Disclaimer: This is an opinion based on my personal experience with Zomato and facts sourced from online news publications. It is, in no way, intended as a form of attack on the subject party or its reputation.
Zomato used to be my go-to app for online food delivery and I used to love it. So much that my sister and I used it almost every week (and often more than two times a week even) to order food from random “ghost kitchens” across Navi Mumbai. When we ‘got bored’ with popular delivery-only kitchens like Faasos and Behrouz Biryani (owned by a single parent Rebel Foods) along with our favorites nearby from our apartment, we experimented with new ones. Suggestions that Zomato recommended would be a better choice based on our location, ordering habits, and perhaps order history too. Such an amazing piece of food tech; I thought it was one of the best things to come out of India’s startup boom. An app that ensures I never have a bad meal, makes me a better foodie, and never lets me sleep on an empty stomach.
But then after using it for nearly three years, it kicked me in my stomach. It took some time to hit me that under all that glam – zany ads still discussed in marketing circles and various LinkedIn posts, exciting features and discounts, talks about being a unicorn startup within just five years of inception, very deep pockets, international presence and associations, and a leader in the sector – it was still a business. An entity that aspires to become fully profitable (possible paywall) someday using the same model that it used to fondle my taste buds. It took me consecutive order gaffes, a few interactions with its customer support, some web research, and a visit to a hospital to realize that it was not really servicing me. But slowly turning me into a junkie who would soon become helpless without it, and worse, grow addicted to it.
I was not going to have it. So, I permanently deleted my Zomato account in January 2019, deleted the app, and wiped all its data from my smartphone to never look back. I haven’t yet tried my hands on other headline-grabbing restaurant and food delivery aggregators like Swiggy, Uber Eats, and Foodpanda, but I’m sure there is little difference between them and Zomato much like there’s no difference between all the telecom companies in the world. I use Vodafone’s cellular network and I cannot stand it. Not because it overprices its service but because it regards me as a milking cow. Which makes me note that my issue with Zomato is part of my larger issue with corporatism, a problem that I am very well a part of, and to an extent, even have benefited from.
It is also the reason why I recently turned down a close friend’s request to join his new business. I just do not agree with the idea of a business that exists only for the purpose of profit-making. And sooner or later, in these harrowing times, every business does stand the risk of turning into one. Most young entrepreneurs incubate their startups with “good monies” in mind. Only a very few don’t make that transition and that is why you never hear about them.
Let’s not digress. Here are a few personal reasons why I don’t use Zomato anymore and perhaps never will.
One Too Many Menus
Ordering food through Zomato is easy and it hardly takes a minute to do so after you have selected the items off the menu. It’s absolutely fantastic, and the only other app that comes close to the same convenience is that of Oyo Rooms. Ola’s Android app is the worst.
Once my sister and I began experimenting with different outlets, ordering items that sounded international enough to give them a try, we started experiencing the real issue at hand. Because a lot of these “ghost kitchens” (also known as dark kitchens or cloud kitchens) – outlets that only deliver food; no seating arrangement, only online ordering – vie to get more orders every day of the week so that they can sustain in the long run, they maintain multiple versions of their food menu. One for food delivery aggregators, one to be added in the flyers that would be disseminated locally through newspapers and whatnot, and one for their own website which would eventually be used to attract customers before they can say goodbye to Zomato. The prices in all these versions are different, some tweaked to bear the extra costs that the restaurant has to spend as overhead. This approach makes sense because there has to be some incentive if your target user takes interest, registers, and buys from your own website rather than through third-party apps. The concept of multiple versions of a food menu works until it doesn’t.
Zomato prefers its restaurants to add the menu items through its backend system rather than upload screenshots of the actual menu. Although, I should add, it does allow them to upload the screenshots for users who may want to call and order. What this sometimes results in is errors in the prices as well as the menu items. There can be duplicates, erroneously inflated prices, and even mismatch in the name of the dish and the actual dish that gets wrapped and sent out with the help of law-breaking delivery boys on decrepit scooters.Zomato has been in the news for a variety of wrong reasons including ridiculous work conditions for its delivery boys who have often been caught stealing from the orders they are fulfilling. (“Zomato delivery boy seen consuming food from sealed orders in a video” – ETtech, 11 December 2018)
Although Zomato, India’s largest restaurant search portal, has guidelines to ensure that menus are uploaded with proper price tags and itemization, I have experienced discrepancies in their prices several times. The eateries that do not allow ordering through the app but require you to call and order often charged me extra. Because you don’t know what the total bill will be after listing your items and because you sometimes forget to ask and because most people assigned the job of taking telephonic orders in these low-cost dark kitchens do not have basic hospitality etiquette, you sometimes wait for the order to arrive and along with it the bill with a total cost that’s nowhere near what you expected. One plate of Vegetable Pulao for 350 rupees? The menu said 220!
The aggregator may not have anything to do with such incidents, but it does play a major role when you order through the app. Take, for example, the time when I saw two instances of the same dish: Chicken Tandoori and Tandoori Chicken. A food vlogger or critic may try to distinguish between them simply because they feel it’s expected of them, but for someone like me who only knows that chicken and tandoor go and taste well together, it makes no difference. Both are the same to me, yet the price mentioned against them were not. There was a difference of over 80 rupees between the two. I ended up ordering the costlier one (one full plate) just because I thought this would actually be the first time I order Chicken Tandoori and rejoice at the quantity. I was wrong. I tried contacting the customer support but they were busy structuring a social media-worthy conversation with me. I went offline.
All of these minor issues that came between me and my food ordering journey irritated me but I still kept ordering because you crave for things that you cannot yourself make. And dining out is a massive attack to one’s anxiety meter these days.
Ease of Listing
I used to receive (and still do) so many flyers at my house sent out by new eateries in and around my location, inviting me to order food from their kitchens through one of the aggregator apps, that it became difficult to not take a look at their menus offering delectable food and exciting discounts that would put a smile on my wallet’s face. No foodie can ignore an offer that lets you enjoy four different appetizers in less than the cost of a six-month second-class suburban local railway pass from Thane to CST.
I, along with a lot of my friends and relatives, wondered how so many dark kitchens were mushrooming by the day. I have been staying in a Navi Mumbai node for more than a decade now and it is only in the past year (since mid-2017) that I have observed so many new restaurants and delivery-only entities coming up. A quick search on the Zomato website for restaurants that would deliver to my place gave me 464 different listings to choose from. That’s roughly one restaurant per 10,000 square meters of area if I include all of Kopar Khairane and parts of Ghansoli, Bonkode, Turbhe, and Vashi.Because this does not necessarily mean that the outlets are in Kopar Khairane only. The list contains ALL the outlets that are willing to deliver to my address, which is why these places were also considered. My apartment is just less than the tenth of that.
There’s only one reason for that: ease of doing business. In other words, ease of listing online.
Had it suddenly become so easy to get certificates and licenses from the local authorities to run such outlets? What with so many of them coming up in every block and nook and corner in Kopar Khairane itself, I would believe so. Was it so easy to get an entry into the Zomato database? Well, not if you just go by what’s on the surface.
According to its website, it is easier to create a listing for a new eatery than it is to achieve a verified user profile, a possible gimmick to attest their hard work in creating an unbiased platform with genuine user-generated content (UGC). For a listing, just supply basic details like address and contact numbers, and you are ready to go. However, India Filings reports that you will need a lot more than that. Along with the eatery registration and shop act license, you will also need a Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSAI) license (the most important) and a Goods and Services Tax (GST) registration certificate. Zomato then collects and verifies these documents and the information in them before making your outlet’s listing live on the platform.According to a Medium article by The Indian Restaurateur (cited elsewhere in this editorial), Zomato also engages in surveying and addition of restaurants at its own will without the solicitation of the restaurant owners. While the listing goes live without the knowledge or approval of the owner, the owner cannot control it unless he ‘claims’ it. This has been seen as coercion by the author. (The Zomato Story – 26 March 2018)
Recently, two more things have been added to this list of requisites: fire safety license (especially if it’s a restaurant with proper seating) and food hygiene ratings. Earlier in 2018, founder Deepinder Goyal himself penned an article titled “Responsibility” on the Zomato blog announcing their move to put up scanned copies of safety licenses on listings, where he also mentions that at the time of publishing that information was available only for a handful of restaurants. What number might that be among its over 1.2 million listings across 24 countries is a mystery to me, but Goyal seems optimistic about the “complex, deep, and systemic” problem of the increasing number of life-threatening fire hazards in restaurants (the Kamala Mills tragedy of December 2017 has been cited). Two months before that deadly incident in 2017, Zomato had also claimed that it rolled out food hygiene ratings for restaurants by tying up with third-party auditors who would provide a detailed assessment of establishments, which could then be presented as a badge on their listings.
But I have my doubts. Despite the long list of requisites and so many fancy terms and gimmicks to ensure that I never have a bad meal, never end up in a place that violates fire safety rules, and never sleep on an empty stomach, it is difficult for me to trust Zomato. Especially when Goyal again claimed to have delisted non-compliant restaurants for not furnishing the FSSAI license. My question is then: how did the listings go live in the first place?
It is in my imaginative power to connect the dots and assume that Zomato closed its eyes far too many times to let a massive wave of profit-making businesses use its model to market and sell food to unsuspecting customers like me. It knows that there are no users without merchants. Which would justify the uptick in demand and investment activity that food aggregators received from 2017 as reported by Salman S H in Livemint. The report further says that Zomato was lucky enough to get good backers as early as 2016 when it first started grappling with issues such as fake reviews, spurious listings, and listing discrepancies. To quell this and to continue showcasing its worth well to its investors, Zomato was forced to welcome the wave without a flinch. Result? Ill-aimed restaurants going hostile on their innocent, hungry audience.
Fake Reviews and Some More
It is perhaps the biggest, unsolvable menace for Zomato. It has been trying with all its might to fight fake reviews through various operations that are described and named in a way they somehow reminded me of Uber’s transgressing Greyball tool. I am referring to its Project Fairplay.
When I removed Zomato from my phone, I had a basic account with a handful of reviews, zero photographs, and some personal information in my profile. Although its concept of “foodie levels” had pushed me to post more reviews and updates so that I could become an “expert” in Kopar Khairane (especially after seeing that the expert in Vashi was a teenage kid), and eventually receive free food offers from new restaurants looking to market themselves in exchange for a clean 5-star rating, I stopped spending my time to create content for the aggregator and used it only to order meals and book tables, and in a few rare cases, pay for food online using its partner in crime, Paytm. I stopped reviewing after an online wellwisher pointed out that I was only helping Zomato get more free UGC.
Much like Google’s Local Guide and Amazon’s Vine programs, Zomato depends on its end customers to produce unique content. The incentive here is a badge on your profile that you can boast about on Instagram. Perfect for its primary target audience.
Although Zomato does not permit restaurants soliciting reviews (which it calls ‘bribery’) in return for free food and an Instagrammable experience, it does happen, rather blatantly. And the aggregator conveniently closes its eyes again. It’s a straightforward process and one that also helps Zomato register new users into its system whom it promises to never let go. (Days after deleting my account and hours after blocking Zomato from sending me promotional text messages, I still received them. To this day I see messages asking me to order through the app to get a certain discount. I like to believe Zomato still has my phone number.) Top users who have been solicited pass the “free food” message to their friends and followers and eventually the website becomes a haven of free food grabbers. While that helps it gain unique users, the side effects are life-threatening. Fake reviews, fake ratings, fake comments, leading to an overall artificial experience for the end user.
A restaurant with huge financial backing without proper operating licenses can easily get inside the Zomato database, ‘game the system’ through planted reviews, run a few ad campaigns on the app (to titillate the ‘moderator’ so that it can close eyes a couple more times), and then begin its onslaught on hungry customers.
Although it claims that it has been trying to weed out the menace of false reviews from violating customers or fake users, there hasn’t been much impact. In October 2017, Zomato’s then Chief of Staff Surobhi Das introduced the concepts of ‘blackmail’ and ‘bribery’ and also suggested a basic feature to help obliterate them. While blackmail means customers asking for a free meal in return for a positive review, bribery, as we just saw, sees the roles reversing. She continues: “These are nascent but growing problems at Zomato, and while our machines and neutrality team do a stupendous job at identifying and mitigating the menace, we decided to create a larger systemic fix for the issue.” And then ends up suggesting the fix: a “Report Abuse” button which restaurants can use to report reviews that they think are non-genuine. Four months later, then Associate Vice President of Product Marketing Tanvi Duggal followed up and wrote about the aggregator’s anti-bias and anti-spam algorithms which would help them get rid of and prevent fake reviews. If they caught a restaurant indulging in such an activity, they claimed they would put up a ‘shame banner’ on top of their listing. In the one year since I used the app since the announcement, not once did I see an instance of a shame banner. Zomato knows better than punishing its restaurants.
Zomato has been around for over a decade now and still hasn’t been able to find a proper solution for fake reviews. In its defense, I would agree that it’s an unachievable goal. As someone who has professionally handled brand reputation for different brands, I can attest to the burgeoning menace of fake reviews online. It is just a sibling of the larger menace of “fake news” that we have been dealing with lately. Amazon has tweaked its product reviews system countless times to tackle the issue in vain. There are millions of products across its regional websites that bear artificial reviews posted by genuine customers who just said yes to certain merchants getting in touch with them on private email for a modern barter deal. This is a part of an actual email I received on 2 February 2018 from an Amazon dealer selling fitness bands and Bluetooth speakers: “I would like you to help me in the promotion of my products online by posting a positive review about the products…” Even as Amazon advertises and asks local businesses to shake hands with it, fake reviews enter the system through media that’s always one step ahead of its algorithms. Notably, Zomato’s acquisition of US-based review platform and Yelp!’s competitor Urbanspoon in January 2015 did not yield results either, which is why it shut it down five months later.
For a tech-savvy Internet user who does not blindly follow and believe in everything written online, especially on such sites including the leader of the lot, Quora, detecting a fake review is easy. For example, an obvious red flag is a 100% positive review. Sometimes the tone itself can help you understand if the user is being genuine or if money exchanged hands in the back. Detecting a fake account is easier: a history of only positive reviews on a profile with the possible use of emojis?
As long as there is competition, there will be fake reviews and there’s nothing that Zomato can do about it. Such reviews deceive the end user and do not provide an original opinion about the service that is being sold. Service that goes directly into the user’s body, which is where and why things start looking grim. This malpractice is one of the primary reasons why I don’t use Zomato.
Interactions with a Careless Lot
If Zomato’s indifference in subjects important convinced me about its wickedness then a few interactions with their customer support is what made me hit the deactivate button. The incident with the support trying to play funny with me above is a real story. Because there was nothing they could do about it, they instead engaged in banter. I chose to not continue.
But I detected the peak indifference in Zomato’s overall brand when I once interacted with them to complain about a mouldy dish. Other than the fact that it takes a good 10-15 minutes to make the support personnel understand the issue, there is a serious lack of connection. Most of the responses you get from them (over the chat function) are rigid templates that sound like they were churned out by a robot. Moreover, they deliver it in a tone and language that implies that they are written in stone and there’s no way you can circumvent them. That is both a good and a bad thing.
Of course, as a business, they have to stick to their policies, but I doubt their customer support has ever resolved an issue, and if they did, resulted in satisfaction to either party. The problem is with their substandard chat program and a sheer unwillingness to be fluid. For instance, you cannot cancel an order once placed through Zomato. Even if it has just been five seconds. There’s no option to do so. The best way, therefore, is to contact customer care, engage in banter with them, and hope to get your chat screenshot featured on ScoopWhoop, and then boast about it on Instagram, because you just lost the chance of boasting about your lunch order because something just went wrong with it, didn’t it?
My Visit to the Hospital
There’s no evidence that my Typhoid diagnosis was related to my food-ordering habits through Zomato. So I will refrain from hinting at it. The consulting doctor only told me that the root cause of my ailment was ‘consumption of uncooked, undercooked, or stale food’. This was the period when I was ordering a lot of food from delivery-only outlets. I am accusing them. My point here is about the lack of food quality standards in restaurants that deliver through Zomato.
In August 2018, after it found that licences and registrations of around 40% of all restaurants listed online across various channels were not verified, FSSAI underlined its order (possible paywall) to Zomato and other food delivery apps to delist unlicensed entities. While most of them responded in the positive, suggesting that they were trying very hard for the ‘greater good’ and ‘the larger benefit of food safety in India’, they were very possibly unperturbed by the order. In its Terms and Conditions as of 5 July 2019 (updated on 31 January 2019), Zomato states that “…the liability of any violation of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 and applicable rules and regulations made thereunder shall solely rest with the sellers/brand owners, vendors, restaurants, importers or manufacturers…” and goes on to reiterate that it won’t be liable if the food that you order is not up to your dietary requirements.
Swiggy and Foodpanda have this condition phrased slightly differently but the meaning is just the same, which excuses them from any issue or litigation that may arise from an unsuspecting user who gets diagnosed with a disease because of consumption of ‘bad food’. (Unfortunately, there’s no way to put two and two together and prove that a person got ill because he consumed so and so from a dark kitchen which he ordered through an aggregator app.) This is the reason why I assume they don’t care about restaurants checking off all the items in the health and safety list. The idea of such an enterprise is mind-boggling. Uber can confirm too.
The problem of unscrupulous food outlets delivering unhygienic food to clueless users is not novel. Such restaurants have existed before and people have ordered from them even before Zomato entered the scene in 2008. The change after the arrival of delivery apps can be described as two-fold: one, the birth of and subsequent rise in delivery-only food outlets (which were nonexistent before and which, unfortunately, have pushed many diners to death due to increasing losses and competition), and two, unpunished continuation of businesses or ‘bad actors’ who provide low-quality service.
Let’s take an example: You order from a new restaurant, and when the food arrives you are not happy with it or the service or some other aspect of it. So, you retort through the only ways available to you (rant on social media or rate the restaurant negatively or contact customer support), and then you forget about it. If the restaurant already has a good reputation – which it may have through fake ratings and reviews – your review is a black dot on a white paper, and the effect it will have on the business or its operation continuation is zero. There’s even the possibility of your review being flagged down through the use of tools facilitated by Project Fairplay. And that rant you posted on the Facebook page? Well, it does not take much time for a few lines of text to get buried when the platform you are using generates millions of such media by the hour.
There are many customers who have reported such cases, as Rajitha Menon writes in Deccan Herald. “Until a customer personally knows the place from where he or she is ordering food, one cannot trust the place,” she ends the article citing an expert on the matter. At the time of publishing, Zomato had 170 unique reviews on TrustPilot with an average overall rating of ‘bad’ (72% users gave it a negative rating against the 17% who thought it was between ‘good’ and ‘excellent’)It has a TrustScore of 1.5 out of 10. Foodpanda 1.1 out of 10 with 81 reviews. UberEats 0.3 out of 10 with 5200+ reviews. . It figures because TrustPilot allows companies to only respond to the reviews. Then again, even the Danish review platform is not immune to bogus content.
When you order from a delivery-only food outlet, you don’t see the place where the food will be prepared or the front desk from which you can grasp a good enough idea about its cleanliness standards. You only see the food menu and the images of food posted by the outlet’s employee and fellow users, some of whom may have been paid to do so. Here you are depending on two entities: the food outlet and the aggregator app, both of which exist to turn their businesses into profit, one way or the other. While the outlet not maintaining safety and health standards is a topic for discussion for some other time, the point that I wanted to focus on here is the lax attitude of Zomato. It does not help create trust.
As a counterpoint, when you visit a restaurant for lunch or dinner, the onus of ensuring that you are not walking into a death trap and that you will be served healthy and fresh food is on you. When you are ordering food online through an app, it falls on the mediator. But, as we have seen above, Zomato and other apps exist only as a medium for you to order food. It gives you plenty of options to choose from, gives you the ability to pay online, and then throws you under the bus if anything goes wrong with the food. The responsibility of ensuring you don’t end up in a hospital remains with you, rendering the existence of an aggregator useless to some extent.
Zomato has always been a business, but has only turned into an unfriendly one recently, as planned or otherwise. Unfriendly at least in my eyes. (And I recently found out also in the eyes of restaurateurs.) And I use that word carefully not because it takes its customers as hostages to raise more money, but rather because it has a direct impact on people’s eating habits, and more importantly, their health.
Conclusively, I like to believe Zomato has all the resources to fight its demons and bounce back as a people’s service, correcting what went wrong for it and aiming at doing what’s right. People in India seemed to notice when it recently disrupted the system, but if it somehow also manages to shift the gaze at the things that really matter, it will enjoy a better time serving its customers who would turn into loyalists. That is why I am not entirely dismissing the possibility of using it in the future. I can’t say when that will happen or if it ever will, especially considering there are reports about it getting nearer to its profit-making position. All I can say right now is that I do not agree with the brand in its current form. TN.