A Local Alternative to the Big Delivery Apps, in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — The busiest time of the day for Vivian Jung is that blur between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., when the lunch orders just won’t stop.

Paper boxes of craggy fried chicken. Baby octopus rice bowls. Spam musubi and grilled mandu and creamy seafood spaghetti. Hot samgyetang steaming up the lid, the chicken practically glowing in a ginseng-charged broth.

Ms. Jung, 35, is the manager of Runningman, a three-year-old food-delivery business with headquarters at Mariposa Avenue and Eighth Street in Koreatown. With a team of two receptionists and 30 drivers, she coordinates pickups and drop offs with more than 100 restaurants in a two-mile radius, switching constantly between Korean and English, sending the orders zigzagging across town.

ImageRunningman, in Koreatown, fills a new need for delivery in the neighborhood, with a different model from the major third-party apps.
Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

Compared with major app-based delivery companies — DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates and Uber Eats — that compete to control the national delivery market, Runningman is absolutely tiny. But since indoor dining rooms have been identified as hot spots for coronavirus infection, and restaurants increasingly rely on delivery, this small business attuned to local needs has become vital to the neighborhood.

Ms. Jung, who moved to the United States in 1997 from Seoul, South Korea, used to run her own restaurant in Koreatown, where she served little snacks like tteokbokki, the spicy, chewy rice cakes. She worked with a number of delivery apps at the time, and had the same grievance as many restaurant owners: The 20- to 30-percent commission on every order was a punishing revenue loss.

It was also standard. To compete with one another’s frequent deals and discounts, most delivery apps charge diners a minimal fee to use the service. But they charge restaurants a high commission on the food, usually in addition to a delivery fee, a marketing fee and other costs.

Since March, as delivery and takeout have grown to represent the bulk of dining revenue, these fees have become unmanageable for many restaurants. Some owners learned that they are an even bigger expense than the costs of food or labor, and are considering cutting more staff to stay afloat, or closing for good.

Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

A few major cities, including Los Angeles and New York, instituted caps to temporarily restrict the fees to 15 percent. And though apps have since positioned themselves in their own marketing materials as being in solidarity with restaurants, they are widely considered shortsighted and flat-out predatory within the industry.

In April, the New Yorker writer Helen Rosner suggested that diners should pick up the phone and call in their dinner orders directly. The same month, Khushbu Shah, the restaurant editor at Food & Wine magazine, urged diners to go ahead and delete all their delivery apps entirely.

But they haven’t gone away. Maybe because the apps are tantalizingly efficient — or at least maintain an illusion of efficiency. In fact, users and workers are frequently disgruntled; menus, hours and pricing are often incorrect. About half the time I’ve ordered through an app, I’ve found dishes missing, or notes on orders ignored, and wondered if the whole thing was worth it.

As a restaurant owner, Ms. Jung didn’t think it was. She joined Jacob Nam, who founded Runningman, inspired by the delivery services back in Seoul, many of which charged a fee according to the distance the food traveled to the diner, rather than a commission on the food itself. It seemed like a more sustainable model to them, and one that the mom-and-pop, immigrant-owned restaurants of Koreatown needed.

Mr. Nam partnered with a well-established Korean delivery business — Hello World — to use its tech in Los Angeles.

Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

Runningman doesn’t charge a commission on food, or a marketing fee. But Ms. Jung said it has seen a 20 percent increase in business since March, enough success to plan a second location nearby in Buena Park, Calif., in Orange County’s Koreatown.

Restaurants that weren’t used to delivery had to adapt, and quickly — how does food meant to be cooked at the table, for a group, travel? What containers work best for fried foods, and for noodles, so they don’t get soggy on the way? Ms. Jung noted that many of the restaurants she works with have rethought packaging, and invested in heftier to-go boxes.

“So many restaurants that didn’t even used to do delivery, they do it now — everything’s changed,” Ms. Jung said. Though many still work with the major services, they rely on Runningman to deliver to regulars, and those who live in the neighborhood.

An app connects Runningman’s delivery drivers with restaurant kitchens, mapping out the routes, but Ms. Jung says many owners in Koreatown still call right at the moment they need a pickup, to share the address where the food needs to go on the phone, the old-fashioned way.

“I can get a driver there in two minutes,” Ms. Jung said, “maybe three.”

Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

Drivers carry copies of current menus in Korean, with some English translation, printed together in a dreamy catalog of dishes — another popular marketing tool taken from delivery companies in Seoul — and pass them out on their routes. Some restaurants keep stacks of these catalogs by their doors, hoping customers will grab one on the way out.

The most recent issue, “Just Do Eat, Volume 11,” runs about 45 pages, and includes menus from the Korean fusion restaurant Kong Ji Ne Donkatsu and Yellow House Cafe. I could pore over the choices for hours, thinking about what to get for lunch, and I did. But Ms. Jung’s core clientele doesn’t even need to look.

“They already know exactly what they want,” she said. “They order so regularly.”

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