczynski, A. (2018). Digital turn, digital geographies? Progress in Human Geography, 42(1), 25–43. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132516664800

Goodman, M. K. (2016). Food geographies I: Relational foodscapes and the busy-ness of being more-than-food. Progress in Human Geography, 40(2), 257–266. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132515570192