It didn’t seem like so long ago that Berlin’s streets were full of cyclists wearing every colour under the rainbow, competing to bring you your takeout order. But the once-competitive courier bubble well and truly burst over the course of 2019.
The fight for Berlin’s online delivery market actually kicked off in the mid to late noughties, when German platforms like lieferservice.de, pizza.de and Lieferando started popping up. Those early versions, which were followed by Berlin-based Lieferheld in 2011, connected people at home to a catalogue of restaurants, while the restaurants themselves went on to make the delivery. This all changed in 2013, when new-wave players like the London-based Deliveroo, now active in 13 countries, and the homegrown Foodora, equally busy in 15 countries, appeared. These new platforms went a step further by providing their own delivery riders, which – on top of helping restaurants that didn’t have their own drivers – helped spawn a whole new economy. Hundreds of Berlin expats, students and flexibility-craving creatives signed up, attracted by the fact that all you needed was a smartphone and a bike to get started, no German necessary. Suddenly, the streets were buzzing with turquoise (Deliveroo), pink (Foodora) and, shortly after, orange (Lieferando), as hundreds of cyclists darted through the city en route to the next restaurant or apartment. Competition was fierce, but the cut-throat nature of the food delivery game ensured that Berlin’s streets did not stay colourful for long.
Lieferando takes over
Delivery Hero, the Berlin-based owner of Lieferheld, sought to take the lead, buying out rivals pizza.de in 2014 and Berlin-based Foodora in 2015. But the boot was put firmly on the other foot in April this year when Takeaway.com, Lieferando’s Dutch parent company, swallowed up Delivery Hero’s German operations for a cool €930m. The other big player, Deliveroo, seeing the writing on the wall and already facing pressure for its shady practice of treating its riders as self-employed freelancers, made a run for the back door, announcing on August 12 that it would be leaving Germany – before shutting up shop completely just four days later, leaving an estimated 400-800 (numbers are a well kept secret!) Berlin couriers high and dry. While they were offered a “goodwill payment” equivalent to 10 days’ pay, some have since taken Deliveroo to court, demanding the same benefits as other German contract workers. That left Lieferando as the winner, overseeing a Berlin fleet of around 250 riders. Unlike at Deliveroo, these couriers are hired as employees on mini-job or part-time contracts and get to use e-bikes, e-scooters and weatherproof orange gear provided by the company from their hub at Am Karlsbad, near Mendelssohn-Bartholdy- Park. According to Lieferando spokesperson Andreas Engel, these couriers only service about 100 of the 1500-plus restaurants in the company’s Berlin network; the rest use their own delivery staff. Friedrichshain and Mitte top the list of most-delivered-to-neighbourhoods, ordering mostly pizza, burgers and sushi – though vegetarian dishes and poke bowls are quickly gaining popularity. Now in a quasi-monopoly, Lieferando only acknowledges one rival. Per Engel: “Our biggest ‘competition’ is the phone – many Germans still order from restaurants directly.” But that isn’t entirely true, as former Deliveroo riders have started taking matters into their own bike baskets.
The grassroots alternative
Kolyma2 is a hyper-local delivery service that describes itself as the “post-Deliveroo experience”. The collective – whose name refers to the CIA infiltrator in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, not Soviet gulags – aims to act as a counterpoint to the often impersonal, app-based corporate model. “We thought that we shouldn’t just leave the whole market to Lieferando. We wanted to offer an alternative,” says co-founder Stefano Lombardo. And without access to sophisticated software, there’s certainly no arguing that Kolyma2’s operating system is different to the high-tech algorithms employed by the big players. “You write to us directly, either by text, WhatsApp, Telegram or Threema, then we ring the restaurant, make the order and deliver it,” Lombardo says. “You know exactly who you’re dealing with. It’s a lot more personal, but also a lot more work for us,” he grins. Kolyma2 quickly set up a network of 16 restaurants in Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Schöneberg, and before too long was making around 50 deliveries per weekend. While no chance of challenging Lieferando for market share, Kolyma2 rider “Johnny” says the motivation goes beyond pure finances. “You’ve got to earn enough money, of course. But what’s important is that we work together in a group, in a collective without hierarchical structures. At Lieferando, when they say you have to do something, you just have to do it.”
While the idea of running a hierarchy-free collective might be inspiring, the reality has proven to be somewhat challenging. With all of its members doing other bits and pieces of work to make ends meet, the Kolyma2 took a short break in November to reorganise, but is expected to be back up and running again this month. Despite this early hiccup, Lombardo is confident that there’s enough demand for little guys like him. “I think there are a lot of people in Berlin who’d prefer to support a collective over a massive corporate company, don’t you?”