The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. has never had more food delivery options. Unless you live across the Anacostia River.

From left: Friends Blanca Gamez, Sam Schumach, Jennifer Alcazar, Julian Alcazar and Kamron Daugherty share a dinner in the Benning neighborhood, where food delivery choices are limited. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Blanca Gamez was watching “Say Yes to the Dress” on cable when a Domino’s commercial appeared. It proved effective. She picked up her phone and tried to place an order to her address in the Benning neighborhood in Northeast Washington. A message popped up: “Sorry we don’t currently offer delivery to your location but we’ve displayed nearby carryout stores below.”

So Gamez, 28, tried Pizza Hut. “Same thing,” she said. “No deliveries.”

She was offended enough that she took images of each chains’ apology pages and texted them to her sister, along with a message about an “epic fail” on pizza delivery, Gamez said. (She also sent the images to The Washington Post.) Gamez had never encountered anything like this when she lived in Friendship Heights or Dupont Circle, where on-demand meal deliveries are just a routine part of modern life, in which virtually every foodstuff is available with a few taps on your phone: not just pizza, but barbecue, Korean fried chicken, Vietnamese soups, Ethiopian platters, lobster rolls, poke bowls, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, even the finest chef-driven fare.

But she has been discovering — as has her roommate, another newbie to Benning — that life on the east side of the Anacostia River doesn’t offer the same amenities that people take for granted in Northwest Washington. With gentrification creeping into Wards 7 and 8, these newcomers are experiencing a reality that locals have been dealing with for decades, namely that businesses, whether restaurants or supermarkets, often ignore the largely black neighborhoods, where the median household income remains under $40,000. Food delivery is prime among the AWOL businesses: They are either nonexistent, residents say, or the meal options are far fewer than the ones available in more affluent areas.

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Representatives for the delivery companies say the level of service in Wards 7 and 8 often reflects the neighborhoods’ lack of restaurants and a lack of customer demand, among other things.

Gamez’s roommate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his workplace forbids him to speak on the record to the media, decided to conduct an experiment. He typed in about 10 addresses, both east and west of the Anacostia River, into the Postmates app and discovered the company wouldn’t deliver to any of the homes on the east side. After finding similarly dispiriting results with other delivery services, he took his findings to a local listserv.

“I’ve noticed that numerous food delivery services essentially redline areas east and south of the Anacostia River when it comes to providing delivery services,” he wrote to his neighbors. “To make matters worse, many of these areas are already food deserts.”

He received an earful in response: Residents who said they had similar delivery problems. Residents who said, when they could get a delivery, the driver often wouldn’t come to the door. Residents who said this was nothing new: Over the years, people east of the river couldn’t get grocery deliveries, taxi services or even someone to work on their yards. Meal deliveries are merely the latest insult.

“The residents in this neighborhood are no different than any other residents in any other part of the city,” said Lauren Grimes, 29, a resident of Marshall Heights in Ward 7. “We just want to feed our families. I don’t think there should be any level of discrimination against a basic necessity.”

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In late March, The Post checked the food delivery options available in Wards 7 and 8, located east of the Anacostia River. Postmates offered nothing to the Zip codes east of the river. The Postmates tagline, incidentally, reads: “Anything, anywhere, anytime. We get it.”

You must enter a full address to learn whether Pizza Hut or Domino’s delivers to a location. A reporter typed in a dozen addresses across Wards 7 and 8, none of which were available for delivery from the pizza chains. The same 12 addresses came up empty on both the DoorDash and Caviar delivery services.

Amazon Restaurants didn’t fare much better. It doesn’t deliver to most Zip codes east of the river, based on Post searches, and it offers only about a dozen options for those in Anacostia and neighboring communities. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

Grubhub, the nation’s largest food-ordering service, offered no more than 14 restaurant options to each Zip code east of the river, based on searches. For the most part, the offerings were from pizza parlors, fried chicken joints, Chinese-American carryouts and similar takeaway establishments. Strangely, for one address, located on the 3000 block of K Street SE, Grubhub had more than 40 options, including Masala Art, Shake Shack, Far East Taco Grille and others on the west side of the river. Eat24, the delivery service from Yelp, was purchased by Grubhub last year and has essentially the same options.

By contrast, if D.C. residents type in almost any address west of the Anacostia River — on any of these delivery apps or websites — they will have instant access to hundreds of Washington restaurants, far beyond the carryouts and pizza parlors mostly available on the other side of the river.

Those who live east of the river say their communities remained stigmatized by opinions formed decades ago, back before gentrifiers started scouting their streets for cheap housing. Family income levels may be lower in Wards 7 and 8 compared to the rest of Washington, but so are the crime numbers. “A friend in Capitol Hill has much higher instances of crime in her neighborhood, but has no problem at all getting food delivered,” one poster wrote on the listserv.

D.C. police crime data confirm the point. Over the past year, Wards 7 and 8 had 4,231 and 3,269 crimes, respectively, covering everything from homicides to burglaries. Ward 6, which includes Capitol Hill, had 5,316 crimes in the same period. In fact, of the District’s eight wards, only two of them had fewer crimes in the past year than Wards 7 or 8. (For the record, they were Ward 3, which includes upper Northwest neighborhoods such as Cleveland Park and Glover Park, and Ward 4, which includes Petworth and Brightwood.)

It is statistics like this that can grate on residents east of the river. Too many Washingtonians and members of the media, residents say, still think their neighborhoods are full of abandoned houses and drug dealers, remnants of the crack epidemic that tormented Washington in the 1980s and 1990s.

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Patricia Howard-Chittams used to be on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for her Twining neighborhood in Ward 7. She has been living in the area since the early 1990s. She has witnessed the changes. She has seen more white residents move in. She has seen properties cleaned up and renovated. She has reviewed the crime statistics.

“While crime has improved,” she said, “impressions have not.”

No company contacted for this story suggested crime was a factor in limiting deliveries. They gave other reasons: the lack of restaurants in the neighborhoods, the lack of drivers, the lack of demand. DoorDash blamed the bridges.

“The various bridges are an operational challenge, particularly with traffic, which is why, for example, we currently don’t allow Northern Virginia customers to order from D.C. and vice versa across the Potomac River,” a spokeswoman wrote via email. “A similar operational challenge exists for Wards 7 and 8 across the Anacostia River.” DoorDash added service in Ward 7 on March 28.

Each Pizza Hut location services one area, said a spokesman for parent company Yum! Brands. There’s only a single unit that covers the communities east of the river, he said, and it doesn’t offer delivery. The spokesman didn’t know why. Domino’s has a policy that all pizzas must be delivered within nine minutes, based on traffic during rush hour. No stores can promise such times to residents in Wards 7 and 8, a spokeswoman said.

Amazon Restaurants declined to comment on the record, and Caviar did not respond to a call for comment. A spokeswoman for Grubhub said that more than 100 restaurants serve both wards, although the actual number of eateries available to any particular address may be limited according to a restaurant’s hours of operation and its delivery zone. That hundreds more restaurants are available to residents on the west side of the Anacostia, the spokeswoman noted in an email, reflects the fact that there are just more places to eat in those neighborhoods.

“Restaurant operators create their delivery boundaries, but Grubhub’s restaurant accounts team provides guidance to maximize the restaurant’s reach,” wrote Katie Norris, the company’s manager of corporate communications.

When Postmates launched in Washington in late 2013, there wasn’t much demand east of the river, a spokeswoman said. But the company, she added, is constantly expanding markets. “We look forward to continuing to expand operations throughout D.C. and the broader DMV region,” she noted in an email statement.

One delivery service, however, has started to make a name for itself east of the river, and that’s Uber Eats. Residents have noticed that the company has expanded its offerings. For each of the 12 addresses that came up empty on other delivery services, Uber Eats had between 30 and more than 60 options, including meals from restaurants on H Street NE and Capitol Hill, such as Maketto, Sticky Rice, Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar, Belga Cafe, Ethiopic, Red Apron Burger Bar and others.

“I credit Uber Eats for evangelizing that there is business over here,” said Edith Hancock, a technical writer, management analyst and community activist. The company has discovered, she added, that “there’s gold in them thar hills.”

So, how does Uber Eats manage to cover an area that other companies find too much trouble to bother with? It has to do with the company’s ride-sharing side of the business, explains Uber spokesman Bill Gibbons. Uber can leverage the accumulated knowledge of its 44,000 active drivers in the area to know the fastest routes from restaurant to customer. This information not only helps ensure that the food arrives in good shape, Gibbons says, but also opens up more restaurant options for customers.

Grimes, the Marshall Heights resident, had basically given up on meal delivery services after multiple disappointments, but she decided to try Uber Eats in late March. She placed an order with Maketto, the hip H Street restaurant run by chef Erik Bruner-Yang. The food arrived in perfect condition, she said. 

“The driver actually came to my door,” she added. “I have not had this level of service in years.”

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