In Germany’s capital, workers are striking, congestion is on the rise and the German bodega — the spätkauf — is under threat.
When he moved to a new apartment last fall, Garret MacAllen needed garbage bags, so he placed his first order through Gorillas, a rapid delivery service that had just arrived in New York. Since then, he has grown more reliant on the app, which promises groceries in minutes, delivering corner-store basics like milk and eggs alongside specialty items like gourmet frozen pizzas and artisanal chocolates.
As much as he loves the convenience, Mr. MacAllen, 37, a software salesman on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has started to wonder if quick delivery is too good to be true. Recalling the seductive but fleeting early days of Uber and Lyft as a time when rides were cheap and workers were paid competitively, he fears that rapid grocery services like Gorillas will push out small businesses, then raise prices and lower wages. “Will that lead to just a less convenient, more expensive situation in five years?” he wondered.
Berlin, a bustling, aspirational city often compared to New York, offers a glimpse at what may happen here. Gorillas, which is based there, began making deliveries in May 2020, setting off a rapid-grocery war among start-ups months earlier than in New York and delivering a blow to Berlin’s infrastructure, street life, labor front and social landscape.
Amani Gowdet, 31, who works at a bakery in Berlin, liked Gorillas at first. But gradually, her order arrivals began to stretch from 10 minutes to 30, then almost an hour, she said. Ice cream would arrive melted, her rider apologizing for the “crazy route” with multiple deliveries along the way.
That’s when Ms. Gowdet caught wind of organizing efforts among Gorillas workers and decided to stop using the service. As the company was raising a nearly $1 billion round of venture funding last fall, various media outlets were reporting that workers had been striking for months while voicing concerns about missing payments, faulty bikes and getting fired without warning.
One worker, Santiago Rojas, lost his job after arriving 45 minutes late to a shift, despite alerting his manager, according to his co-workers. Another, Zeynep Karlidag, a student from Turkey, said that it took the threat of a lawsuit to secure the pay the company owed her.
According to Ms. Karlidag and other messengers, Gorillas riders have routinely carried packs that exceed the legal weight limit of 22 pounds, which makes the bikes unstable on Berlin’s streets.
Issues like these persuaded Ms. Karlidag to join the Gorillas Workers Collective, the organizing group that has instigated a series of wildcat strikes throughout Berlin, demanding safety equipment and reliable pay. Relations between management and the collective have been fraught, to say the least. Last year, the company fired hundreds of workers for their involvement in the strikes.
“Anyone who’s thinking about being an ethical consumer doesn’t want to order from them right now,” said Moritz Altenried, a sociologist at Humboldt University in Berlin.
When asked about labor grievances, one Gorillas executive emphasized the challenges brought about when a company disrupts an established market. “Our current economy requires a certain amount of flexibility to allow for innovations to develop,” said Adam Wacenske, Gorillas’ U.S. head of operations.
The employment problems in Berlin show what could possibly happen in New York, where efforts are already afoot to improve conditions for delivery workers. Shortly after images circulated of riders dragging their bicycles through flooded streets during Hurricane Ida last September, New York State passed a package of bills to entitle gig-based delivery workers, who are employed by third-party delivery companies, to basic protections like bathroom access, minimum delivery payments and their own tips. These went into effect late last month.
There’s a hitch, however. Many rapid delivery companies in New York do not technically hire gig workers; they classify their workers instead as hourly or full-time employees, which means more rights, money and stability but scant protection under the gig worker legislation. JOKR, DoorDash and Gorillas all report paying at least $15 per hour; Gorillas and DoorDash even offer health care benefits.
Although the compensation is competitive, said Aiha Nguyen, a researcher at Data & Society, an organization studying the social implications of data-driven technologies, she said she was skeptical that pay would remain high once the market is saturated.
Wage reductions have already happened at two of the companies starting rapid grocery programs in New York. Last summer, DoorDash cut driver pay before it began its Manhattan rapid-grocery pilot, and drivers went on strike. Last fall, after GoPuff raised $1 billion in venture capital and decided to introduce 30-minute deliveries in the city, it also reduced driver wages, spurring another strike.
Representatives from both DoorDash and GoPuff described their striking workers as vocal minorities. Over the past two years, DoorDash has increased drivers’ average earnings per “active” hour — meaning workers don’t get paid for time spent waiting for orders to come in — by over 30 percent, according to a spokesman. Since the strikes at GoPuff, the company has set up partnerships to secure discounts on fuel and vehicle maintenance for drivers, who are responsible for their own upkeep, a spokeswoman said.
In Berlin, residents have complained about the noise and congestion that the new grocery warehouses, or “hubs,” have introduced in their neighborhoods. Aleixa Gonçalves Montes, a Gorillas warehouse worker from Chile, said that the police often visit her warehouse in Alexanderplatz, a heavily trafficked neighborhood in the heart of the city, in response to calls about noisy delivery trucks. She also said neighbors congregate around the warehouse to block workers from reaching their delivery bikes, which they say are a sidewalk nuisance.
“We’ve been telling them, please go to the headquarters, we are just trying to do our job here,” Ms. Montes said. Instead, she said, the neighbors call the police and ridicule her and her immigrant co-workers for not speaking German.
Although those interactions sting, Ms. Montes sympathizes with the resistance to the hubs in residential neighborhoods. “Gorillas is putting warehouses where people live,” she said. “The shop is open from 6:30 in the morning till 12 at night, so there’s no rest for them.”
Dr. Altenried, the sociologist in Berlin, called this an urban planning problem, saying, “These services need space for operations and delivery, and the infrastructure is not there for them to roll out so quickly.”
Back in New York City, Katie Dolan, 26, who lives in Astoria, Queens, said delivery bikes clog the sidewalk around a warehouse run by Getir, one of the latest entrants to New York’s rapid-grocery sector. “I’ve seen a near collision once and nearly got hit once myself rounding the corner,” she said.
Such infrastructural conflicts are generally limited to the more privileged areas these start-ups serve. In Berlin, rapid grocery services mostly end at the ringbahn, the border between the city center and the less wealthy outer city. In New York, they reliably reach Manhattan below 96th Street, and Manhattan-adjacent areas of Brooklyn and Queens. (GoPuff serves the Bronx and plans to expand to Staten Island.)
This brings up another issue that Berlin and New York have in common: Rapid grocery delivery is not serving the neighborhoods that would benefit from it the most. City data shows that some of the greatest need for food is in Jamaica, Queens, and in the South Bronx. Leaving lower-income neighborhoods out of convenience services exacerbates a gap in resources, said Ms. Nguyen of Data & Society. “Who gets to save those 15 minutes?”
In communities where deliveries are made, some residents fear losing a sense of place. Kaja Santro, a web developer and lifelong Berliner, is concerned that delivery services like Gorillas may threaten the city’s spätkaufs, Berlin’s equivalent to bodegas, since they sell items stocked in their own warehouses, unlike regular grocery services. “If you stay in and order from Gorillas, you won’t participate in your neighborhood,” Ms. Santro said.
In New York last fall, Gale Brewer, then the Manhattan borough president, published a letter challenging instant delivery warehouses’ zoning compliance, saying the hubs “deaden our streetscapes.”
Finding a happy medium that offers tech-enhanced convenience while saving the corner store is the goal of My Bodega Online, a new app that facilitates delivery orders from corner stores in New York City. According to José Bello, the app’s founder, about 40 percent of delis routinely make deliveries within a few blocks.
So far, during the app’s testing phase, bodega owners have liked the concept, Mr. Bello said, which helps a traditionally walk-in business. “They don’t have the volume of orders to justify having two e-bikes outside the store and two people full-time delivering,” he said. Mr. Bello hopes that a crowdfunding campaign will raise awareness among customers in the Bronx, where he is piloting the service.
Early last month, Mr. Bello joined the Save Mom-and-Pop Business Coalition at a rally across from a GoPuff warehouse in Manhattan. A speaker at the event was Frank Garcia, board chairman of the National Association of State Latino Chambers of Commerce, who had previously fought a vending machine business that called itself Bodega. “These I.T. developers are going to destroy our legacy because all they see is money,” he said. “I’m very concerned about bodegas closing down.”
To avoid that fate, Mr. Bello and his partners have asked DoorDash and GoPuff to partner with them to fulfill longer-distance bodega orders. They have yet to find middle ground.
DoorDash declined to comment on any conversation with My Bodega Online. The GoPuff representative said her team was not aware of outreach from My Bodega Online.
As the pandemic brings another long winter indoors for many New Yorkers and Berliners alike, rapid delivery shows no signs of slowing. A Gorillas representative said that the company’s New York operation had experienced double-digit growth for the past few months and that last year its global orders multiplied 17 times over.
For now, Mr. MacAllen plans to continue to order sporadically from Gorillas, and maybe from other rapid delivery services, too, as they extend deep discounts to new customers. “It’s that golden age where nobody needs to make money and people on both sides are winning,” he said. “Long term is my concern.”
Spenser Mestel contributed reporting from Berlin.
Gorillas, the Rapid Delivery Service, Is Changing Berlin. Is NYC Next? – The New York Times