Buyer Beware: MealPal’s Discounted Lunch Deals Have an Expiration Date

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 12: Businessmen take a lunch break in London's financial district on August 12, 2009 in London, England. The Financial Services Authority have today outlined new rules on how financial institutions should determine pay and bonuses for their staff. The guidelines aim to avert the current problems in the financial sector by linking compensation far more closely with the long-term profitability.

Let’s talk about takeout. Oli Scarff/Getty Images

One of my colleagues here at the Observer wrote a convincing post on the new pick-up-and-go lunch service, then called MealPass (since rebranded as MealPal), about a month ago. After reading it, I joined up. I bought the 12 meal plan because I knew I wouldn’t want it every single day.

It cost $83.49 for me to buy 12 meals, which worked out to $6.96 each (with tax, I guess—they never sent a receipt). That seemed fine, but at the end of my 12 meals it automatically charged me again without any kind of notification. MealPal is still invite only. I didn’t have the same experience as my colleague, sadly. I’ve cancelled my account, and thought readers might be interested in my reasons.

On the face of it, I liked the service, mostly. I discovered some new places here at the tip of Manhattan that I might not have otherwise tried out. At most places (but definitely not all of them), they had my order ready when I showed up, though local places were not nearly so good about doing so as the chains. I liked skipping the line and having it instantly so much that I learned not to go to places where they waited for MealPass users to show before making it.

As soon as I got going with the service, I dreaded logging in on the web each day, because it took 15 seconds or so for the page to load (I never used the app). Plus, after you’ve had a lunch, it adds a popup asking for feedback about your last MealPal lunch. Do you have time to assess your lunches? I don’t. That’s why I bought a service to make it all go faster.

There’s no straightforward way to skip the question box, but you can lie and click a tiny link at the bottom that says “I did not have this meal” (even though you totally did). These delays seem shortsighted. People abandon pages that take longer than two seconds to load.

On the other hand, MealPal always opens with a screen that shows you every single meal in the system in New York City. The first thing I did, every day, was limit the offerings to vegetarian options that were in my office’s zip code. I’d put building the service to respond to a user’s daily selections earlier on the product roadmap than daily nagging.

One night a few weeks ago I went all through the settings to make sure I didn’t have some sort “automatically renew” option selected, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. “Fine,” I thought, naively, “they won’t charge me if I don’t authorize it, so I’ll just say ‘no’ when the notification comes.”

It never did.

I had my 12th meal on Friday. Sunday night, I got an email prompting me to put in my order for tomorrow. “Let’s just check and make sure everything is okay,” I thought. I logged in, suffered through the page load, lied to the feedback screen and then opened up my profile.

It said I had 11 meals remaining.

I was miffed, so I logged into my bank account to verify that I’d been charged another $83.49. I had.

Now, I bought 12 meals and used 12. Then, I got charged again for 12, but my account only showed 11 (resulting price per meal: $8.59, a full $2 above the advertised $6.39). How had my plan shrunk?

I joined what’s now MealPal on August 23rd. I got an email when I did, letting me know their meals are “prepared to perfection” and explaining I can “skip the line.” What the welcome email doesn’t say a word about is billing or cancelling. To sort that out, a user needs to dig into the terms of service. Internet denizens love to read terms of service.

You’ll find this in its terms:

Recurring Billing. By starting your MealPal membership, you authorize us to charge you for your initial membership period and a recurring membership fee every 30 days at the then current rate, which may change from time to time.

These terms would be fine if the company communicated them in a more direct way than their terms, but they don’t. There’s a key part of how it works that I really didn’t get. That the meals you purchase have an expiration date.

For example, I’ve used Dollar Shave Club for years. A few days before I get a new shipment, the site emails me to let me know. At the very least, MealPal’s welcome email should address billing.

Further, MealPal goes to extra lengths to make leaving difficult. As the terms go on to explain further down:

Cancellation of Membership. You may terminate your subscription at any time with 7 days’ notice by emailing hello@mealpal.com. Following any cancellation you will continue to have access to your subscription through the end of your current prepaid billing period.

Seven day’s notice! Not only is there no straightforward way on your account dashboard to cancel, the site needs a full seven days to stop a payment once you have figured out how to do it. And I thought its page load speeds were slow…

(In fairness, they didn’t end up holding strictly to that seven day rule, once I complained.)

I emailed MealPal last night. A customer rep replied, explaining why I was down to 11 meals already. Members have a month to use the meals they pay for. Apparently my billing cycle ended on Wednesday, having only used 11. Since I ordered my twelfth meal on Thursday, that counted against a new cycle.

Fine. I asked the rep to charge me once again for meal 12 and refund the rest. KTHXBAI.

Subscription services should be good enough that users won’t want to leave. Making a service easy to quit is the best way to show confidence that customers won’t want to.

Buyer Beware: MealPal’s Discounted Lunch Deals Have an Expiration Date