I’m riding a bicycle in Leiden, the Netherlands. I’ve done this a thousand times before but this time, I’m on an e-bike and a giant orange bag is on my back. The rain pours down and soaks through my jeans and shoes. Water drips from my helmet into my eyes. The wind whips across the road and for a second I think I’m losing my balance. I can’t see the directions on my phone because the phone mount case is fogged over. I have three minutes to deliver the food order in my bag and I can’t figure out which of the apartment buildings I should enter. My kind companion, a Leiden Scoober courier captain who’s riding beside me, points me to the right building and saves the day. I walk up four flights of stairs, deliver the order to the happy customer, take a deep breath and turn back to the captain. “Respect,” I say. “Seriously, respect to all of you.”
From the day I signed my contract with Just Eat Takeaway.com, I wanted to be a Scoober courier. Starting in summer 2020 I’d seen the number of orange-clad couriers in Leiden explode, but I hadn’t paid much attention until I joined Takeaway.com as the Logistics Research Lead. As a researcher, my whole career has been about finding the best way to advocate for someone else’s reality, whether it be talking to them, observing them or living their reality myself. When I took the job, understanding the courier experience became my responsibility. Time to hop on a bike and deliver some food!
Not that I wasn’t apprehensive. I started watching the couriers, biking around with bulky orange coats and enormous orange bags strapped to their backs, navigating through traffic and rain with precious cargo: other people’s dinners. I was going to do that? I worried I’d fall, mostly. I wouldn’t be able to handle the weight of the backpack. I worried about the exposure. I usually work alone behind a laptop. Now I would be in public, under the scrutiny of restaurants and customers and traffic enforcement and the general public. I’m an introvert. I don’t want to be approached all day with nowhere to hide. And it wouldn’t be easy to hide looking like a giant construction cone.
After a couple of weeks getting to know some Leiden courier captions and being onboarded as a courier, my moment arrived. At the hub, the captains set up an account for me, gave me a jacket, and explained how the bag works. I held my breath as I swung it on my shoulders. I felt like I was going to the airport, or to the moon, once I put on my bike helmet.
I headed out with one of the captains. He ran a couple of orders with me shadowing him. Then the moment arrived: I switched myself to available in my app. A second later, I heard a notification. “You have a job!” the captain said. I accepted it in the app and made my way to McDonalds. The order was ready, so I placed my bag onto the floor, double checked that I had the right food, and smiled and thanked the McDonald’s employee. I placed the food in my bag and zipped it shut with trembling fingers. I put the bag back on my shoulders then realized I needed to be more careful — I was carrying someone’s meal! I got out my app and confirmed I was on my way to the customer. We left the restaurant and walked out into what was now pouring rain.
I made my way to my bike, a million thoughts racing through my mind. I thought about the route I would take — the app lets me navigate but I couldn’t see my screen through the fogged-up plastic cover provided with the phone holder. As I unlocked my bike, I smelled a cheeseburger. It took me a second to realize it was coming from my bag. I jumped on the bike, feeling a huge responsibility to get this right. “What are you doing?” the captain asked. “You can’t ride your bike in the Beestenmarkt.” Just like that, I’d forgotten a major traffic rule. I apologized and jumped off, careful to not jostle the food.
We were on our way, the rain pouring down. The wind picked up right as we entered an open stretch of road and I gritted my teeth, hoping to keep my balance. The captain shouted directions behind me, and we eventually pulled into a parking lot with buildings all around. I had no idea which way to turn.
“Even numbers on the left, odd on the right!” He shouted. I nodded but realized I’d forgotten the apartment number. I stopped my bike and wiped at the screen, pressing the plastic down until I made out an even number. I looked to my right and saw three buildings to choose from, and looked back at the captain.
“It’s that one!” he said, pointing, and we cycled over and got off our bikes. My hands were shaking at this point. I remembered all the steps: Lock the bike. Turn off the battery. Take your phone out of the holder. Put your mask on. Ring the bell.
Four flights of stairs later, and out of breath, we arrived at the door. The customer already had it open, and I pulled the bag off my shoulders, set it on the ground, unzipped it, and stepped back. She pulled her food out, smiled and thanked me, and closed the door behind her. I took a deep breath. Mission accomplished.
I was triumphant until we got back to the hub and the captain evaluated my performance. A couple of missed hand signals plus the moment where I’d biked in a forbidden area meant that I failed the assessment. That’s right — if I had been actually applying to do this job, I’d be rejected. Lucky for me, the captains are giving me another chance. I’m grateful because I certainly don’t want this to be the end of the adventure. Next time, I’m determined to pass.
Until then, I’ll leave you with the impression that this experience has made on me, a now two-month-old employee of Just Eat Takeaway.com:
- Couriers are the connective tissue of our business. My day-to-day work life consists of sitting at home, behind my laptop. I see no restaurants. No customers. But the Scoober couriers? They see both, all day long. They are the link between these two pillars of our business.
- Couriers have an invaluable story to tell. Their work exposes them to information and intricacies we all need to hear. This goes beyond essential aspects like job satisfaction or a well-functioning app. They are the experts of their own experience, but they also know things about our restaurants and our customers that none of us are aware of.
- Couriers are the face of this company. Even if people don’t order food through our app, even if restaurants haven’t signed up or don’t use our couriers, we all live in a world where the Scoober courier is omnipresent on city streets. Scoober couriers are visibly representing our company to the population as a whole, and by suiting them up in our orange gear, we made them that way. If you’re not (yet) convinced by the first two points, consider this one. This is a hard job, and we owe it to them to make them damn happy doing it.