Angry cabbies, half-naked customers and frozen fingers: a day in the life of a Deliveroo rider
I enjoy cycling around London. I like cutting past long lines of traffic; racing to reach green lights; feeling the breeze on my face… or, at least, the warm stream of exhaust fumes spilling out of the number 38 bus.
Cycling for a living does seem to have its drawbacks, however. Such as rain. Having to venture outside when it’s chucking it down feels practically medieval in 2016. And when, of a miserable evening, I fancy a Dirty Burger I can always count on one of Deliveroo’s cyclists to turn up at my door, food in freezing-cold hand.
Still, I’m willing to give the job a go. I’ve done worse (wedding DJ; discount shoe salesmen; waiter in a Greek restaurant on “bouzouki night”). Being a Deliveroo “Roo-man” is a flexible, part-time job that pays around £30 for a three-hour shift. Rain notwithstanding, that doesn’t sound too bad.
There’s one more potential pitfall, though: I don’t like the look of the Deliveroo backpacks. You know the ones — roughly the size and shape of an Ikea bedside table. Along with the company’s teal-coloured waterproofs and cheery kangaroo logo it’s these massive, shell-like appendages that mark out the roughly 1,500 riders in London.
That number’s growing — you’ll see increasing amounts of half-human, half-tortoise cyclists as Deliveroo’s business booms, with growth of around 25 per cent month-on-month. The formula’s simple: offer customers easy access to higher-end restaurants then sign up a fleet of heroes in a half-shell to get it to them.
“We started in south-west London in 2013 with three restaurants,” says Will Chu, Deliveroo’s 37-year-old founder. “Now we’re in 35 cities in the UK and 25 internationally.”
The company raised £66 million in November last year, allowing it to expand its operations worldwide. Its backers — including Facebook — clearly have faith that people will keep eating. Or, at least, stop leaving the house as much. “People are fundamentally lazy,” explains Chu. “And given the opportunity to be lazier, they will be.”
I for one don’t have the energy to argue. So I’m on board. If Deliveroo’s riding the crest of a wave right now, then I want to ride along with it.
“We’re looking for experience, safety and customer service,” says Marissa, who’s interviewing me at Deliveroo’s driver centre on Pentonville Road. The sign-up process is more official than I expected. Apparently, I can’t just jump into the saddle. “What makes you think that you’re right for this role?” she asks. I explain that I like cycling, that I’m reasonably polite and that despite having been an hour late for the interview I’m usually pretty reliable.
Marissa also asks about my bike. Has it been serviced recently? How much do I ride it, and how far? Deliveroo cyclists can clock up to 50 miles a day, so it’s important that I’m not going to pull up lame mid-shift.
Having squeaked through my interview I chat to some of the other potential Roo-men in the centre. Ivan is 21 and has a full-time job as a receptionist in Canary Wharf. He wants to earn money to study and become an investment banker. “I just bought my bike for £70,” he tells me. “I’ll get home from work and start my shift. I get the minimum wage in my job so it would be a boost for my savings.”
I wish Ivan luck as our trial shifts are about to start. These are overseen by expert riders, who want to check that you’re safe and courteous on the roads. Rob is my expert, and a former Roo-man himself. He starts by offering me a choice of insulated boxes for the food. I opt for a plastic container fitted over my back wheel rather than the backpack. Some cyclists prefer the backpack’s aerodynamics, I’m told. Plus it keeps you warm. “Will it be cold?” I ask. Rob looks me up and down, taking in my jeans and trainers: “Not when we get going.”
It is cold, of course — finger-numbingly so. But our first lunchtime order comes through almost immediately and we’re off. We collect a tray of beef in chilli sauce from Tsunami, a smart Japanese place on Charlotte Street, then speed across Fitzrovia towards the customer. I haven’t quite got used to my bike box yet, and clatter into the side of a black cab at a junction. The exchange that follows is unprintable.
“Don’t worry — I always have shouting matches with cabbies,” says Rob, reassuringly, as we pull up to our destination. Rob rings the bell and a man appears wearing loafers, bright white three-quarter-length trousers and a hat that Pharrell Williams might consider to be a bit much. He mutters a brief thank you and then he’s gone. For someone so dressed to impress I’m surprised he didn’t fancy the 15-minute stroll across town. “Yeah, right,” Rob agrees. “I’ve delivered orders to people pretty much upstairs from the restaurant before.”
Now it’s my turn. I log in to the Driveroo app on my iPhone and accept my first order. The route to the restaurant pops up on screen. Rob follows at a safe distance as I turn the wrong way down a one-way street. Rob’s not impressed. He fails around a quarter of applicants at this stage. What for? “Recklessness. There are a lot of people I have to tell: don’t run the reds; don’t cycle on the pavement; don’t ride through a junction while staring at your phone.” All the bad habits of London cyclists, basically.
Around 25 trepidatious minutes later I reach the customer’s address — a Marylebone apartment complex. I press the buzzer and a female voice crackles over the intercom: “Go through the blue door then take the second lift to the third floor.” When I eventually reach it, the door is answered by a woman wearing just a towel. It’s all a bit Confessions of a Deliveroo Driver. She’s only after one thing, I think — and I’m right. The woman grabs the brown paper bag out of my hand and shuts the door instantly.
This is all perfectly normal, Rob tells me. Hungry people don’t want to hang around for a chat. And the towel? “It happens.”
By this point Rob’s seen enough and I’m allowed to spend the rest of my shift working alone. I make five deliveries and earn just under £30, including £3.50 in tips. That’s not bad, I suppose. It’s just above the London living wage of £9.40 an hour. If my coccyx could stand it I could make up to £420 a week.
Along with Uber, Deliveroo is one of a growing number of companies offering flexible employment within the so-called sharing economy. But the job’s not without its downsides. Like having to pedal your bike for hours through precipitation of all kinds. Also, being self-employed, if a Roo-man is involved in an accident there’s no sick pay.
There’s also something about delivering a mammoth Wagamama order to a pin-striped partner in a central London law firm that brings the inequalities of the service industry into sharp relief. I think about Ivan, feeding investment bankers so that one day he might become one.
Still, Will Chu is right: Londoners are lazy, and Deliveroo offers a pretty good deal to deliverer and deliveree alike. “We did a driver survey,” says Chu. “And the most important thing was flexibility. There are a lot of people who want to do this.”
My shift left me feeling tired, hoarse, cold and starving. The next time a sodden Roo-man rings my doorbell in the driving rain I’m going to offer him a cup of tea and a biscuit. And I’ll remember to put some clothes on as well.