When one well-known U District coffee shop closed for good, a third-party delivery app barely seemed to notice. In July 2020, Cafe Racer — the longtime artsy hangout and performance venue — decided to permanently shut down its location at 5828 Roosevelt Way NE. But until February 2021, Uber Eats continued to take orders from customers who saw the menu posted on the app and thought it was still open.
Owner Jeff Ramsey tells Eater Seattle that when the business first made the decision to close, he contacted all the third-party apps the cafe used, including Postmates, Grubhub, and Uber Eats, and tried to cancel services. But for weeks after, Grubhub kept processing orders, as did Uber Eats. While the orders from Grubhub eventually stopped, Uber Eats continued apace. Ramsey estimates that he received at least three calls per month through early 2021, whether from actual orders or robo calls from the company asking Cafe Racer to reactivate the delivery option. The robo calls kept coming, even through this week.
“Every time I get a phone call, I send an email or I make a phone call to say please turn us off,” says Ramsey. “It has been constant.”
Money occasionally hit the Cafe Racer bank account, then got taken back out once the error was noticed. Ramsey says his own phone is the contact number connected to the app, so he has consistently received calls from delivery drivers who arrived at the former location only to find it completely vacant.
“My problem isn’t so much the calls — it’s that somebody is seeing Cafe Racer open [on the app] and they’re excited,” says Ramsey. “They want some item from our menu that they love or want to experience. And then they get this big letdown. I don’t know what the customer on their end is thinking. I don’t know if they look at it negatively toward Uber Eats or if they look at the cafe negatively. Either way, their experience is less than stellar.”
An Uber Eats spokesperson says, “Uber Eats works hard to make our processes as merchant-friendly as possible, and that clearly didn’t happen here. We apologize.”
Technical difficulties with third-party apps have been going on for quite some time. Even before the pandemic, many restaurants — including Lark on Capitol Hill — complained about being listed on various platforms without giving permission (some never offered takeout in the first place). As COVID-19 began impacting the hospitality industry, tensions over high fees came to the forefront. In April 2020, Seattle instituted a 15 percent cap on all third-party delivery apps, which has since been instituted statewide. But deeper issues surrounding the relationship between restaurants and apps do not seem to be dissipating.
Ramsey says third-party fees were so high that, even when his business was active on the apps, Cafe Racer didn’t make much money off delivery — it was more of an amenity for loyal customers who may have wanted to retain a connection to the place from home. He notes that the constant emails he’s sent to try to fix the Uber Eats problem have been an inconvenience, but the potential to lose future customers was of greater concern. Cafe Racer continues on as an online indie music radio station and is currently on the hunt for a new location, which Ramsey hopes will debut sometime in 2021.
For years after it opened in 2004, Cafe Racer had been known as a great place to see live music, as well as a cool coffee and beer destination. Then tragedy struck in 2012 when a gunman shot and killed four people inside the cafe. The owner at the time, Kurt Geissel, almost closed the cafe for good afterward, but the community rallied around to keep it open.
In 2017, when it looked like financial woes would end up closing the place for good, Ramsey stepped in and bought the place. In the years that followed, he turned it into more of a family-friendly spot with omelets, Benedicts, and corned beef hash for brunch. Up until the pandemic, it had continued as a popular local hangout. But once COVID arrived, it became a challenge to keep things going at a limited capacity, and Ramsey made the decision to close once the full scope became apparent.
Hopefully, the issue with Uber Eats will be fully resolved soon. The company assures Eater Seattle that Cafe Racer’s account settings have been set to prevent any future orders from being placed, and Ramsey recently received an email from Uber Eats that it is addressing the case, even as some calls continued. “I’ve only gotten four or five robo calls in the last week, which isn’t terrible,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll get three or four day. As far as I know, they’re in the process of trying to shut it down.”
In the meantime, the search for the new Cafe Racer landing spot is starting to narrow, and Ramsey hopes to have better news to announce soon.