Jim Richards is going to have to chat later. He's pulled off the road coming from Arcata Pizza and Deli to King Salmon so we can talk, but another call comes in from the USVetsDeliver dispatcher (who's also his girlfriend). Once we hang up, he's off to take another job. The service area is McKinleyville, Arcata and Eureka, he says, but "I will go the extra mile for good customers."
Richards, who served in the U.S. Navy, started the local delivery service in May after a few months at DoorDash. Originally, he'd hoped to start a grocery delivery service but DoorDash and Instacart had already dominated the market and there were few options for customers to order directly from stores. He noticed "there was this underrepresented sector that really needed to be helped out and that was local restaurants." USVetsDeliver is still in its infancy and doesn't come with a downloadable app or a tracking map, but what Richards is trying is a little radical for the industry: a square deal for restaurants and drivers.
Between the two halves of his naval career — first working on weapons systems electronics, then returning to become a Korean linguist — the 53-year-old Richards says he came to Humboldt in 1992 after hearing his great aunt rave for years about the beauty of Myers Flat. "I'm sure she meant when she first got there in the '60s or '70s," he says with a chuckle. Here, he worked as a copier service tech, then servicing dairy equipment and updating it with his own electronics company before becoming a slot tech at Bear River Casino for more than six years. He says when COVID-19 hit and he was laid off, he thought, "Maybe I need a job that is essential."
So he started driving for DoorDash, which he still does and will continue until his own service can pay the bills. The job, he says, "really opened my eyes to the whole restaurant industry." It found him some good drivers, too, as he's been able to bring on a few experienced workers with good ratings who've already been vetted for criminal backgrounds and driving records. Richards says he'll give preference to veterans but prior service isn't a requirement. In fact, he's the only vet on the roster right now, but he's looking for more.
As he made deliveries, he saw many local restaurants weren't signing up with DoorDash and UberEats, which charge them fees from 25 to 30 percent on delivered meals. That's no small change in a good year and most restaurants' already slim profit margins have been further trimmed by the pandemic, between dropped sales and the cost of implementing COVID-19 protocols. For many, the extra chunk taken out by delivery app services is too much.
USVetsDeliver doesn't charge restaurants, taking its fee on the customer end, charging a fee of 15 percent on the order total with a minimum $10 fee, and a tip for the driver. The driver, an independent contractor, keeps the tip and all but $2 of the fee, which goes back to the delivery service. Profits aren't penciling out for him yet but he's optimistic they will with increased volume. "When we get enough drivers delivering to enough people, it'll pay off." For now he's delivering himself, too, with the goal of moving to full-time management.
Customers shoot a text to the USVetsDeliver dispatcher and find out if a driver is available. If one is, the customer can call up the restaurant of their choice, order and pay over the phone, letting the staff know the delivery service is coming to get it. Then the customer texts the service again and lets them know what's to be picked up when. Richards says he and his small crew of five drivers try to time pick-up when the food is hot. When the driver shows up, the customer pays the fee and tip either in cash or with the Square Payment terminal they're each equipped with. Customers can also have the driver pay for the food and reimburse them upon delivery.
The website www.usvetsdeliver.com notes it doesn't deliver fast food and Richards says it's just not financially feasible for drivers. "We could be really busy with low dollar orders ... DoorDash is a better fit to fast food."
With DoorDash, he says, "If you're not paying attention, you can spend 30 minutes on a $3-$4 job. ... It's very easy to work yourself into a sub-minimum-wage job."
As a consumer, the wages drivers earn matter to Janna Froeming, who ordered from USVetsDeliver for the first time last week and whose husband is a U.S. Army veteran. Richards himself delivered her sushi and she says the whole transaction was smooth. "You might have to send a text but it's worth it," she says, adding the fees came out to be lower than her previous DoorDash orders. She's also happy to learn restaurants aren't losing profits. "I have friends and family who have their own restaurant or small business. It's really sad when they have to close their doors."
The setup requires no agreement with the restaurant but Joe Doherty, owner of Tomo, reached out to Richards to get some USVetsDeliver fliers to drop in takeout bags. He's been looking into DoorDash but hasn't made the leap yet. "It's quite a business, I respect those drivers," Doherty says of delivery services. He says he attempted a delivery trial himself one night, planning to get dinners out by 6:30 p.m. "I think my last drop-off was at about 8:15 p.m. with some starving children." Like so many things right now, the app system and its potential payoff seems uncertain. Trying out Richards' business is lower risk. "I just wanna make sure everybody can have our food when they want it," says Doherty.
Richards says he's pulling about 30 deliveries a day and trying to get the word out, hoping to add drivers as his customer base grows so there aren't long waits for food or contractors not making enough money. He's working, he says, "toward a day when people say, 'DoorDash, who's that?'"
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.