How Fast Do You Need Your Groceries?

City Council members speak out against delivery service companies like Gopuff, alleging that promises of speed are putting pedestrians — and delivery people — in danger

| 26 Feb 2022 | 10:16

Just the other week, Council Member Gale Brewer stepped foot inside an Upper West Side outpost of Gopuff, a company from which customers normally place an online order for groceries or other items to be delivered to their doorstep “in minutes,” according to its website. What Brewer discovered, she said, concerned her; apparently, in-stock items were lacking prices, and she didn’t see a scale to weigh produce. Both are requirements for supermarkets and bodegas, but these new companies seem to be their own breed — with elected officials alleging that they’re using their spaces more like warehouses, sometimes outside of the appropriate zoning areas. (Gopuff’s New York retail locations can and do accommodate walk-in customers and are not warehouses, according to the company, which claims also to follow local zoning requirements.)

Even more recently, Council Member Julie Menin said that her daughter, now three years old, was nearly struck by a delivery bicyclist zooming past the pair.

A growing number of these “dark stores,” as they’ve been dubbed by those in opposition, have been causing a commotion on the streets outside their (sometimes covered over) windows in recent months. With the promise of speedy delivery times — clocking in at 15 minutes, or so some websites say — companies like Gopuff, Jokr, Fridge No More and others have caught the skeptical eyes of elected officials in Manhattan.

Downtown in mid-January, bodega owners and politicians, including Brewer and fellow Council Member Christopher Marte, came together at Rivington Street and Suffolk Street outside Stop 1 Deli (which now counts Gopuff as a neighbor across the street) to speak out against the newly-popular delivery companies. On the Upper East Side, the latest development came in the form of a letter from Menin to Gopuff, in which the council member cited street safety as a primary concern regarding the way the company does business.

“This is not a small town where you drive down a street and there’s one car — this is New York City,” Menin told Our Town. “So guaranteeing that you’re going to get anywhere in 15 minutes is absurd.”

Incoming: Your Groceries

More and more of these kinds of delivery service companies have been popping up in the city over the past few months, according to Brewer, who first took notice while concluding her term as Manhattan Borough President last fall. Her office is currently updating a map of delivery service locations originally completed in December, which at the time showed more than 20 such spots, mostly concentrated in Lower Manhattan.

Menin has heard from worried constituents almost since day one as a new council member in District 5, which spans a substantial section of the Upper East Side. In her February 22 letter to Gopuff concerning the company’s 1356 Lexington Avenue location, she noted complaints alleging that Gopuff delivery people had been spotted on motorized scooters and bicycles “riding on the sidewalks at dangerous speeds,” in addition to claims of Gopuff delivery vehicles reportedly “riding against the direction of traffic in the street” — a risk, she wrote, that could be motivated by quick delivery timeframes.

“It’s endangering both the pedestrians and the delivery workers,” Menin said.

In her letter, Menin pointed to possible undesirable legal implications, too. “As a former Commissioner of the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, your company may be violating our consumer protection laws by engaging in false or misleading statements and causing potential safety hazards,” she wrote. The company, she said, reached out to her that same day to schedule a time to meet.

While the Gopuff website homepage boasts an average delivery window as quick as 15 to 20 minutes, upon plugging in addresses on the Upper East Side, in Menin’s district, the stated estimated wait time increases to a range of 25 to 40 minutes. Gorillas’ website promises delivery “in minutes”; Jokr, Fridge No More and Buyk in 15 minutes.

On behalf of Gopuff, a spokesperson shared in a statement that they “regularly communicate with delivery partners about being courteous when picking up orders.” Gorillas’ U.S. Head of Operations, Adam Wacenske, wrote in a statement that the company provides delivery people with a “safety kit” including helmets, reflective vests, gloves and more. “We have never favored fast delivery at their risk, which is why we opted to update our promise to offer delivery in minutes rather than in a specific amount of time, shortly after launch last year,” he explained. Other companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Traffic and pedestrian safety has long been a concern in the city, certainly before the arrival of new delivery companies; in mid-January, Mayor Eric Adams announced a Vision Zero revamp to improve 1,000 intersections, after traffic-related deaths increased every year in the city since 2018. On the Upper East Side, Menin met with Department of Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez on Wednesday to examine several intersections that the council member has flagged for consideration in the renewed effort.

Constituents on the Upper West Side are concerned about street safety in general — “and when they see this 15 minute thing, they’re even more concerned,” Brewer said.

“Everything Is So Not Clear”

When Brewer initially brought attention to these types of businesses cropping up in the city, she did so with another concern in mind: Were these delivery services, which she described as supposedly using street-level retail spaces to operate more like warehouses, even allowed to exist in the parts of the city where they were setting up shop? That’s the question she raised in an October 2021 letter to multiple city and state agencies, alleging that the companies seemed to fall within a zoning category that would relegate them to specific portions of the city, counter to some of their current sprawl.

Brewer met with the Department of Buildings and the Department of City Planning over Zoom after penning her letter, but said that not much on the matter has been determined since. “Everything is so not clear,” Brewer said.

“Gopuff is deeply committed to being a good community partner in the neighborhoods where we operate,” according to a Gopuff spokesperson. “We work diligently to comply with local zoning and permitting obligations.” Every retail location has a cash register for customer transactions with hours of operation posted outside, according to the company.

Wacenske, from Gorillas, wrote in a statement that the company’s “operations and warehouses are structured in a way that aligns with local guidelines, and all warehouses hold valid permits issued by their respective city. In New York City, those guidelines include allowing customers to be admitted to a space, as well as providing them a place to wait for their order to be prepared and delivered to them in person.

But for both Brewer and Menin, the unsavory cherry on top of all the complaints from constituents is the possibility that these companies could pose a threat to local grocery stores and bodegas. “They’re very nervous about being pushed out,” Brewer said. “We love our delis, we love our mom-and-pop grocery stores and we love our bodegas.”

“This is not a small town where you drive down a street and there’s one car — this is New York City. So guaranteeing that you’re going to get anywhere in 15 minutes is absurd.” Council Member Julie Menin