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How 1 city is helping struggling restaurants by delivering orders at no charge

Beachwood, Ohio, has launched a free delivery program helping restaurants avoid high fees from third-party delivery apps.
Contactless Food Delivery
"I love the fact that residents are rallying, and they're very proud of the city for helping our restaurants," said Karen Carmen, the community services director in Beachwood, Ohio.Oscar Wong / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, delivery orders are a lifeline helping keep restaurants afloat, but major fees from third-party delivery apps can cut into an establishment's bottom line. To relieve that financial burden, a small city in Ohio has launched a first-of-its-kind program that delivers food to residents at no cost to the diner or the restaurant, as first reported by NBC affiliate WKYC.

Karen Carmen, the community services director in Beachwood, Ohio who came up with and developed the delivery program, said she was inspired by a preexisting program where senior citizens in the city can call her department for a ride to stores or appointments.

"We were thinking, 'What can we do?' since restaurants were talking about doing igloos and tents outside, and in Northeast Ohio, you get all this snow, so who's actually going to sit outside in 40-degree weather?" Carmen told TODAY Food. "We wanted to help them continue … and I thought, 'If we can deliver little tiny Sally Small to her appointment, we can deliver a pizza."

Carmen said that the program is managed through an app that connects her with the six drivers who are on shift each night. Residents of the city call one of the 10 participating restaurants and place their orders; orders of over $25 are eligible for the free delivery. Once the order is placed, the restaurant calls Carmen's team, which dispatches a driver. The process is similar to the one used by third-party delivery apps, but charges no service or delivery fees.

"Delivery service is more important to (restaurants) now than it's ever been, and third party apps take up to 30% of the (cost of the order)," Carmen said.

"The restaurants are so appreciative and so grateful. I'm glad we were able to do this," Carmen continued. "Many of them were like, 'You're not going to charge me anything?' It was like that tilted, confused puppy look, and I'm saying, 'No, we aren't going to charge you. This is what we're going to do.'"

The free delivery service has only been operating for a few days, but Carmen said it has already saved plenty of money for the local restaurants.

"On Monday night, we saved the restaurants $356, and then (Tuesday) night we saved them $486, and I think every night that will increase," Carmen said. "That money stays with them. We're not taking anything back, we're not asking for reimbursement. … Each night, hopefully, it will grow."

Carmen said that the drivers are being paid $20 an hour, and the town encourages tips. Drivers did have to get certificates of insurance to do deliveries, which can lead to an increase in premiums, but Carmen said that the town has reimbursed drivers for those costs. They've also provided masks to the drivers.

"People want to work," Carmen said, adding that she herself stays in her office until 8:30 p.m. so she can "hop in her car" if a delivery needs to be made or a dispatcher has trouble. "As long as they're willing and able and they're doing a good job, we're going to employ them."

Right now, the program is only funded to continue through Jan. 31, but Carmen said that she hopes the positive response will lead to its expansion.

"I love the fact that residents are rallying, and they're very proud of the city for helping our restaurants," said Carmen. "Residents are grateful that the city had the foresight to do this. They're proud to live here. … I know how the restaurant industry is right now, and I would feel terrible losing these local gems."

Carmen said that she hopes that the program can at least get restaurants through the winter weather, when outdoor dining is limited.

"Even though it's temporary, I think it might stay the drain of third party apps for just a couple more weeks and hopefully get them through the worst part of the winter," she said.

She added that she has heard from other towns and cities interested in operating a similar program, and said that she has not heard from third-party delivery sites about the program.

"I perfectly respect third-party apps; they're serving a need and I understand that they're employing people and getting food out to people, but we just take it a little farther by not charging them," Carmen said.