How customers got three well-known tech companies to provide equal service in DC

“As new companies promise a better, more open, more convenient future, these experiences make me ask, a better future for whom?”

After receiving an enticing discount to order from an app-based meal delivery service, Latoya Watson was ready to kick her feet up after a long day and get dinner delivered straight to her doorstep. Scrolling through her phone, she pulled up the app and typed in her address, only to find an error message: "Sorry! We're not available here yet.”

Immediately, Latoya understood the seemingly innocuous, but coded words. This lack of service to her neighborhood is something she has encountered far too often. She took to Facebook to vent:

Latoya lives east of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC. Home to a quarter of the city’s population, Wards 7 and 8 are also over 90% Black. The area is a food desert, with few options for healthy fresh foods. While the rapidly-growing meal delivery industry offers an opportunity to mitigate the effects of infrastructural disinvestment, most meal delivery apps including DoorDash, Postmates, and Caviar excluded east of the river communities. At least they did until Latoya started a Spendrise campaign they couldn’t ignore.

After reading a Washington Post article detailing similar frustrations from other residents, Latoya set out to take action. On April 4th, she launched her Spendrise campaign. She started with a petition telling Caviar, Postmates, and DoorDash to serve all of Washington, DC if they claimed to serve the city. Recognizing the power that customers hold, Latoya encouraged current customers of these delivery services and potential customers in Wards 7 and 8 to join her.

Latoya’s petition struck a chord with Washingtonians on both sides of the river. For east of the river residents, this lack of service was representative of so many other ways the area is underserved:

Tyrell H.: “As a native of Ward 7 I've watched other areas experience rapid growth to include new sit down restaurants and food delivery options. The lack of food options on the East End, unfortunately is one of race, this injustice must end!”
Evelyn D. “I truly believe that all people should be served equally not only politically but that should include food delivery as well. We all live in the same city and as a Ward 8 resident I'm so tired and frustrated [that] so many of the city services provided always stop at EAST OF THE RIVER. We are residents of this city as well.

Many also emphasized their purchasing power, aiming to dispel the myth that these communities are not worth investing in.

Bernadette T.: "UberEats gets all of the $500/mo minimum I spend on food delivery service, and I'm not unique. The residents in this community deserve equal access to ALL of the benefits to city living - but because you don't deliver, Uber and Amazon are making a killing off of me. Having a potentially discriminatory business model is not Smart, the optics are terrible, and you're losing money. Do better."
Lafayette B: "Everyone needs to eat and money is green. Why not?"
Kristal Q.: “This is a missed business opportunity. Wards 7 & 8 are food deserts. Few restaurants or grocery stores. With limited food options, a delivery service would make a killing if they serviced these areas.”

Current customers also spoke up to stand with their neighbors east of the river. Recognizing the power of choice, they articulated they would only spend at businesses providing equal service.

Melissa S.: “Excluding Wards 7 and 8 from your service area is unfair, possibly racist, and a stupid business decision. I'm certainly not giving you any more of my money until you change your policy.
Chris G: “There is no reason that I should have access to food delivery as a resident of upper NW, when Wards 7 and 8 are oftentimes located closer to your partnering restaurants. Until you begin serving ALL of DC's residents, I won't be using your services.”

In less than a month, over 800 people had signed Latoya’s petition, leaving hundreds of similarly impassioned comments.

Kicking off broad press coverage, a journalist and Ward 7 resident wrote a piece about the campaign for The Afro. Notable local blogs and newsletters such as The Hill is Home, 730DC, and Prince of Petworth also spread the word to their thousands of readers and followers. Washington’s NPR affiliate, WAMU, and local television outlets even covered the campaign!

As press attention increased and conversation continued to build through social media, a Postmates representative responded to Spendrise only two weeks after the campaign launch. She notified us that the company had heard the petition-signers and turned on delivery zones for Wards 7 and 8!

Hoping to capitalize on this development and subsequent articles published in The Washington Post and DC Inno, Latoya huddled with the Spendrise team to plan further actions campaign supporters could take to convince DoorDash and Caviar to follow suit.

Latoya started off by asking supporters to post on social media to raise awareness of Postmates’ exciting decision.

Then, Latoya and the Spendrise team came up with the idea of an “eat-in.” Spendrise is all about helping customers flex their purchasing power by spending together. In this case, what better way to do so than actually ordering food from companies that provide equal service?

This was the idea behind the “Eat-in for Equal Service,” organized through a Facebook event. To participate in the “eat-in,” Latoya asked all supporters to order from Postmates on the same day. The goal was twofold: to thank Postmates for listening to customers and choosing to provide equal service, and to show other businesses, specifically Caviar and DoorDash, that they miss out on valuable revenue and ignore a ripe customer base by failing to serve Wards 7 and 8. Latoya also encouraged “eat-in” participants to post a picture of their order with the hashtag #BridgeTheGapDC to bring this action to the public sphere.

Latoya announced the “eat-in” on Monday, April 23, and just two days later, even before the eat-in took place, Caviar responded to Spendrise. A representative confirmed that the company had expanded to serve the entire District, saying After hearing from diners, we turned on delivery service to Wards 7 and 8 earlier this week.”

Galvanized by the fact that two of the campaign’s three targets had taken action to change, supporters took to social media again to pressure the remaining business, DoorDash, to serve the District equally. At the same time, supporters also geared up and spread the word about the “eat-in.”

Late on Thursday, April 26, the night before the “eat-in,” the Spendrise team received an unexpected email. It was from a DoorDash representative, who said “Wanted to follow up here and let you know that as of tomorrow, DoorDash will have expanded our existing footprint to cover the remainder of Ward 7 and will be available in Ward 8.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that DoorDash decided to expand its service zone on the day of the “eat-in.” This shows the power customers have when they coordinate their spending power and commit to spending in a way consistent with the values of justice and equality.

With DoorDash’s announcement, the “eat-in” transformed from a call to action to a celebration of consumer power and the businesses who made a positive change. It reaffirmed that providing equal service is an expectation that customers have for the business they spend at. As part of the “eat-in,” supporters, including some restaurants, took to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to express their support.

Additionally, Delia Gonclaves, a reporter for Channel 9 news and a Ward 7 resident, featured the “eat-in” on a segment for the evening news!

Latoya’s campaign was able to make tangible impact, but her campaign has even larger implications. Together, supporters got companies to expand their service to a huge portion of the city that has historically been underserved. Latoya’s campaign also showed the immense power customers have in pressuring the companies they spend money at to do the right thing.

Innovation holds great potential for bettering society, but even innovation could reinforce existing inequalities. That is, until we come together and exert our power together. In this case, despite technology allowing us to cross boundaries we didn’t even think possible, these meal delivery apps only reinforced existing social boundaries until customers spoke up.

Lack of access to meal delivery and healthy foods is only one of the many ways in which Wards 7 and 8 are underserved. There are many essential services that the community lacks adequate access to, such as transportation and healthcare. Furthermore, “east of the river” communities don’t only exist in Washington, DC. Because of the history of segregation and redlining, underserved communities of color exist throughout our nation. There is still much work to be done.

But, the good news is that there’s a way you can make change if you, as a customer, believe in equal service. Everyone spends money. You can take the extra time to make sure you use services that don’t discriminate. And if you discover one of the businesses you use is exclusionary, you can come together with other like-minded customers to speak up with your dollars, and when that happens, companies listen.

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