Uber Eats Is Deleting Restaurants So Customers Don't Get Scammed

The delivery app's new guidelines aim to prevent restaurant fraud.

Most of the time when we write about Uber Eats and other third-party delivery services, we tend to note the ways in which these apps put restaurants in a chokehold, squeezing local businesses with excessive fees. Or sometimes it's the customers getting the shakedown, slapped with egregious charges on otherwise inexpensive food orders. Sometimes, though, Uber Eats chooses to play the good guy, and that's apparently what we're seeing right now: the Wall Street Journal reports that the company is delisting thousands of restaurants from its app to improve the experience for customers ordering delivery.

The rise of ghost kitchens

It's hard to believe that just four or five years ago, the term "ghost kitchen" wasn't in our collective vocabulary. Now, ghost kitchens are pretty much synonymous with dinner—and all it took to get there was the advancement of third-party delivery apps, a global pandemic, and our increased tolerance of service fees.

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In case anyone needs a refresher on ghost kitchens, let's recap: A significant proportion of the restaurants listed on apps like Uber Eats are so-called virtual restaurants that operate out of so-called ghost kitchens. The "restaurant" in question isn't a restaurant in the traditional sense—no brick-and-mortar building customers can visit, no dining room, no servers, no takeout option. It exists entirely within third-party delivery apps as a menu from which you can order food. Those items are prepared in a ghost kitchen and sent out for delivery.

The kitchens where the food is prepared can take a few different forms. Sometimes they're centralized hubs from which several virtual brands operate at once, housed in industrial buildings or dead malls. Sometimes they're bespoke kitchens that expand the service capabilities of a single fast food brand, as we saw with Wendy's bold plan to build its own ghost kitchens (a plan that has since been scaled back). Lots of times, though, the digital restaurants are just slinging food from existing restaurant kitchens. Examples include Mariah Carey's Cookies (produced via Buca di Beppo), Neighborhood Wings (an Applebee's brand), and Hootie's Burger Bar (a virtual spinoff of Hooters).

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In short, it's very easy to set up a virtual brand—and that's what has Uber Eats concerned.

Why Uber Eats is delisting restaurants from the app

The Wall Street Journal reports that Uber Eats is planning to erase as many as 5,000 virtual restaurants from the app, which in North America accounts for 13% of all digital-only brands. Why? Because the listings are massively redundant: Customers might be shown 12 allegedly unique restaurants as they browse, but those restaurants all have identical menus because they stem from the same ghost kitchen. By providing such an excess of options, these digital brands make customers feel like they have fewer choices of what to order.

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Five thousand restaurants might sound like a lot—and it is—but WSJ unpacks that figure by providing a glimpse of what Uber Eats is looking into: "12 virtual brands selling identical breakfast burritos from a Colorado sports bar; 14 brands serving the same sandwiches from a New York City deli; and online-only options from a San Francisco-based Pakistani restaurant that, at one point, replicated its menu 20 times."

In addition to delisting superfluous restaurants, Uber Eats is introducing new guidelines for those who wish to operate virtual brands within the app. While it's still fine to operate a virtual brand under the umbrella of a parent restaurant, the two menus must differ from each other by a minimum mandated amount: over 50% of a virtual menu has to be unique from the parent restaurant. When menu items are original to the virtual brand, photos of those items must be listed to provide greater transparency to consumers.

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Any virtual restaurant that falls to an average rating below 4.3/5 stars will also be removed from Uber Eats, according to WSJ. Holding these brands to a higher standard than other restaurants makes a certain kind of sense, since there's a far lower barrier to entry and they're easier to operate than a full-fledged restaurant.

With any luck, these new guidelines and mass delistings will make the app more usable, both for customers with a specific craving to satisfy and for those who just love to browse the app and see what speaks to them. Still, these irritatingly spammy restaurants just serve as a good reminder that you should just call the restaurant directly whenever possible to avoid these snags.

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