Seven clicks into Highway 403 from the Starbucks franchise in Matheson, I got off the Erin Mills exit and took a beeline to the first street on my right. Two successive left turns, then one right turn followed by another left turn, and house #241 on Fudge Terrace Avenue on my right finally came into sight. I parked my car on the driveway and alighted with a Starbucks branded brown bag on one hand, cellphone on the other. The two-car garage ramp led me to the front door of probably a four-bedroom house, judging by its size and configuration. The dark brown double-door entrance reinforced by a combination of bricks sidings, gray interspersed with brown, elegantly providing contrast. Carefully I laid down the brown bag containing two hot coffees securely perched on a cup-holder, and a couple of individually wrapped roasted croissant ham sandwiches onto the elevated landing frame protruding off the door. I readjusted my face mask making sure it covered the area at least one inch high above my nostrils, leaving enough recognizable feature of myself. I had to see and be seen because I did not come to rob the household. And I was standing on the spot where an overhead camera was pointing at so the homeowners should already have an idea about a stranger right outside their door if they cared to check. I pushed the doorbell button gently and let go of my finger after a full musical measure has sounded. Audibly, the familiar sound can also be heard from the outside. I presumed that at 9:00 o’clock on Tuesday morning the residents should already be up. The doorbell may not be annoying for a slugabed if there is any in the house, but it was loud enough to ignore. There was no special customer instruction in the app not to ring the doorbell upon arrival. After all, I was dropping off their signature breakfast and it must be anticipated.
A smiling middle-aged Caucasian woman still on her sleeping gown emerged. I stepped back three feet away as she bent and reached down to pick up the brown bag. I always wanted to hand over food deliveries personally to their recipients but coronavirus safety measure instruction does not allow it. She said thank you in a sincere tone of gratitude while closing the door behind her and I shot back tersely with “Enjoy”, as I turned around and headed back to my car. Back in my car I placed my cellphone in its caddy and swiped the “Delivered” button. The transaction had just been confirmed and the first $6.25 has registered in my earnings folder. On that day in April, somewhere in the western neighborhood of Mississauga, I recorded my first successful drop off as an Uber Eats delivery driver. The next trip request had already been received and from Fudge Terrace, I would be off to the nearest McDonalds store in the neighborhood for my second pickup, then deliver it hastily to a yet unknown destination.
About 28 more trip requests would be completed that day. The transactions are cyclical. Your cellphone will emit a sound accompanied by a trip request popup and you only have seconds to either commit to the transaction by clicking on the message or cancel it. During my first week, I did not have the audacity to go deeper into the Toronto downtown area. The only reason I would cancel a request is when the delivery was made in the downtown Toronto neighborhood where expectedly the next pick up request would almost always be in the 5 km. radius from within the last drop off area. Rarely would a pickup point lead me 20 km away from Mississauga and into the Toronto downtown neighborhood. But it happened, unfortunately. The trip request would only show initial information on the distance from the pickup to the drop-off points but it does not reveal the address until the “Start Delivery” button is pushed which happened at the pickup point. From there on the Uber app provides a new set of GPS coordinates that you follow until you reached your final destination. The distance from the pickup point to the drop off point is what matters and that’s the information the Uber uses to calculate my pay at the end of transaction. Never mind how long it would take you from your last drop off to your next pickup point. If you must commit to a trip request, the mileage and the gas associated with that aspect of a trip becomes your overhead expense of which you have control over.
The road infrastructure and the driving practices in downtown Toronto posed a challenge to an Uber Driver. Narrow thoroughfares, lack of parking areas, most restaurants and franchise eateries can only provide curbside pickup, traffic lights in almost every 600 meters, streetcars (train on rail tracks) impeding the flow of an already slow traffic condition, cyclist tracks eating up a good portion of the road, the aggressive cab drivers who would cut you off in total reckless abandon without signals, and some unruly pedestrians who would force you to stop even on a green light as they continue to cross obliviously to the other side of the street – all these exasperating factors and safety challenges drive me crazy and I swear not to get stuck in such predicament if I can help it. However, the demographics and psychographics prevailing in the Toronto downtown area are attractive for online food pickup and delivery business. A lot of residents do not own a car as parking spots are limited and during the pandemic kids and parents are on home quarantine, giving them more reason to order food online as at some point home cooking lost its appeal. Kids have an enormous appetite and they love varieties offered by A&W, McDonald’s, Burger Kings, KFC, Harveys, Osmows, Chipotle, Thai Express, Swiss Chalet, etc. As a benefitting proponent of such an unprecedented surge in the food delivery business, I could comfortably make handsome earnings in one day working in downtown Toronto. Trip requests just keep popping up even before you reach your drop off destination. But anytime I would not hesitate to give it up in favor of working in Mississauga, Brampton, Etobicoke, and other outlying areas and suburbs. It is definitely a no-brainer to choose the convenience of a parking spot during pickup, easily locate your drop off destination with a prominent house and building numbering in an amply spaced out housing infrastructure, and getting fast to your destination with ease of driving in highways and byways with fewer motorists than in the downtown streets.
Food pickup and delivery is not as straightforward as it sounds. It also requires a little strategy. Understanding Uber technology is your secret behind the success of receiving more requests. When a customer placed an order, the app would normally show choices of restaurants by category, probably arranged by proximity to where the order originates. Those restaurants, however, do not readily show their locations and someone could order a Burger King meal 18 miles away where in fact there are numerous Burger King franchises in the area where the customer lives. The app will then assign the trip or pickup request to the driver closest to the restaurant. That’s why it is important to park around a plaza or area where there is a good concentration of restaurants within a residential neighborhood as other Uber drivers also prowl around the same area waiting for requests from the same sources. Once the customer finalized the transaction, meaning the customer chose what he wanted to eat and paid electronically, the vendor prepared the food, packed them, and get the food ready for the Uber driver to pick up. In most cases, the food is already prepared when the driver arrives except during busy hours when food preparation and packing might take a little time.
Mistakes can be made, and both the customer and driver can be victimized. Before a customer can order via the Uber Eats app, he should create an account that includes complete information about his name, address, phone number, and credit card information. And that information is what the Uber uses for delivery transaction. I had once a delivery where the guy was at home and his profile was showing his work address. He had to call me hurriedly when he realized his mistake and begged me to re-route the delivery to his home address. That instance was OK because the home address is much closer to the pick-up point. So I took an exception and delivered the food to his residence. He gave me a handsome tip afterward. On another occasion, I delivered to a school campus and the instruction as to which building and entrance were non-existent. I called the guy several times on the number registered in the request but he never answered. I waited 30 minutes for him to show up but it was all in vain. That day I came home with free food for our dinner. Beef shawarma wrap and vegetable salad tasted so good when it’s free. There was nothing else I could do. Food is a gracious meal and throwing it away to waste because it wasn’t yours does not make any sense.
The Uber technology app installed on the customer’s cellphone could actually track down the progress of the drop off trip right from the pickup. One time I missed my turn on a 6-lane highway because I was going so fast and getting to the right-most lane from the extreme left in a matter of three seconds was too tight and could jeopardize my safety. The app was slow to remind me and didn’t give me enough time to maneuver in a busy complex highway. The customer saw where I was going and he sent a text message telling me that I was off course. It seemed insulting to my self-proclaimed familiarity of the highway and to my thirty-six years driving experience but when you’re in a haste to make more trips you sometimes didn’t bother to check the destination coordinates and you let yourself totally dependent on the GPS that is too smart to dictate where you were supposed to be going.
There are destinations where reliance on GPS technology is paramount. Dropping off a food order to a customer in a huge park by the lake sounds like a great trip. But the park has no identifiable markings leaving you totally dependent on a map’s digital pin mark on your smartphone and using it has never been accurate. I had to walk around carrying food in my thermal bag while I was constantly on the phone with the customer who was giving me direction towards the spot he was waiting at. Obviously he was tracking me all the way from the pickup point.
My own share of mistake is somewhat forgivable but never from the customer’s perspective. One time I picked up a dozen Tim Horton’s coffee that was packed on a flat corrugated tray, enclosed in plastic with its opening knotted tightly to prevent coffee cups from shifting. En route into a drop-off point, a few sharp turns along the way, and the coffee spilled, leaving marks that cannot be concealed. The customer declined the order and wanted me to go back to that Tim Horton store and pick up another dozen of coffee. Since I have no control over the transaction I asked her to call the same vendor and explain to them what happened and ask for another delivery, in which case I might not be the same driver who could receive the order. The Tim Hortons staff should use a carrier with cup holder to secure coffee cups firmly in the first place. I learned that lesson the hard way and in my subsequent pickups from Tim Hortons, I demanded that coffee should be packed in a cup holder tray. Honestly, the lady customer was just too grumpy and fuzzy. There was no problem with the coffee, they were still hot and the amount of spills was too insignificant to show substantial depletion, except that spill marks were conspicuous on cups and lids. I left without showing utter disgust and disposed of a dozen coffee a block away from the customer. What a waste and my effort in locating her from the parking lot while carrying a dozen coffee was not rewarded. The next day I got an email from the Uber management telling me that an order was incomplete. Obviously the customer complained, nullifying, and voiding out that specific transaction. On a couple of occasions, I inadvertently left drinks in my car, one was a plastic glass full of orange juice that should have complemented a breakfast order from Sunset Grill, and the other was a can of diet pop that rolled away from my sight. On both occasions, I have not heard from the Uber management, and I even received a tip from the customers concerned. Some days are better than others. Strangely, that was one of them.
Order pickup from a drive-thru window is the safest in terms of protecting oneself from the potential exposure to the coronavirus. It is however the slowest as order fulfillment takes some time to get prepared from the ordering booth to the pickup window. Uber Eats customers pre-ordered online and the food is normally prepared ahead of those who ordered from the curbside. Once the request for pick up from the originating restaurant has been activated, the items are usually already packed and ready for pickup by the time you get to the store. But if the store does not entertain pickup from the inside, Uber Eats drivers will be compelled to fall on line where in some cases 8 to 10 cars are ahead of you. This scenario can result in a loss of a trip request as waiting time could run up to 30 minutes. Your potential trip requests would have gone to other Uber drivers or to the competition like Skip the Dishes, Doordash, and Foodora. Time is the essence. The more trips I get, the better my day turns out as financial returns reward the effort.
Driving Uber Eats has its own downsides. During the pandemic restaurants and some gas stations closed their toilets to the public. To avoid being caught in an awkward situation where I had to find a bush or isolated trees to provide cover for an urgent call of nature, I brought along a plastic urinal and a container of water mixed with detergent to wash the urinal after each use. It thought the idea was ingenious and gave me the convenience I so desperately needed. I could easily stop anywhere by the side of the street in the middle of a neighborhood, relieve myself quickly and empty the urinal, then flushed it with water mixed with detergent to rid of the stink. This you could easily do in Canada where streets are usually empty even in a densely populated neighborhood.
Summer is synonymous with road and highway construction and if you happened to be in the area where lanes are reduced to one and you’re delivering a smoothie topped with ice cream, the customer might wonder what happened to the ice cream once he received it. Four out of ten deliveries I’ve completed were for customers residing in high rise buildings. Some building concierges compel the resident to meet the driver at the lobby and receive the order, but this arrangement constitutes only a very small percentage. Most of the time I would be complying to a customer’s instruction to drop the food outside the door, obliging me to use an elevator to ascend to his floor where he could be in 50th or higher. There is no way I could take the stairs that high just to avoid using the elevator. I have developed a paranoia touching elevator buttons as I know lots of people’s fingers have already descended on them. When this dilemma is inevitable, I use my cellphone to push buttons and it works just as well and safely.
Easy as it may sound but there’s no telling when bad luck could strike. I was with a male passenger one time in a high-rise building elevator going to the 14th floor. Two floors away the elevator suddenly shuddered and stopped. We both looked at each other and probably thought of the same thing. We got stuck. We tried to pry the door open but it wouldn’t budge. We called the operator through the elevator phone and she said she would summon help as soon as possible. Forty-five minutes later we were still wondering when help could come. I was delivering a bucket of KFC chicken and drinks and I called the customer to inform him that his late lunch would come even much later. I explained the situation and he understood. I pushed the phone button again and informed the operator that I am in distress and asked her to call the fire department at once. Five minutes later, we heard a muted movement sound then it sped up and the door opened on the 14th floor. The customer was too happy to receive his food, already cold and might require a microwave oven before he could eat it, but I was happier to get rid of it. Going down I took the stairs from the 14th floor to the lobby. I needed to exercise but at that instance, that was not the real reason why. Since then, whenever I had to deliver to a high rise building, I would take a deep breath first before I hopped in the elevator. And once inside I would bow down slightly and say a little prayer silently. I have a principal responsibility to myself to stay safe and healthy and I owed it to my wife and family who never cease to remind me to “be careful out there” every time I step out of home.
During the stage one closure of the economy in Ontario, there are businesses and services that are considered essential and restaurants continue to operate in a scaled-down manner. And it works as long as they comply with public health directives on social distancing and strictly limit the number of patrons they would allow inside at one time. I love picking up orders from restaurants. I would enter the building, announce my presence and intent loudly with, “Uber pickup!” and spit out the order code. And the attendant would respond with urgency, either handing me over an already packed meal or apologizing for the order not being ready. Such a brief exchange of words could mean something in times when interactivity between two strangers is becoming less sanguine. Somehow there is a feeling of preference being afforded the Uber drivers. Uber owns a bigger slice of the food delivery service share in Ontario compared to other providers. And that preferred treatment given to the Uber driver may be a reflection of a business partnership during the pandemic. Uber built an algorithm that calculates a percentage of gratuity fees to the driver, boosting the driver’s earnings, aside from the unspecified amount of tips from satisfied customers that could come separately later as a surprise. Based on my conversation with the other drivers, this algorithm is not available in any application belonging to the competition. Another thing that draws me eagerly inside the restaurant is the footprints media glued on the floor. Restaurants have invested in creative footprints that carry messaging complying with the social distancing directive. Those creative footprints have caught my eye and I started taking pictures and compiled them.
After a few weeks, my sense of smell has adapted to the diverse aroma of the different ethnic dishes. Aside from Canadians, the second most popular demographics that have a penchant for ordering food online are collectively immigrants from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. If a pickup is coming from Osmows, Pita Pit, Pita and Grill, Sunset Caribbean, Fat Bastard Burritos, Chipotle, it is almost safe to assume that the customers have an Indian sounding name, i.e., Muhammad, Khan, Abdullah, etc. Filipinos are the least demographic to order food for delivery. I guess it explains the fact that Filipino households cook more frequently compared to other demographics. So far I can recall three pickup orders from Filipino restaurants and delivered them to Filipino patrons. The good thing about this is, once they recognize the Uber driver to be a Filipino, they don’t hesitate to dish out a generous tip, aside from the one already built-in. I could make a fortune if only one-third of my customers are Filipinos. Unfortunately, our cultural traits have paralleled with our traditional sense of taste factoring in our choice of food that is mostly home-cooked, even in North America.
My Uber Eats adventure is a test of time and a humbling experience. For some, it is conceived out of necessity. I could easily say the same. The loss of employment in all sectors has compelled those who have cars and the ability to drive under many conditions to seek this opportunity. If you look away and try something else, during the pandemic you may be looking indefinitely in dismal pursuit. I have come across several Uber drivers, young millennials, men women, who expressed joyfully their choice to become an Uber Eats driver. “The money is good,” said one fellow I interviewed, “and it gives me tremendous flexibility because I am my own boss and I choose my own time without a Bundy clock.”
I would emphasize the difference between an Uber Eats driver and an Uber Pro driver. Uber Eats driver only picks up and delivers parcel or food orders, while Uber Pro is providing passenger service and the latter is risky because you might be picking up passengers arriving from other countries at the airport without knowing if a passenger is infected. In a car where space is limited, it is easy to contract a virus from a passenger especially if he is not wearing a mask. Airport limousine and cab drivers have become wary of their predicament as a good number of drivers operating in the airport area have been infected. My Uber license has given me the option to either pick up deliveries or passengers, the condition not all Uber drivers have in their contract. But I refuse to pick up passengers and I turned that option off at all times.
In the beginning, I did it to see where food delivery could lead me to. The experience is keeping both my body and mind sharp and is a good alternative to staying idly at home. Driving to and maneuvering out of unfamiliar complex areas require good memory retention without the aid of a GPS. Turning several rights and lefts while relying on GPS is a technological convenience that does not require our brain to work actively. However, the Uber GPS stops the moment a drop off is completed, and during the period of waiting for a new trip request. And coming out of such depth through many meandering avenues back to where the trip began is a challenge to any driver, let alone an aging driver. On a few occasions, I might have made some miscues while shooting in the right direction in the middle of my trips. But admitting to mistakes and rectifying them with a new set of solutions has given me confidence in my ability to navigate without the benefit of a map or GPS. Driving also tests the level of my physical dexterity and challenges the soundness of making quick decisions during compromising safety situations. Not everyone can be an Uber driver, even if it is chosen by design bereft of circumstantial duress. I am proud to be an Uber Eats driver. Being one would not add a glamorous line in my resume, but it is something more than what a guy behind an office desk can do. Perhaps there is an aspect of machismo associated with being an Uber Eats driver. But whatever it is that drives a person to become an Uber Eats driver — perhaps extra income, having something to do during the pandemic, the pure enjoyment of being out on the road traversing through one county after another — is part of the mystifying microcosm.
The pandemic makes us stronger, bolder, and more appreciative of whatever form of blessings we receive, small or big. The period during which we remain quarantined, either enforced or voluntary, has given us sufficient time to reflect on this. And such is one opportunity I can attribute to the Almighty for balancing the negatives and positives in our lives. My wife lost her job but she receives subsidies from the government, albeit measly. I wanted to help ease our current financial situation and I got the Uber Eats gig that rewards my time and effort amply. The weather lately has become unbearably hot for Uber drivers to operate and I got a contract to write and design brand guideline books for a number of brands. So I stay home mostly perched comfortably on my swivel chair in front of my desktop computer, spared from the elements at least until my contract is over. When I begin to break this down, I thought about some balancing acts disguising in, concealing in manner and form devoid of explanation. But we manage through our challenges with faith in Him, and in the belief that we would never be forsaken. Of course, we have to do our part with due diligence so that our hard works will be rewarded.