Should your restaurant do GrubHub?

This morning I heard the news about GrubHub and Seamless merger. How do these services work?
From a end customer, who is trying to order take out, this is the flow,


From a restaurant point of view this is how it works,


Both these pictures come from Seamless website.

In the same NPR story about the merger a restaurant owner had some strong words about Seamless’ commission and business practices.

“The more business we bring Seamless, the more commission they charge us,” says Pedro Munoz, who owns Luz, a Latin-American restaurant in Brooklyn. When his monthly orders increased to over $10,000, Seamless raised its take from 10 percent to 14 percent. Munoz couldn’t believe this. When he orders more from his vegetable supplier, the price goes down. With Seamless, the opposite was happening. (Source: NPR)

And then when the restaurant owner tried to negotiate he was met with threat,

“I asked them, ‘I’m bringing in three times as much money to Seamless as before. Can we negotiate the fees?'” he says. “They said they could drop me any day, and they don’t negotiate fees.”

This led me to tweet this,

But upon further reflection I want to balance my statement and discuss rationally whether or not services like Seamless and GrubHub help restaurants and whether their pricing practices are acceptable.

Services like these are two sided markets.  On one side they have hungry end consumers who want to order takeout easily (preferably from single website, app etc). On the other side they have restaurants that want to sell more takeout by reaching customers they otherwise would not be able to reach.  The market maker or the middlemen, GrubHub and Seamless, take a cut when they enable this transaction.

In a balanced two sided market there is new value created for all three players and not just value redistribution (think Groupon). The market maker gets fair share of net new value created for both sides. In some cases they may choose to let one side capture all its value without getting their share and get all their share only from the other side. That is what happens with GrubHub and the rest.

In this case the end consumers are happy and get more value from simplicity but these sites decide not to charge these consumers for that value. That is okay. Besides even though these consumers see value their reference price is low (or $0) and there are multiple alternatives (pick up the phone and order) and hence it is difficult to charge them a price to place an order.

The restaurants are able to make new sales that they otherwise would not have made. Well may be all sales are not truly incremental that depends on your existing sales channels and customer base. GrubHub and the likes get a share of this value by charging a percentage (10%) on the sales (not profit generated from the sales).

So should your restaurant do it?

If the profit from the new sale makes up for the commission you pay to GrubHub then you should take advantage of it. Note that I said profit and not just sales.

All your food costs are marginal. Say you order too much raw materials  with not enough sales to match you can always fix that with better ordering and inventory control.  All your rent/mortgage, even employee costs, etc. are fixed costs. When you sell through GrubHub you should add the commission to your marginal cost.

Gladly do GrubHub if:

Price of food order  LESS

Commission to GrubHub  LESS

Cost to prepare that single food order    IS GREATER THAN $0.

That is as long as every order is profitable, do it. If not don’t bother.

So why do they charge you more when they bring you more sales?

Shouldn’t they charge you less when you give them more business like you do your vegetable vendor?

Unfortunately no. Actually you are the vegetable vendor here. If they deliver you far more incremental sales (that is also profitable) then yes they can charge you higher rate of commission. That is just effective pricing. You do the same math as above with the new rate. As long as you make money on every single order at the new rate, do it!


About those marketing charges these sites want to charge you,

But then little things started bugging Munoz. There was a $150 a month “marketing fee” that he couldn’t understand, and Seamless only paid him every 30 days, which left him chronically short of cash.

Say NO. NO. NO.

You have your share of risk. You took mortgage, bet your future and your family’s future on this business, take loan to buy food and serve. That is enough. You do not have to offset their risk.  When GrubHub and such startups decide to run a business they have their share of risks. The primary risk is customer acquisition and retention. It is their risk and theirs alone. You amply compensate them in the form of commission on sales generated. It is up to them to make a net profit from that by doing whatever it takes to acquire and retain their end customers. You do not have to carry that risk for them.

And you should get paid right away and not let them keep the cash for 30 days.


They say,


But all that advertising and email marketing are about their site, apps and service – to acquire and retain email addresses of end consumers. Not to advertise your business. It is their cost of doing business. Their risk.

Their costs are just that, theirs. Not yours. You pay for the value you get from the incremental sales. You are done. Demand to get paid when you sell food.

So by all means give a real hard look at these services. For your restaurant these services most likely help generate profitable sales if the commission is just 10-15% and you do not have to pay anything else. They do create value but don’t let them pass on their risks to you.


Note: There may be cases where you may still make total profit while not every single sale is profitable. That is a complex math to figure out for your business and you have enough worries already. Keep it simple and focus on profit from each order.

Surely you are not surprised by Groupon woes?

Update 11/1/2012: Groupon valuation is back in news because of its rival LivingSocial’s woes.

In Amazon’s 10-Q filing late Friday afternoon, it disclosed that Living Social saw revenue of $372 million for the nine-month period ended Sept. 30. While that is up 120% from the same period last year, it reflects third-quarter revenue of just $124 million – down 10% from the June period.

If that sequential drop reflects an overall weakness in the daily deals business for the third quarter, then it implies potentially disappointing results for Groupon when it posts its own results for the period next week,

When valuing a company’s stock it pays to understand what pressing customer needs it serves and what unique value it adds. That is assuming you are Benjamin Graham, Warren Buffett type investor who takes the time to understand the business before investing.

Business model is value-creation and value share. A business that creates net new value for its customers gets to share in it. A business cannot get its share of value it did not help create, let alone grow exponentially.

If you are such an investor then Groupon’s announcements about lax controls should not come as a surprise to you. I am not referring to the $2 drop in its stock today but the news that led to it.

It is hard to describe Groupon’s business. In fact even Groupon is not clear about what it is.

For starters, it is a two sided market. It essentially brings together small businesses on one side and end consumers on the other side.

In general a two sided market adds value by unlocking value, creating new value or removing inefficiencies. It then gets its fair share of the net new value added. A two sided market must be consistent in its positioning – it must serve as the enabler for the jobs the two sides are seeking to do. There should be no asymmetry.

Take for example, eBay. It positions itself as the market place for buyers and sellers to find each other. No asymmetry here. EBay adds value by enabling transactions that otherwise would not have been possible.

What about Groupon’s role as two sided market?

What is its positioning to deal seekers? It tells them about, “one ridiculously huge coupon everyday” and its tag line is, “Collective Buying Power”. In other words it wants the deal seekers to hire it as a sales channel to buy products at steep discounts.

What about its positioning to small businesses? It tells them about, “guaranteed new customers”, “big exposure”, and “measurable marketing”. The story line goes, “these customers fall in love with your service and visit you again and again, paying full price”. In other words it wants the businesses to hire it as a marketing channel.

That is asymmetry (to put it mildly) in its messaging. Groupon cannot be a sales channel to acquire ridiculously huge discount and a marketing channel to acquire valuable customers at the same time.

What value does it add?

Businesses bring value to the table in the form of 50% off discount. Deal seekers add no value but get 50% off. Groupon gets its share of 25% from the businesses.


You bring a full pie.
Give half of it to my email subscribers.
Give half of what is left to me.
Take home the rest and wait.
It will not only grow to become a full pie, it will multiply into many full pies.

To repurpose Omar Khayyam, “the deal seekers having scored a deal, move on. No level of customer service will bring them back to pay full price for your cupcake they can get for 50% with their next coupon in the bakery next door”.

There is no net new value add. Just value distribution – from businesses to deal seekers and Groupon.  Groupon cannot take its share of value it did not help create.

So we have a business that most do not understand, even it does not have clarity on the needs it serves and adds no new value. How can you place a valuation on such a business?

Surely you are not surprised that such a confused business finds itself again in the accounting hot water?

There is a WSJ report that SEC may investigate Groupon. I see no reason for such an investigation at the expense of taxpayers. If irrational investors want to bet their money on a business they do not understand or chose not to understand, why should they be protected?