When I first moved to New York, I lived in Ridgewood, Queens. Hardly what people have in mind when they think "New York City." I remember the broker showing us the "roof deck" (heavy on 'roof,' light on 'deck') where, if one squinted, the faint outline of the Empire State Building could be made out in the distance. Bright Lights, Big City, baby.
Despite the outer borough-ness of this first apartment, it had everything I expected from an NYC apartment. A tiny bedroom, a neglectful landlord, a broken shower, and bizarre roommates. More importantly, it had a grocery store a five minute walk away, a bodega on the corner, and a perfectly serviceable greasy pizza joint two blocks down. Because my bedroom was nine feet by 12 feet and the "common area" was the kitchen, the idea of getting groceries delivered would have been a laughable concept, because any excuse to get out of the house was a good excuse.
I bring all this up because after my story about 15-minute-or-less grocery delivery services got published, a reporter named Matt Newberg from a publication that covers the tech/food industry called HNGRY emailed me with a few insights. Among other things, he pointed out that "JOKR (and pretty much everyone else) stole its idea from Getir, which has been around for 6+ years" and hyperlinked to a Financial Times article from last year. In that article, a Getir co-founder said, "We’re democratising laziness...It’s like having a butler for a dollar or two.”
Meanwhile, JOKR founder Ralf Wenzel told me his company's customers are hurried urban professionals or parents who have better things to do than grocery shop.
On the surface, these sound like two incompatible descriptions of the exact same service. One is about how productive its customers are, the other how lazy they are. But I read it as two people approaching the same point from different ends. These services use venture capital to subsidize an inherently inefficient service that replaces your labor to get your own food with someone else's. At some point, venture capitalists may get tired of footing the bill. They also may not. In either case, someone is paying for the butler. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of labor saving, because all of this requires even more labor, on aggregate, than simply going to the store yourself. It's just other people's labor, and to a certain type of person, that doesn't count on the ledger. Whether that person is too lazy or too busy to consider it is besides the point. Someone has to do the work. The math simply doesn't check out. You can't have a democracy of servants.
Which is one of the many reasons I find these ultra-fast grocery startups fundamentally depressing. The idea of getting things delivered to my door in minutes does not excite me, in much the same way I didn't find the humans in Wall-E aspirational. I like going outside. I like interacting with my neighbors, even the extremely religious one next door who worships Mike Pence of all people, thinks Jesus can cure my migraines, and vaccines are a global conspiracy, because despite it all he's a very nice and cheery fella. I like saying hi to the woman who is always smoking on her porch, even if, for four years, all we've done in smile and wave. And I love getting to know all the cats in the neighborhood. These are all "inefficient" interactions, in Silicon Valley parlance—well, maybe not the smile and wave, I barely have to break stride for that—but it's hard to imagine my life without them. The walks to and from the store is one of the many urban spaces where and when life happens.
I see a lot of reasons why businesses like this shouldn't be allowed to exist—you can read about some of them in the article I wrote—and very few why they should. There's a difference between being pro-business and pro-oligarch. One can be in favor of competition and disruption but against unproven business models funded with billions of dollars in capital provided by a handful of super rich capitalists.
I keep coming back to one basic point: There is something unsettling about an economic system that spends billions of dollars to provide a service for someone who doesn't want ice cream badly enough to put on their pants and go downstairs and get it but is willing to make some stranger do it for them. When we allow a handful of VCs to radically alter urban life over and over again to satiate their own peculiar, guttural whims, it's worth asking what we're really allowing, and for whom. I think all possible answers are deeply unflattering.
Reader Christine wrote in with the following question: "What does Ralf Wenzel like about living in New York?...What does he do for fun here? What makes it worth it to him?" To be perfectly honest, Christine, I didn't ask him. I should have. It's a good question. But I'm guessing it's not something that could be found in Ridgewood.