Delivery services and contactless pickups have become de rigueur since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, as people strive to avoid interactions by staying home. But while these services are convenient for some, they’re not accessible to everyone, and often leave non-native English speakers and those without vehicles especially vulnerable.
Third-party delivery apps, like Uber Eats, Grubhub, DoorDash, and Postmates, are, of course, popular. In 2018, the businesses were part of the multibillion-dollar food delivery industry. But recently, these companies have come under scrutiny for charging unsustainably high fees to restaurants, offering low pay and creating tough working conditions for workers, withholding commissions, and imposing fraudulent charges.
In response, several community-led delivery services have sprung up in Austin to meet the city’s growing demand for nuanced, ethical contactless shopping, with no fees levied on restaurants. These services, including Ayuda, Runner City, and Corona Mamas Delivery, also provide much-needed income for the unemployed.
Ayuda focuses on serving the Latinx community, who are often unable to access mainstream apps due to language barriers. Jason Rubio (a teacher) and Diana Anzaldua (a clinical therapist) created the group in July after learning about how disproportionately the novel coronavirus has affected their Latinx community.
During the first months of the pandemic, neither Rubio nor Anzaldua knew anyone affected by the virus, but that quickly changed. In Austin, the Latinx community makes up about 35 percent of the population, but about 50 percent of COVID-19 cases, as reported by KXAN in August. The reasons behind the numbers are multifaceted. The couple believes that it is related to poverty and lack of health insurance, as well as the fact that many Latinx community members are working as essential workers and live in multigenerational households. “We knew that we had to do something to help the most vulnerable,” says Rubio, the “often ‘invisible’ community.”
Ayuda functions mostly through a private Facebook group. Members can post a request, and a helper (called an Ayudante) can offer to fulfill it or a Facebook administrator will connect the requester to a nearby Ayudante. The two will work out the details through direct-messaging or email to negotiate terms and fee directly. Requests can range from grocery runs to restaurant food pickups to miscellaneous errands.
In order to work as an Ayudante, the group asks only that the person has a valid driver’s license, insurance, and a working vehicle. “As things progress, if we do begin taking a fee, all helpers will be vetted,” explains Rubio. “At this point, we’re simply a platform to connect people.”
Since the launch, Ayuda has been featured on many Spanish news television channels and radio stations in the city and state. “The Spanish-speaking community has never had something like this,” says Rubio. “This community is not used to having people who want to help them, unfortunately.”
During this time, the group’s Facebook page has also become a space for the community to share mutual aid information, which helps those in need find ways to access vital resources like rent money, diapers, and food.
While Ayuda is aimed at the Spanish-speaking community, it is open to anyone who needs help. All requests are written in Spanish and English. Requesters pay for items as well as delivery fees and tips through payment apps, which are kept by the runners. They’re currently working on an app, and have launched a GoFundMe to fund its development.
Corona Mamas Delivery is a cooperative of single mothers working as independent errand runners in the Austin area, stemming from nonprofit Single Mother’s Alliance. “When the coronavirus hit, a lot of our single moms were suddenly out of work, and there were also major lines at the stores,” explains founder Tracie Kennedy. “This was a way to put moms to work to provide an income for their families, and also to make sure people had access to groceries.”
The service works through its website, where customers can place orders for grocery shopping, restaurant pickups, and other small errands. A dispatcher connects the customer to a runner. Runs have a set fee, which ranges from $5 to $30 depending on the details, and users are expected to pay tips and the cost of their items.
Corona Mamas Delivery runners keep most of the earnings, with a few dollars of each order going to the dispatcher. The service, which began in March, already has customers who use the business several times a week. “That feels great, that they like what we do and where their money is going,” says Kennedy. “The ability to make a direct impact has been the most moving part of this.”
Then, easily the largest of these services is Runner City, which currently has over 11,000 members. Founder Andy Kaminski was prompted to start the service because of the statewide shutdown in March: “My friends that owned food trailers, restaurants, and bars had to think fast and pivot,” he writes over email, “so I wanted to help them figure out their to-go strategy.”
As a longtime user of third-party apps, Kaminski was concerned about how those high fees would hurt restaurants’ already meager margins. That’s why he launched the Runner City Facebook community, which operates without any fees.
People can make errand requests, which include grocery shopping and restaurant food pickups, on the Facebook page, with an accompanying tip suggestion they’re willing to pay the runner. Then an approved runner can claim the job. To verify that they are an official part of the group and have undergone an evaluation process and questionnaire, the runners have digital business cards, which they can post to show their interest in an order. The two can then privately negotiate the final terms of the arrangement.
All runners work as independently agents, paid directly by the requestees rather than through the company. The runners are expected to self report their earnings on their taxes. Only those with certifications from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission are allowed to take on direct liquor requests.
The rapidly growing Facebook group gains roughly 100 new members a day. What started off as a food-delivery service now offers grocery shopping, furniture moving, manual labor errands, and roadside assistance. There is even a fleet of trucks and trailers owned by the contractors. “One of our original runners started off with just a truck, but he earned enough to buy a trailer in June and then a box truck in July,” says Kaminski. “Runner City helped him launch a full-on business.”
Kaminski says they’ve had no incidents so far, and they’ve expanded to seven other cities throughout the state, including San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and Corpus Christi, as well as two areas outside of Texas: Detroit and the Northwest Florida region. He recently signed on four unnamed new co-founders who will help expand the concept further, including a mobile app.
Lisa Goller has been a runner since March and prefers it to working for third-party apps, because there are no fees taken out and she feels a connection with the users. “On most of the other platforms, the prices of items are raised about 10 percent,” she says. “Then you pay a delivery fee, a service fee, and a tip. With Runner City, there is no upcharge and you pay what is negotiated for a tip, so it ends up a better deal for both parties.”
Goller has become virtual friends with some of her users and hopes to spend time with them when it’s safe to do so. In the meantime, she appreciates being able to help. “There are two mothers who know they can message me anytime for whatever they need,” she says. “My best delivery was for someone who needed an over-the-counter medication — I was able to get it for her right away. She was so appreciative.”
Lauren King, a regular user of Runner City, started using the service in April when she was pregnant. She and her husband work from home and wanted to keep their exposure low. She prefers the direct contact and flexibility runners offers that third-party apps don’t. “It’s never more expensive and I’m not limited on the type of task or amount of input I want in shopping,” she says. “I can have someone video me every tomato if I want.”
Smaller preexisting delivery services have also pivoted to keep up with the unprecedented needs, including URATX. The Austin-based delivery company previously specialized in delivering large catering orders, but is now working with individuals and smaller groups, such as apartment complexes and homeowners associations.
These communities can place a collective order from a restaurant in advance and have it delivered. URATX doesn’t charge restaurants, and will share half of the received tips with the restaurants. They believe they’re the only delivery service to do so in the country.
Since URATX is already set up for large-scale food deliveries, its professional catering equipment ensures the food is transported in ideal conditions and won’t get cold or soggy.
The company now also offers a delivery service for people who place curbside pickups from H-E-B and Sam’s Club. While they don’t actually shop, the company will collect the prepaid curbside order and deliver it to the customer’s home.
Drivers at URATX are paid a flat rate for each delivery, plus tips. The drivers are independent contractors, and undergo a more rigorous screening than runners at the other groups, including background checks and equipment requirements.
URATX co-founder Moumita Urias Roy has hesitations about the other similar services, cautioning that people should “understand the risks of placing and fulfilling requests,” as she explains over email, citing worries over possible TABC violations, tax concerns, lack of official vetting, and using payment services for professional purposes, such as Venmo.
But Kaminski stands by these community-led services. He describes Runner City as a “COVID job bulletin board,” and likens it to paying a neighbourhood kid to mow the lawn. “At the end of the day,” he says, “we are just trying to help the community get through a pandemic.”