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Food delivery apps fueled alcohol sales to minors, California regulators find

The state began investigating after The Washington Post looked into a software loophole that allowed unsanctioned alcohol deliveries on Uber Eats

An Uber Eats food delivery courier's backpack. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

SAN FRANCISCO — California regulators have found food delivery apps facilitated a surge in alcohol sales to minors after the state relaxed restrictions on to-go cocktails and premixed drinks during the coronavirus pandemic.

An April investigation by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control revealed that “third-party delivery services are routinely delivering alcoholic beverages to minors,” according to an advisory posted by the regulator last week. The investigation was prompted by a Washington Post report detailing how Uber Eats had turned into a rogue cocktail bar, delivering alcoholic beverages without following the new regulations.

The relaxed restrictions permitted restaurants to deliver alcohol to go provided it was paired with a meal, came in a sealed container and was transported in a hard-to-reach space such as the vehicle’s trunk. The courier also needs to ID the recipient upon delivery and ensure they are of legal drinking age. On Uber Eats, The Post found, drinks were left on doorsteps without any interaction and came in readily accessible cups with straw holes. The beverages were also ordered independent of meals.

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The arrangement was particularly problematic for drivers because they could have potentially been held criminally liable for unknowingly delivering alcohol to minors or intoxicated individuals under state law. The restaurant would also risk losing its liquor license and restaurant employees could be charged for selling to minors.

The state ABC investigation mirrored The Post’s findings and officials said they found “significant violations of the law" by all the major delivery apps tested, though they declined to name the companies.

Jacob Appelsmith, director of the department, said in an interview that the department ordered approximately 200 alcoholic beverages over the span of several weekends and had them delivered to individuals including decoys under 21 years old. While bars and restaurants logged a 25 percent failure rate, meaning they had sold to a minor a quarter of the time during the tests, delivery apps logged a “much worse” 80 percent failure rate, he said. In 4 in 5 instances, that meant, a minor could successfully order an alcoholic drink on a delivery app.

“Most concerning is that minors are routinely able to purchase alcohol through delivery from restaurants,” the ABC said in its advisory. While restaurant employees made the offending deliveries in some instances, “a far greater rate has been evident among third-party delivery services,” the department said.

Appelsmith said he personally phoned representatives of the delivery services in an effort to inform them of the abuse of their apps. After that, he said, subsequent tests “still had a 50 percent failure rate among the delivery services which was very disappointing,” adding the numbers were "really abysmal.”

Uber, DoorDash and co-owned Caviar, as well as Postmates, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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Uber Eats doesn’t allow alcohol delivery by default on its app, but some restaurants listed cocktails anyway. Because Uber doesn’t provide for that option, it doesn’t provide a system to check IDs like other delivery services that do allow alcohol.

Services such as Postmates, DoorDash and Caviar have measures in place like ID scanning and delivery guidelines for safe transportation of the beverages, along with requiring signatures to be collected in some cases.

The ABC said that on some of the apps, however, the delivery guidelines were ignored.

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In addition to deliveries to minors, the department said it found other violations in its tests of restaurants and apps such as businesses providing drinks without meals, placing the cocktails in cups with masking tape over the straw hole or coffee cups with stoppered sipping holes, and couriers placing beverages in their cars’ passenger compartments.

State regulations don’t permit the department to sanction the delivery app companies themselves, so the penalty would fall on the delivery driver and the bar or restaurant where the drinks originated, Appelsmith said.

“There’s a more fundamental problem, which is the drivers aren’t paying attention to what they’re being told to do so the companies need to figure out a way to get them pay attention,” he said.