If you're anything like the staff at Tom's Guide, you tend to order lunch delivery quite often. And from what we can hear, none of us are calling those orders in. That's indicative of a national trend. According to research firm NPD, Americans are on the verge of ordering more food online than over the phone, a trend that is being enabled by an ever-growing list of apps. But which app offers the best experience?
We forced staff writer Henry T. Casey and intern Ilyse Liffreing to choke down a week's worth of delivered dishes in New York City to answer that question for you. Henry, 30, has been ordering lunches into offices since 2006, and is not afraid to spoil himself if the situation merits a decadent meal. While he's not against cooking, Henry just never finds the time to prepare lunch in advance. Ilyse, 24, is a grad student on a budget. She's a self-professed foodie, but has never opened a cookbook and doesn't trust herself in the kitchen.
Both, though, tend to download as many apps as they can to make sure they're using the best option. If there's an iOS Twitter client, Henry's probably used it — and possibly (gasp) paid for it. Ilyse can spend hours searching through apps to make her life easier, faster, more fun, etc.
While these apps aren't the only options to bring food to your plate — some apps send someone to the grocery store for you, while others provide only dinner — we need these services the most at lunchtime, when we can't pull our eyes away from our work.
We used Caviar, Eat24, GrubHub, Postmates and Seamless because of their dominance in the market. While our experiences differed, one thing we can agree on is our overall favorite: Seamless. Its great search options, order tracking and dense restaurant index give it the edge.
* (as of 7/30/15)
Seamless dominates in search capabilities, which you may find useful when trying to pick from among the 6,944 restaurants that they've partnered with in New York City alone.
Not only can you refine your search by rating, price, distance, delivery minimum, fees, new additions and deals, but the app also offers 77 cuisine options. And it's useful to search for multiple choices simultaneously. When Ilyse wanted to order beef lo mein, Beijing (no, not the capital of China) rose to the top of her list of restaurants because she sorted by ratings, trusting in her fellow users' experiences.
Unlike the other meal-delivery apps, Seamless only allows you to pay by credit card, though its website accepts PayPal. Cash is also an option for certain restaurants. You can choose to receive text message updates to track your order.
Seamless wins because while it has a tie for the most restaurant options, its interface empowers the user to make an informed decision thanks to best-in-class search.
Ilyse appreciated Seamless' spunky personality when tracking her food, with lines like "Our crystal ball estimates your delivery time between 1:20 p.m. and 2:20 p.m." The large time window almost took away her smile, though.
Henry had heard all of the complaints about Seamless' redesign, but he didn't find it difficult to locate the order-tracking and past-orders features, hidden behind a button in the upper left corner. What did irritate Henry was that the list view for restaurants gives too much space to the secondary information, which means you can only see three options in a single screen.
Caviar has its own staff of food couriers to deliver your meal, which is the feature that truly sets the premium services apart. You have a 1:1 relationship with the staffer that has been assigned your order, so you're not just a stop on a route with many customers.
Unfortunately, these great options and service come at a relatively steep price. Caviar orders have a $2 to $5 delivery fee (which is less than Postmates' $3 to $8.50 fee). Then there is an 18 percent service fee — which might not bother you if you always tip a solid 20 percent — that's in lieu of any chance to tip. However, that is twice as much as the default tip that Postmates pushes (9 percent).
Beautiful pictures of tantalizing food tease when you open the app. Another premium aspect of Caviar is that they can get you food from restaurants that don't have their own delivery services, like Momofuku Má Pêche and Otto's Tacos in New York City. Unfortunately, Caviar's search options pale in comparison to those of Seamless, with only 17 cuisine-based filters to choose from. You can also filter by price.
Testing out Caviar, Henry ordered a pork shoulder dish from Momofuku Ssäm, and it arrived hot and on time. The app allowed him to see the status of the order, and pinpointed the location of the delivery person on a map inside the app. While the taxes and fees added up to 40 percent of his total order, that's the price you pay when delivery is a service in and of itself. Henry's more than fine with mandatory tipping, since he keeps finding himself ordering with that one friend who refuses to tip a solid 20 percent.
Ilyse's favorite thing about Caviar is its easy-to-use and clean interface. Even though Caviar has amazing pictures and idyllic service, there is that pesky 18 percent service fee. That's steep for her small pockets, and she would prefer to add on a tip in the amount of her choosing. This would give her the freedom to better appreciate great service.
While our intrepid eaters disagree about its aesthetic, GrubHub's first screen does a good job of presenting users with buttons for important features. With just one tap, habitual diners can go to their previous orders or favorites, and a search box lets you type in the dish, restaurant or kind of food you're looking for. It's a wonder GrubHub knows to put these options up front when Seamless, which GrubHub acquired recently, hides some of those options off in a side menu.
The app's search is limited to one cuisine at a time, something Henry found to be an annoying limitation. When you can go for a burger or for tacos, you can select both kinds of restaurants in the same search using Seamless, but not in GrubHub. Without great search options on GrubHub, Henry didn't feel confident that he had made the right choice in his sushi order.
Ilyse's ordering on GrubHub was even more seamless than on Seamless. She disagrees with Henry about the limited search options. Keeping search to just one cuisine actually made it easier to choose sushi for lunch. (She's one of those people who can take forever deciding on food.) In her opinion, the fewer options, the better, and the app's 6,944 restaurants could take a lot of time to sort.
When she opened the app, she was happy to be greeted by a quirky cheeseburger that says, "Time to eat, friend." Yet, GrubHub is the only app that does not place any pictures by their restaurant options, making ordering a meal duller than cold French fries without ketchup. This app is where our reviewers disagreed the most, though, as Henry isn't a fan of that cheeseburger guy or GrubHub's textured-paper backgrounds and playful aesthetic. He'll turn on Steven Universe or Adventure Time if he wants a childlike atmosphere.
Before his order arrived, Henry discovered the app's Easter egg, a side-scrolling game called GrubRunner. It's not for him, but even his cold heart can respect it as a clever move to distract customers from their appetites while they wait.
Just like Caviar, Postmates employs an army of food couriers to pick up your order and deliver items from exclusive partners, including Shake Shack (take that, lunch-break-long lines!). Skipping those lines to get lunch for both of us delivered comes at a high price, though.
Postmates has the highest delivery fee of any of the apps, at $8, which is already more expensive than Caviar ($5) and can get even higher thanks to the surge-pricing method, similar to that seen in Uber. All that cost comes before a 9 percent service fee, which is a baseline standard the app has for tipping, which you can add on to if the service deserves it.
Postmates has its perks, though. It's looking to win over customers with delivery-fee-only deals, in which you can get a specific meal or drink (like a cheeseburger and fries from Five Guys Burgers and Fries) for free; you just have to pay for delivery. The app also gives you the ability to track your delivery person on a map (like using Find My iPhone to locate a missing device), and call or text your driver.
The app's experience is not entirely luxurious. If you want to discover a new restaurant without scrolling through the whole list, Postmates can frustrate. It offers only a text-input field, as opposed to Seamless' search box and filters by cuisine, prices and customer ratings.
Henry has had a number of poor experiences waiting on his food to be delivered over the years, so he's fond of the power that Postmates provides. Ilyse thought that was a bit of overkill, that these munchies messengers could get overwhelmed with all the customers like Henry chiming in throughout the delivery process. Still, she thought the mouthwatering food photos made ordering from Postmates delightful.
After the courier marks the order as delivered, though, you lose that power, as Henry discovered. Even though the delivery person had marked the order as delivered — which takes away the contact options and launches the tipping window — his order from local favorite Caracas had not been delivered. He then had to contact Postmates via phone and email to get someone's attention. The courier arrived while he was on the phone with customer service.
Eat24 features its parent company Yelp's user-generated photos and reviews, which are so rich in quantity that none of the competing apps can compare. Like GrubHub, Eat24 accepts credit cards, PayPal and cash. While it has a lot of restaurants, more than either premium service we reviewed, GrubHub and Seamless both have more than twice as many options.
Unfortunately, it suffers from one of the same issues that plagues GrubHub's search engine: It lets you select only one kind of cuisine to search for at a time. The post-order placement window uses space on your screen well by presenting an ETA countdown for delivery, order status and contact buttons in a very easy-to-understand series of buttons.
While that sounds like all the fixings of a good-to-average app experience, Eat24 dampened what could have been a good time with a plethora of loading messages. Ilyse made note of cute messages during those load screens ("Currying Curry," "Massaging Mozzarella" and "Twerking Tacos"), but she thought Eat24 took things too far by describing its app as "Like a food truck in your pants." Once she got her appetite back, she noted that the layout of Eat24's menu made it easy to order a dish of pasta and a slice of cheesecake.
While Henry liked the amount of photography on Eat24, he doesn't really want a food app that relies on Yelp's review database. He's most often found it to be the place for people to complain about bad table service, which isn't that informative for someone getting a delivered meal.
As a student, Ilyse cannot afford the delivery fees of Caviar and Postmates, so that leaves her with three options. She will be keeping Seamless on her phone. With the app, she has a plethora of restaurants to choose from and a ton of filters to help narrow her search. She also prefers the app's design and personality over those of GrubHub and Eat24. With Seamless, she doesn't see the need to ever open a cookbook.
Henry went into this project looking to definitively prove which app was best at getting him fed during the long workdays when he actually would forget to eat. He's going to keep Caviar on his device for when he needs to go all #TreatYoSelf with an awesome meal, but for everyday ordering he's sticking with Seamless. Sure, Grubhub has a game and easier access to his past orders, but it's not as good at helping him discover new options.