The popular and staunchly independent Auckland eatery Coco’s Cantina has launched a ghost restaurant on UberEats, and it ‘shows that our industry is not in a healthy place’, says its owner.
Over the past couple of weeks, as they idly scrolled through the mind-boggling array of dinner possibilities, Auckland UberEats users may have noticed something new.
Offering the likes of pappardelle alla ragu bolognese, pasta alla norma, arancini and garlic bread, it is called Pronto Pasta – a relatively rare non-pizza-focused Italian option in the sea of mee goreng, burgers, curries and poke bowls. Scant details about the place suggested this was what’s known as a ‘ghost restaurant’, an eatery that exists solely to cater to the online delivery market.
The address listed was simply “West Terrace, Auckland CBD”. West Terrace is a little cul-de-sac that runs off Karangahape Road, right next to Coco’s Cantina, the eatery that symbolises either the perfect Auckland night out or insufferable hipster holier-than-thou culture, depending on your point of view.
It wasn’t long before savvy UberEaters put two and two together, and someone posted on Auckland dining out-focused Facebook group Lazy Susan suggesting Pronto Pasta could in fact be Coco’s Cantina.
It seemed unlikely. Coco’s founders, sisters Renee and Damaris Coulter, have been a voice for independent, ethical, owner-operated eateries for much of their decade in business, vocal in calling out big corporations and restaurant groups. They’ve described Coco’s as a socialist business. Uber, on the other hand, is a multinational behemoth that’s been accused of, among other things, underpaying drivers, evading regulation and having a toxic management culture.
UberEats, the company’s food delivery arm, takes around 30-35% from the price of every order delivered from a participating eatery. It’s been blamed for restaurants going out of business, not only through those hefty commissions but also by taking custom from local joints.
But it’s true: Pronto Pasta is Coco’s. Well, it’s not – Renee Coulter is quite firm about that. “I don’t want people to eat Coco’s food on Uber,” she told the Spinoff. For that reason, the menu is different, though regulars will notice some common threads. But also, “Coco’s is way more than spaghetti and meatballs,” said Coulter. “You don’t know who’s going to serve you, you don’t know who you’re going to see, you don’t know the conversations that you’re going to have while you’re waiting for the bathroom. And those things can’t be captured.”
So why are they doing it? The restaurant has a second kitchen that wasn’t in use – they upgraded to a larger one a few years ago – and hospitality is a tough gig. “Now we’re 10 and we’re hustling all the time to be more profitable, be more efficient, pay better wages,” said Coulter. “The easiest option was to investigate the delivery market.”
But it wasn’t an easy decision. “It was a hard call because Uber is Uber, but it’s also a hard call being in hospitality. Everyone is hustling. We’ve all been struggling for three years,” she said.
“People are doing anything and everything. Some of them have gone to iPads [for ordering] and got rid of their front-of-house team, some of them are doing pop-ups, some are doing link-ups with Wellington restaurants or going to Sydney, some are doing markets and food trucks on the side, some are doing catering, and some of them are selling.”
Making use of that idle kitchen seemed a much better option for Coulter, head chef Guilherme Bezerra and manager Petaia Unoi, all of whom have young children. “We could do this without having any major impact,” said Coulter. “All we need to do is kind of rejig the kitchen roster. But what other restaurants are having to do – work a Sunday market or do a pop-up or whatever – that’s just not that feasible for people who have got families and are trying to run businesses.
“We deliberated,” she said. “I was like, ‘OK, Uber is… Uber.’ But I advertise on Instagram, and I use the bank, and I Google, and my job as the boss is to work out ways for the business to cope better so that we can pay better so that we don’t have to work so hard and so I can give more consistent hours.”
Compounding the problem for Coco’s is the K Road cycleway, on which construction will start in a few months. A cyclist herself, Coulter said she supports the cycleway but the construction period will hurt business.
“There will be fallout and there will be casualties and I’m not going to be one of them. So when people for three months don’t come to K Road because it’s a building site and it’s shit and you can’t get a park, then I might have an avenue that’s going to keep us afloat when things are all going to custard. And it might not go to custard, but at least I’ll have a backup plan.”
She’s viewing Pronto Pasta as an experiment, an opportunity to get firsthand knowledge of what UberEats is all about, and, three weeks in, is undecided about the model’s viability.
“It’s just being proactive. I’m doing whatever I can to make sure I come out the other side of the cycleway project, of a year that’s tricky economically. Uber is for council and government to regulate and sort out, and I can better put pressure on those groups if I have all the information.
“Because if we can’t make it work – if we can’t make money from it under the umbrella of really strong management and great systems and a good understanding of product and having a kind of test kitchen to work out of – then it can’t be done.”
Coulter thinks the impact of UberEats on the hospitality industry has been overstated. “It’s too easy to put all of our problems on Uber. We as an industry had problems way before Uber got here and, yes, they have exacerbated things for certain areas of the industry, but they aren’t where it starts and stops.” The main problem for the industry in Auckland is simply too many restaurants, she said, and council should put a cap on licences.
Asked if the foray into UberEats conflicts with the Coco’s ethos, Coulter said: “Yes and no. Did I want to have this conversation? Not really, but I have to be bigger and braver because my responsibility is to my staff and to the wider community.
“And it would be easy for me to take the moral high ground and go ‘I’m not touching Uber with a barge pole’, but whether I want to be or not, I am a voice in our industry, and surely I’m going to have a better and clearer voice when I have all the information.”
Coulter has had some “robust conversations” with her sister about it, she admits. Damaris Coulter, who has stepped away from Coco’s to focus on The Realness, a business network and directory of independent, owner-operated eateries, has often been the more outspoken of the pair. Coco’s Cantina no longer appears on The Realness website.
“Uber and The Realness don’t really match up,” admits Coulter. “But Damaris understands that business has to function and she supports me as now being at Coco’s solely. And I understand the integrity of The Realness. It’s actually a sign of why we need The Realness more – the fact that Coco’s is even considering needing to use a platform like Uber shows that our industry is not in a healthy place.
“But yeah, we had some robust conversations about it, but we have always had quite open and big, robust conversations about lots of things that we’ve done in the business. All she cares about is Coco’s doing well and the staff being happy, and Coco’s still being in a position to support our community.”
Coulter expects some pushback, particularly from the “hardcore K Road and hardcore Coco’s” crowd.
“Sometimes Coco’s has boxed itself into a moral high ground. Of course it’s a risk. Did I want to get a call from The Spinoff in my second week of doing Uber? Not fucking really, but the fear of having some backlash cannot outweigh what is good for the business in terms of how do I reach the goals of paying the living wage, of freeing up some headspace and actually showing some leadership.”