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Having food delivered used to feel like a very decadent thing to do in Tbilisi. Probably because our neighbors, who tend to be ever judging, would scurry to their windows at the sound of a full throttle motor scooter bouncing up our cobblestone lane. “What’s that they’re doing?” we could imagine them mumbling, watching us walk out as if we’re making a drug deal, self-conscious and counting out money only to hurry back home with a couple of pizza boxes. Nobody had meals delivered in Georgia.

It didn’t take long, however, to get over our insecurity. When a takeout sushi joint opened a few blocks away, we called them to deliver instead of making the five-minute walk to fetch the maki rolls, simply because we could. Talk about decadent. But delivery, like fake sushi, was a novelty we soon tired of, although it was catching on in the rest of the city.

By 2018, two foreign-owned companies with franchises around the world had arrived to dominate Tbilisi’s delivery market: Wolt from Helsinki and Glovo from Barcelona. The city streets began to fill with the zig-zagging madness of kamikaze Georgian food couriers on mopeds. And then the coronavirus arrived.

Thanks to the pandemic, delivery is no longer a gimmick but a lifeline for both restaurants and consumers. For Wolt and Glovo, who make a commission of roughly 30 percent on restaurant orders, Covid-19 has been a godsend. Bolt, an Estonian-based taxi app, also got into delivering food during the second wave.

While restaurant owners were sweating over their future and grumbling about the high costs of delivery, IT specialist Levan Kiladze was developing a locally owned delivery app to better serve his city. He understands the difficulties restaurateurs face, as his company, Lemondo, is also the owner of tickets.ge, the online ticket service that had made going to the cinema and theater a smooth experience before the pandemic paralyzed everything.

Together with Kraken, a digital marketing agency and a group of local investors, Levan introduced Tbilisi’s own delivery service, Elvis (from the word elva, which means “lightning”), last August in “demo mode.” It took five months to work out the kinks before Levan felt confident enough to jump in and take on his competitors.

“We fine tune the service on a daily basis,” Levan explains.

Although he claims to be entering the market late, Levan asserts Elvis can be a leader because it is by nature more flexible than his competition and understands local needs better. The company is free to make any improvement they want in the app and can do so quickly because they answer to no one but themselves. Customer and client feedback can be dealt with directly.

Levan asserts Elvis can be a leader because it is by nature more flexible than his competition and understands local needs better.

“They [Glovo and Wolt] have centralized IT systems; a single working model that is duplicated in other countries. To make a change in one, they have to make a change everywhere. There’s a lot of bureaucracy,” Levan says. “It is easier for us to make risky decisions.”

In early February, a group of Glovo food couriers went on strike and rallied at the company office to protest unfair working conditions. Reduced pay, unreasonable working hours and undelivered tips were among the main complaints. While Glovo has met some demands, workers’ rights remain a contentious topic throughout Georgia. “If you don’t like it, leave” is a common refrain in a country where the official unemployment rate is around 12 percent (unofficially it is believed to be much higher).

“Couriers, in general, are heroes,” Levan asserts. He says Elvis monitors delivery grievances in the Facebook groups couriers have, listens to their suggestions and pays more per delivery than the competition. “We’re new, we listen and adjust. We’re shaping a team,” he adds.

The team includes the restaurants Elvis works with. It is important, Levan says, to build a relationship with their clients. Restaurants like Salobie Bia started using Elvis because of their better rates and efficiency (that said, exact numbers are hard to come by when it comes to commissions and other fees collected by these delivery apps). Being a homegrown start-up is a bonus, too.

While the other apps include grocery and the delivery of other consumer goods, Elvis only does meals for now. For groceries, Levan set up moitane.ge, which means “bring it” in Georgian. He may integrate them later. One problem Levan sees with the other services is that couriers are not trained shoppers. “They don’t know how to find a ripe avocado, for example,” he says. Moitane’s drivers, however, are trained to pick produce at its prime.

Levan and his partners are looking past the pandemic at a society that is getting more digital by the day. They see a growing demand for IT products and haven’t ruled out expanding to other countries. But first, he stresses, they have to work twice as hard as their competitors to catch up.

“They started in Europe in 2015, we are a bit late,” Levan says. “But I think it’s great that a small team in Georgia can compete with large multi-million dollar companies. We’ll catch up.”

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Paul Rimple

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