A Gant Rant: Appy But Unhappy?

In which our newest local correspondent confronts the modern world

I have increasing misgivings about restaurant apps.

Nobody likes a phonewall, Jackson.

There’s that new Taco Bell app, for instance – the one featured in this CNN article – that’s a sort of subscription service for tacos.

This sounds like an interesting idea at first - but it doesn't give you a little plastic card you put in your wallet and scan at the register like rewards cards of old. Nope, this can be bought by "members of the rewards program who have downloaded the Taco Bell app."

That Taco Bell app also has "online exclusive" items, like quesaritos. Any Taco Bell has the components to create them, but you can't just ask for one at the register or punch it in on the touchscreen kiosk. Have a smartphone, download the app, accept its permissions, and then you can have that kind of food.

Another example: A few weeks ago, The Boyfriend and I went to Chipotle, for we had a powerful craving. The ordering app already doesn't let you make certain substitutions (like asking for rice without big grody cilantro leaves in it,) so we went in person. I got my cilantro-less barbacoa bowl the way I wanted it – but The Boyfriend, who wanted a burrito, could not get one.

You see, they were low on tortillas.

They were not out of tortillas; the tortillas were right there. But online orders got priority for them, so in-person orders couldn't get them. No first-come-first-served, no sign on the door to say "We, Chipotle, Are Not Serving Burritos To Anyone Who Comes Through This Door."

There are now dishes that are exclusive to app users – and non-exclusive dishes where app users have the only access.

Like when they offer any rewards/loyalty card, the restaurants expect to more than make up for the savings. Most folks won't redeem free tacos every day – and maybe not even enough times to break even. Even if you do redeem a free taco every day for 30 days for $10 a month, how likely are you to get a drink, too? All you have to do is buy a medium drink on just a third of those days, and they break even. Or a small drink on five days: Smalls cost $1.99 when mediums are $1, because they can.

(I’ve had a stable, decent income for five years now, and I'm still trying to break the habit of buying-more-food-than-I-need-because-it’s-a-better-value-that-way-and-I-don’t-want-to-waste-money, and this sort of thing doesn't help – but that's another matter.)

You might say it shouldn't matter if access to fast food is gated behind some app. “Fast food's a treat, and so is having a smartphone at all, and a ‘real’ poor person who responsibly doesn't have a phone should never be eating fast food, either.”

(You might also have the assumption that the fast-food-eating poor folks have easy access to grocery stores, time enough to cook each night or to do a big meal-prep once a week, etc., etc. But, again, this is a whole other matter. All I'm gonna say is, when you're lucky if a bus comes every half-hour, it feels real dang ill-advised to sit at the bus stop on a hot summer afternoon with a grocery bag fulla perishables. You buy a quart of milk, you take home a quart of yogurt.)

But it makes me worry. There are plenty of folks who don't have smartphones, still, for a host of legitimate reasons. Those things are still expensive! Even when the app itself is free, the device isn't, so that's a few hundred dollars of paywall. And there are data security concerns: Just what permissions do you grant these companies when you install the app on this device that you carry on your person everywhere you go, every day? They can change their terms of service as they please. Change things slowly enough (or often and confusingly enough, but with rewards/spin,) and who knows? Maybe the app’s going to track location data. “No waiting - it's ready when you come in!" Maybe it'll track a lot of other user data for profile-building.

A brief tangent:

Our local Walgreens has, inexplicably, big giant screens covering the freezer cases now. It shows general promotions for the contents – soda, snacks, dairy, etc. – until approached, and then it switches to a digital display of what's inside and how much it costs. But you still have to open the door to see what they have in stock. I can't really understand the advantages to this system. It doesn't keep the cold in, if people still have to open the door. It doesn't let someone see the packaging of their favorite soda (or a curious new one) from aisles away. So where's the cost advantage? In user data-tracking, as noted in this Vox report, "the new freezer doors have cameras, motion sensors, and eye-tracking capabilities, which allow them to guess a shopper’s gender and age, as well as note how much time they spend looking at individual products. The screens use this information to select which ads to display and which promotions to show. According to the Fast Company piece, they can even figure out 'your emotional response' to individual products."

Our Walgreens freezers don’t show ads for specific products yet. But they probably will soon. Maybe with QR codes for coupons.

If phonewalling access to food is okay when it's a fast-food treat, when else is it okay? What about drugstore freezer-case food? Scan the QR code displayed on the freezer case to unlock it and then you can get to the ice cream. Nobody needs ice cream, so it's fine, right?

We could just phonewall all the junk food – the obesity epidemic disproportionately affects low-income people, so this would be helping them, right?

Okay, I said it was a whole other matter, but seriously: Low-income people often lean on fast food, frozen food, and preservative-laden easy-prep pantry meals precisely because they've got the best value of price-per-ounce (and, yes, price-per-calorie) and because there are lower opportunity costs in terms of preparation time and energy and clean-up time. Also because those foods are more shelf-stable and keep longer – so, if your time and energy is both limited and fluctuating, you don't end up having to throw away good fresh ingredients because they've gone bad before you can actually afford the time/energy to cook with them.

It should be a treat to eat junk food; but the way wages and prices and available time have changed (or not, as the case may be), sometimes it seems like a liability not to. It kicks the costs down the road, for certain, and maybe even increases them – with healthcare costs, medication costs, and even potential loss of wages since some studies show that people are less likely to hire or promote the obese – but, man, sometimes you just want to eat today, y'know?

Anyway.

It's one thing to try to reward customer loyalty … but if you also put in hurdles so that only certain consumers actually get to, well, consume? That's vexing.

Because, also, you know these things are going to incorporate more rewards tiers. And they're going to integrate more of that consumer data, so that, even if you pay through the app, you’ll be seeing and paying a different price than the people around you. There's something that feels fundamentally unfair about this. This phonewalling establishes a notion that not everything has to cost the same amount to everyone, or to be equally available to everyone.

I say "establishes" – but, really, it's "further entrenches."

Because, well, why not food? It's not like we don't already accept this for other necessary services.

“Consumers! Pay your monthly taco premium to guarantee access to tacos! If you don't subscribe to taco insurance, however, you'll have to pay full-price at the register every time. Taco insurance only covers tacos. Drinks are elective procedures not covered by this policy, no matter how salty the taco may be. Burritos may seem close enough to tacos that they should be covered, but they'll be subjected to a full charge. The premium is still charged regardless of whether tacos are redeemed, and regardless of whether tacos are even available for redemption when you attempt to access the service. Prices and participation may vary; offer valid only at participating locations; Taco Bell may or may not tell you whether what you want is in-network until you're in the door and attempting to access the service. Thank you for enrolling in TacoCare!”

Everything's a subscription.
Everything's a service.
Everything's a racket.


A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle