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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The outdoor dining area of the Flying Squirrel is seen on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in Chattanooga.

Are food and beverage delivery phone apps such as UberEats, DoorDash and GrubHub actually helping America's struggling-to-stay-alive restaurants?

For Max Poppel at Flying Squirrel and Jake Raulston at Naked River Brewery, using Dinner Delivered, a local service is the better option for several reasons.

"They're local, competitively priced and their customer service is stellar," Poppel said. "Plus, when I call, I talk to a real person right away."

Raulston said the same thing.

"They are absolutely fantastic. I feel like some of the others, and I won't name names, are complete scams. At least for us they were. Maybe it works for some of the bigger chains. We don't have the big profit margins. We don't even have a freezer. Everything is fresh."

A recent survey by Chicago-based marketing company Highland found 64% of Americans have cut back significantly on eating at restaurants, either dining in or taking food out. That helps explain why nearly 100,000 have gone out of business in the last eight months, according to restaurant.org.

The same story reported sales for restaurants across the country were down 34% on average, and an association analysis shows the food service industry is on track to lose $240 billion this year.

Meanwhile, DoorDash stock soared almost 86% percent after going public on Wednesday. That's in spite of the fact that it has lost money every year since coming online in 2013, according to an AP business story.

To make up for lost revenue as a result of either reducing the number of eat-in diners or eliminating eating in all together, many restaurants here and elsewhere have either added delivery for the first time or tried to increase their delivery volume.

They've either added drivers to their staffs or partnered with food delivery companies that allow diners to order from a variety of restaurants via their app. Some can charge as much as 30% plus the delivery charge for using them. For smaller restaurants already operating on thin margins, that can be tough.

But it can also increase overall sales and reach new customers. Locally, Diamound Brown said DoorDash and GrubHub help her deliver her soul food fare she makes at Chatty's Restaurant in the Avondale area to people she would not normally get to feed.

"Not everyone wants to come to this neighborhood, and not everyone wants to eat in a restaurant right now, so it's been good for me," she said.

Raulston at Naked River Brewery said adding a delivery option already comes with added expenses for things such as straws, forks and knives and containers that will keep the food hot or cold without making it soggy, for example.

"And, everything we use is recyclable, so there is an extra expense," he said.

Raulston said some of the national delivery app companies demand that restaurants cut the prices of dishes on their menus as much as 30% so the app can then charge the price listed and take that 30% as their cut.

In other words, when you go to the online app and look at a restaurants' menu, you would still pay the $10 for an item, but the restaurant only gets $7.

Dinner Delivered General Manager Aliyah Wilson said her company negotiates the percentage price with the more than 200 restaurants it services in the region. It has around 500 drivers in cities including Cleveland and Maryville, Tennessee, Dalton, Georgia and, of course, Chattanooga.

Wilson said being local gives Dinner Delivered a competitive edge and that customer service is paramount for them "because we want the customer and the restaurant to use us again and again. We work with the restaurant on the upcharge fee, and we cover taxes and the credit card fee.

"For us, when you call you get a real person, and if you have a problem and call you either get the same person you talked to or someone sitting next to that person," she said.

Wilson said if an order is delivered incomplete, a delivery either makes it right immediately or a refund is issued.

"If an order sits at the restaurant for too long, they will call us to see what the delay is, or if they need to remake the order we cover that cost.

"We try to make it as simple for the customer and the restaurant as possible," she said.

As the weather warmed over the summer, Poppel said, the Flying Squirrel added more outdoor seating and stopped offering delivery. But, now that it has cooled off, they are using Dinner Delivered again.

"We don't have the staff to do it and they are terrific. They are very transparent about everything, and they answer when I call," he said.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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