Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Zomato has sent an email to its restaurant partners offering them a hygiene audit at a cost of Dh945. Some restaurant owners are criticising the move, but the delivery platform has argued that the audit service is not new and they make no profit from offering it.
Zomato sent the email to restaurants on Monday afternoon, saying "multiple restaurant partners" had recently reached out to ask for a "Zomato Hygiene Audit" to take place.
This audit would cost Dh945 for one year's validity, and the company said they believed it "would add great value" to an outlet, before offering examples of how the certification would look on their Zomato listing. The email did not explain what exactly the hygiene audit is or what it involved.
Aside from alluding to an upswing in concern around sanitation, the email did not explicitly mention the pandemic.
"We have seen a drastic increase in users searching and making decisions based on the hygiene features on Zomato. We are seeing that consumers these days are wanting to ensure that the sanitation standards of the restaurants are at the highest possible level," the email said.
The email shows a carousel on Zomato's homepage for "best rated hygiene places, curated for you". Restaurants were also offered the option to promote their hygiene standards for an extra fee, using the app's Canvas feature, which is a banner that appears below a listing.
Restaurants could promote "health standards, possible communications around the use of gloves, air purifiers" for an extra Dh600.
"It's a great way to educate customers about what steps you are taking to ensure safety for them. We are hoping that by using these small features it will help educate the consumers on the steps you're taking to ensure that hygiene standards aren't compromised during this time," the company's email said.
A spokesperson for Zomato stressed that the audit has "been around for a long time and is not a new service".
"We make no profits from this service, we simply connect restaurants to government-certified audit partners," they said. "And once they complete their audit process, we publish the results on our platform for users to see."
A statement issued later by the company said they "regret having sent an email earlier pushing the benefits of the Hygiene Audit for restaurants".
"This email was sent by an individual of their own prerogative, and does not reflect the efforts Zomato is making to help the restaurant industry in these times."
A spokesperson for Zomato called the tone and context of the email "opportunistic and in poor taste". However, they said it was sent to only 10 restaurants from "an individual's account" and was not a mass email sent to all partners.
But whatever the case, the fee attached to the audit and the way it has been framed considering the current crisis hasn't gone down well with local businesses, or the delivery platform's customers.
"Isn't it unethical to brand something hygiene-safe based on whether or not a company pays for it?" one Twitter user asked online.
'Another mechanism to charge operators more'
One restaurant operator who received the email, who asked to remain anonymous, said they were "shocked" to receive it on Monday, given the current situation. She had been already aware of Zomato's food hygiene programme, which was a paid add-on to being on the platform, but had chosen not to use it as it was "pointless". Asking restaurants again to pay more for it, when governments already monitor hygiene and while many businesses are struggling, doesn't sit well with her.
"It just seems like another mechanism to charge operators more. Why not just make public the grading provided by the local health department?" she told The National.
"Look we get it, every business has to make a profit in order to continue and pretty much every business operates to drive up the top line. Yet, the time we are in now is unprecedented." She also noted that other "delivery platforms are waiving delivery fees, offering discounts to operators knowing that without us, the restaurants, they will cease to exist.
"Restaurant and hospitality people are a hardened and tough bunch and certainly not looking for handouts, but we are looking for partnership and way for us to all work cooperatively through this difficult time."
She said the best way to support local businesses through a tough economic period was to order directly from them – whether it's in store, over the phone or on their website. "Also, customers can support by being understanding at this time, we are all undergoing the same challenges every other business is going through, except there is no option of remote working for a restaurant team."
Zomato shared a post two days ago reassuring customers about their hygiene practices amid the pandemic. It detailed how delivery drivers sanitised their hands before and after every delivery, they had daily temperature checks and they wear masks throughout the day. "Your well-being is of the utmost importance to us," they said.
How have other delivery services adapted during the outbreak?
A message from Deliveroo's founder Will Shu was sent to all its customers this week, to inform them of extra steps being taken in light of the pandemic. The company was providing masks and sanitisers for riders, as well as ensuring they underwent temperature checks – though it didn't say how often.
"Our riders are at the heart of our business. In addition to all the health and safety measures we’re taking, we’re working with our agencies to ensure that our riders are supported during this time," the email said.
Deliveroo say they have also implemented a "robust illness reporting process to manage any suspected cases", and health and safety in Deliveroo Editions kitchens had been stepped up. "My absolute number one priority is the safety of customers, riders and restaurants, no matter what happens."
Talabat, the largest online delivery service in the Middle East, yesterday announced it was adjusting their business model to support customers and local businesses.
The company is now waiving delivery fees "based on a consumer's proximity to a restaurant", region-wide, to support both customers and restaurant partners.
This means that customers can choose free delivery from restaurants located near to where they're ordering from. The company said it had begun monitoring the outbreak in January, so was primed to adapt as the situation globally escalated.
"By leveraging our technology, we’re encouraging our customers to order from nearby restaurant partners who may be seeing dine-in rates dropping due to uncertainty around Covid-19" Tomaso Rodriguez, Talabat chief executive, said.
"We are well prepared, and are working with local authorities to ensure the safety of our customers, riders and restaurant partners, in each market that we operate."
It has also since introduced "contactless delivery", which involves the delivery driver ringing the doorbell and leaving your food on your doorstep rather than handing it to you personally. The company said that the driver would then "practise social distancing" by ensuring you get your order, before leaving for their next delivery.
Customers keen to use this option would need to pay online. The company would also be delivering branded door hangers that customers can use to communicate to the driver that a contactless drop off is required.
The experiential marketing platform is a new arrival to Dubai. The app offers members exclusive access to paid events and offers from brands in exchange for engagement.
This month, the platform partnered with virtual kitchen Sweetheart Kitchen and Zomato, to encourage its members to experience "homegrown and off-the-grid foodie offerings" in Dubai. They'll then get cashback for posting about their experiences.
To take part: download the Surkus app and find the Zomato page to place your order. After the delivery has arrived, submit your feedback on Zomato through the link you'll be sent, submit proof of purchase and proof of Zomato feedback, and then you'll get cash via your PayPal account.