AI Food on DoorDash

Reality bending, AI-generated cheesesteaks and pasta dishes are flooding food delivery services.
An image of an AI-generated cheesesteak and lobster roll.
Image: DoorDash / 404 Media

Dozens of Ghost kitchens, restaurants that serve food exclusively by delivery on apps like DoorDash and Grubhub, are selling food that they promote to customers with AI-generated images. It’s common for advertisements to stage or edit pictures of food to make it look more enticing, but in these cases the ghost kitchens are showing people pictures of food that literally doesn’t exist, and looks nothing like the actual items they’re selling, sometimes because the faulty AI is producing physically impossible food items.  

I first learned about AI-generated images on food delivery services last week after publishing a story about AI-generated images of food on Instacart recipes. Initially, a reader had tipped me about some strange looking pasta from a business on DoorDash called Pasta Lovers. 

There’s nothing immediately and obviously fake or offensive about the dish, but look closely and the pasta’s credibility begins to fall apart. Note how the cutting board near the top left merges with the table under the basil leaves, how the tubular penne openings have strange edges, and how the penne’s circumferences are widely inconsistent. Most of all, note the five-pronged fork to the right and how the gaps between these prongs somehow erase the cutting board underneath. Even if the pasta didn’t have any of these impossible physical traits, the image still has the overall too smooth quality that many AI-generated images share.

Strangely, this dish specifically is not available on Pasta Lover’s DoorDash menu, which includes many far stranger looking items. 

There’s a Shrimp Scampi featuring a shrimp with two tails, a Breaded Shrimp Parmigiana Pasta featuring unidentifiable breaded objects (no shrimp), and some Frutti Di Mare (Seafood) with Marinara Sauce that has some identifiable clams and calamari, but also a lot of creatures that look like they came from the mind of H.R. Giger.

Pasta Lovers is not the only restaurant using AI-generated images to promote its food. In fact, it’s not even the only restaurant at that same exact address to do so. Some ghost kitchens exist as unmarked commercial kitchens with no actual restaurant you can visit that simply fulfill orders for a variety of brands that only exist on the food delivery services. Other ghost kitchens piggyback on existing, real restaurant kitchens to fulfill orders for those brands that exist only on food delivery apps. Pasta Lovers’s food actually comes from Tony’s Pizzeria in North Brooklyn, which also fulfills orders for a cheesesteak brand called Philly Cheez, a hero sandwich brand called Hero Mania, and a wrap brand called That’s A Wrap. 

All of these brands deliver food from different ghost kitchens across the country, and all of them feature the same type of AI-generated images to promote their food, some of which looks ridiculous. 

The image for a 2 Liters Sprite on the Seamless page for a different Hero Mania location in New York, for example, looks like an appletini:

This roll of meat, cheese, and maybe basil with two breadsticks sticking out of it is Hero Mania’s “Prosciutto Mozzarella Hero:” 

I could write a short gothic novel inspired by the macabre carnival that are the images from the That’s A Wrap menu, so rather than assault you with many more words take a look yourself if you dare:

"Our team observed that several images have attributes of diffusion images, while also being wholly improbable in real life, Gaurav Bharaj, co-founder and chief scientist at the deepfake detection firm Reality Defender, told me in an email. "A piece of cake floating on top of the other without any affect on the layer below. Cheese that defies physics. The texture of the lobster roll looking like anything but bread. Furthermore, we observed incorrect perspective projections of shadows and reflections."

In order to determine just how misleading the AI-generated images of food on DoorDash were, I decided to order the most disgusting looking sandwich I could find on Philly Cheez, the Spicy Philly Cheese, featuring a bun that in some sections seamlessly becomes melted cheese. 

According to Grubhub, there are dozens of Philly Cheez locations across nine states, with multiple locations across multiple cities in each. Somehow, I wasn’t near any of them so I ordered the Spicy Philly Cheese to a friend who happens to be a Philly cheesesteak connoisseur.

This is what the Spicy Philly Cheese looks like IRL:

Taste is subjective, so I don’t know if these images do anything for you, but I would definitely eat this sandwich. It doesn’t look shiny or glamorous like the AI-generated photo, but it looks like an actual, human-made sandwich. 

My Philly cheesesteak connoisseur source, who asked to remain anonymous because he feared retribution from the ghost kitchen cheesesteak group, said that it actually wasn’t that bad. They gave it a 3 out of 5, and said the main issue was the choice of cheese—pepper jack—which was forced on them by the menu. Traditionally, Philly cheesesteaks have American, Whiz, provolone, or Cooper Sharp cheese. But considering that the Philly cheesesteak is one of the most commonly ill-prepared and overrated sandwiches in America (feel free to email me if you want to fight about this), a 3 out of 5 from a ghost kitchen is really not that bad. 

It was only once I was looking for someone who’d be willing to review the Spicy Philly Cheese for me that I learned that I’m familiar with the specific New York location for Philly Cheez, Pasta Lovers, and Hero Mania I initially got this tip about. I used to walk by Tony’s Pizzeria in North Brooklyn often, and have stopped in for a slice many times. It is a totally solid New York slice, and I was sad to learn that it needed to supplement its revenue by making food for these fake restaurant brands. 

I called Tony’s Pizzeria and after confusing the shit out of the person who answered the phone was passed to the manager who said that they do make food for Philly Cheez and other brands, but that he had no idea the food was advertised on DoorDash with AI-generated images. 

"I don't know who's doing that, they shouldn't be doing that, but who knows what's going on in today's world," he said. He also said he’d ask the owner and get back to me but I did not hear back. 

"We don’t allow the use of AI-generated images and if we find a merchant is using any, we will remove those images from their menu,” Grubhub, which also operates Seamless, told me in an email. However, at the time of writing the AI-generated images on Seamless I sent the company are still live on its site. “We know how important it is for diners to have realistic expectations of what they are ordering and should expect to receive, which is why we share image guidelines with our partners and our system reviews image submissions before they're allowed on our platform.”

“DoorDash is committed to showcasing realistic representations of meals that customers would receive when ordering online,” DoorDash told me in an email. “Showcasing high-quality, accurate, and realistic menu images is crucial for maintaining customer trust and generating sales through DoorDash Marketplace.”

DoorDash didn’t tell me that AI-generated images of food were forbidden, and the AI-generated images of food on its platform I sent the company are still there at the time of writing. However, DoorDash said that Common Rejection Reasons for merchant-uploaded menu photos on DoorDash include “the photo does not properly represent the item" and restaurants are advised to “only submit photos that you have taken and have the rights to display.” DoorDash also said that restaurants are encouraged to schedule a complimentary photoshoot through DoorDash if they can’t provide their own photos. 

However, in a post on Reddit’s r/restaurantowners community from nine months ago, one restaurant owner said that they were unhappy with the DoorDash provided photographer, and that might explain why the AI-generated images exist on DoorDash in the first place. In the post, Conor Bolich, owner of SideDish, a company for "virtual" restaurant brands that partners with real restaurants and that has 20 locations across the country, said that using AI to generate images is easier than paying a photographer. 

“After working with a number of photographers over the years, I was never fully happy with the results,” he wrote in the post. “The photographers sent by DoorDash seem to be especially bad, and there's nothing worse than a couple hundred dollars of food cost and babysitting someone for an afternoon only to have garbage come out when you get the pictures back, which happened like 5 times to me.”

Some of the virtual brands that SideDish operates includes CLUCK! Nashville Hot Chicken, Nice Burger, and Bloom Asian Kitchen.

Bolich shared the human-made photographs and the AI-generated images of food, and said “Overall I am quite pleased with the results, however I will caveat that it is still somewhat high effort.” The owner also shared the specific Stable Diffusion model and settings they used. 

"The Reddit post I made is still true and is largely representative of the struggle getting of getting good food photos," Bolich, who said he's been in the virtual resturant space since 2018 and founded SideDish in 2020, told me in a direct message. "However and it is important that you call this out: we do not do pure text to image AI generation anymore. We do image to image. We start with a real photo we take and use the AI as a super image editor."

Bolich explained that SideDish now uses Fooocus and Topaz AI to make AI-generated images of food, and that they offer clients photos as a service on a quarterly bases.

"Our analytics suggest refreshing menu photos regularly has a meaningful impact on the algorithmic ranking within the restaurant feeds," he said.

This is all incredibly depressing. A local pizzeria can’t get by unless it makes sandwiches for ghost kitchen brands, the people who make a living taking photographs of food are being displaced by AI tools, and gigantic food delivery apps are still making money by taking a cut from restaurants and screwing over gig delivery drivers.

It’s not at all surprising that DoorDash menus are one of the first places where we see AI starting to take over. Much like a horny user who is frantically bouncing from tab to tab searching for the right grandma porn video might in the moment settle for an AI-generated GILF, I too have spent many high and depraved nights browsing Seamless for the the perfect sandwich or pizza, looking at images I know were not representative of what I’d actually end up eating. Fast food commercials famously meticulously stage and doctor photographs to make the food seem much more attractive than it is in reality. We know that professionally produced porn is not like real sex and that a Big Mac in a commercial doesn’t look like what you actually get when you buy one, but it doesn’t matter. With both porn and late night fast food browsing, we are shopping for a fantasy. 

AI-generated images of food that people can order and eat finally brings us to a shockingly literal manifestation of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra. Baudrillard would say the Spicy Philly Cheese from Philly Cheez is “never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.”