Dining in the App Era – Young Start-ups Remodel China's Food Delivery Market


By staff reporter VERENA MENZEL


GOOD food is the foundation of genuine happiness," so-called French "king of chefs" and "chef of kings" Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), celebrated for his book Le Guide Culinaire, once said. However, these days the kitchen in many households is often a cold, deserted place. Urbanites in particular seem to have bid farewell to the cooking tradition, and some are incapable of preparing a regular meal on their own.


The tradition of mothers and grandmothers handing down culinary expertise to their daughters and granddaughters from their post at the cooker is gone. The reality today is that we spend far less time in the good old home kitchen than we did just a few decades ago.


The large-scale international survey carried out last March by GfK, Germany's biggest consumer research association, proved this trend. Researchers asked the 27,000 participants, aged 15 and above from 22 countries, how much time they actually spent in their kitchen each week preparing food.


The astonishing results showed that participants from Great Britain and the U.S., for example, spend an average 5.9 hours each week in their kitchens, and at 5.8 hours a week, the figure for China was almost the same. However, all three countries scored below the worldwide average of 6.4 hours per week. In other words, these days the common people of Britain, the United States, and China spend less than one hour a day preparing their own meals.


No matter due to work or time pressure, or a larger disposable income that allows for time-saving and convenient alternatives, there are multiple reasons why today's big-city singletons – in either Boston or Beijing – are loath to peel their own onions in their own kitchens.


Although people in Britain or the U.S. are generally willing to supplement their calories from less nutritious sources like snacks, fast food, and instant meals, in China – country of gourmands – people are more selective.


Business savvy people, therefore, have made a virtue out of necessity by formulating online-to-offline business models that enable the ordering and delivery of nutritious and tasty meals as part of today's modern, high-pressure lifestyle.


New Food Gathering Mode


One industry in this field that has particularly thrived in China for several years is the online delivery-service portals and delivery-apps sector. In 2015 the Chinese market for online delivery-service providers reached a business volume of RMB 45.8 billion, around US $7 billion – a 200 percent growth in comparison to 2014, according to statistics released by leading mobile app analytical data product Analysys Qianfan. Analysts predict that in the coming five years this market is likely to continue to grow, and that by the year 2018 it will probably reach a total volume of RMB 245,5 billion (US $375 billion).


Many successful Chinese online food delivery platforms in addition to the delivery-apps operated by big chains like McDonalds have appeared on the market in the last few years. Among the big players in this regard are such apps as Meituan Waimai,, Taobao delivery-app Tao Diandian, Baidu Waimai, and the Chinese online-mall delivery-app Jingdong. All appear in the 2015 top 10 Chinese delivery-app download-charts, according to China's market research provider ASKCI Consulting.


The reason why these new delivery-apps are so popular, especially among Chinese urbanites, is clear. With just a couple of clicks these applications enable anyone in any location to find with ease the most popular local restaurants. They then simply scroll through the menu pictures and order the meal that most appeals.


Moreover, as with sending an express parcel, customers can keep track of their order via their mobile phones – from preparation and collection from the restaurant to delivery via express carrier directly to the doorstep. To pay, customers can chose between cash or several online payment services like that on WeChat or Alibaba's Alipay. Many websites also give a fair discount on some of the dishes their member restaurants offer. Most providers even waive the delivery fee, which at a few yuan is little more than a formality anyway.

Students and office workers still constitute the biggest customer base, according to Analysys Qianfan. However, the sight of delivery carriers speeding on their electric bikes to hungry diners is also becoming more commonplace in residential areas. Insiders see this field as that with the biggest growth potential for the future.


But not only classic delivery services profit from cyber hype. As Chinese people are noted for their creativity – not only in culinary matters but also in tracking down new business opportunities – many new start-up companies have ventured into this young and promising industry. Today, they are confidently competing with traditional food delivery models. Thanks to smart business outlooks some have not only tickled the fancy of young Chinese smart phone users, but also succeeded in attracting millions of yuan in investment.


"Mr. Food"


One such promising newcomer is the "Mr. Food" website, founded in 2014. The business idea of this start-up struck a chord with the many white collars living in China's large cities that have little time for cooking but are unwilling to order restaurant meals on a daily basis.


The "Young Food Gentleman," as the service is called in Chinese, delivers the ingredients – washed, sliced and neatly packed in small plastic bags – with which to prepare many classic Chinese dishes. The customer receives the vegetables, meat, and spices he needs to cook his favorite dish carefully packed in a small plastic box. The service so enables working people to make themselves a tasty meal at home after work without spending too much time on buying and peeling, washing, and chopping the ingredients.


The "Mr. Food" website offers a broad selection of traditional Chinese dishes, such as Kung Pao chicken and popular noodle dishes. It also carries illustrated and concise cooking instructions for every dish.


The "Mr. Food" founders are three graduates from the renowned Renmin University of China. Not one of them hesitated to give up their well-paid job to explore this business idea. Their start-up in some way follows in the footsteps of companies like the U.S. Blue Apron, and the Berlin start-up HelloFresh, both of which have offered comparable services in the West since around 2011.


The concept seems tailor-made for the Chinese market, especially under the background of periodical food scandal revelations, such as the use in restaurants of low-grade cooking oil and bad quality ingredients, as well as lax standards of hygiene in smaller restaurant kitchens.


With the help of the "Young Food Gentleman" Chinese customers can cook with good quality ingredients and use their own oil and spices. The only catch is that orders must be placed one day in advance, which to some degree inhibits spontaneity.


Invite Your Own Chef to Your Home-Kitchen!


For those not satisfied merely with ingredients but who also want their own chef, the "Good Chef" application is the right choice. Through this start-up, also founded in 2014 and which provides its services in big cities like Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Beijing, users can book a personal chef to work in their kitchens. These professional cooks, with their perfect white aprons and classy chef's hats, are both visually impressive and highly functional, as they bring all the necessary ingredients – and equipment too if necessary, with them. After cooking and serving they also take care of the cleaning up.


Best of all, this worry-free package is available in China at an affordable price that easily competes with that of a traditional delivery order. The cheapest menu, at RMB 99 (around US $15), consists of four dishes, including meat and fish, plus soup. Customers can as well choose from among various regional cuisines such as Yunnan or Sichuan style cooking.


The start-up also offers private party packages, company celebrations, or grand banquets. People throwing such celebrations can learn culinary tips from real masters while they prepare the feast and obtain expert advice about their particular cooking preferences. The "Good Chef" thus also incorporates the human aspect, in contrast to traditional food-delivery services.


Home Cooking


Another delivery newcomer that counts on the human aspect for its success is the "Home-Cooked" start-up. What distinguishes it from traditional delivery orders is that it does not assign restaurant kitchens or professional cooks to meal preparations, but rather hobby chefs from your locality. As with "Mr. Food," users must order one day in advance, to ensure that these private cooks have time enough to buy fresh ingredients from the local market.


The application shows its users, via GPS, where all registered local amateur cooks live. Each one has their own profile page within the system, and an illustrated menu that includes personal recommendations and the ratings of other diners.


Upon scrolling through these hobby chefs you realize that they are mostly composed of middle-aged women whose children have moved out, and female seniors who want to share their cooking-skills. For the majority it isn't the pin money to be earned that makes "Home-Cooked" an attractive platform, but rather the chance to share their joy of cooking.


Initially the start-up's workers personally advertised the new application at local vegetable markets in Beijing and other big cities. However, the concept has since become a kind of self-runner. Thanks to major investments you can now see "Home-Cooked" ads even on the Beijing subway, and new hobby chefs can register directly through the official company website.


To ensure hygienic standards, every amateur chef takes part in a hygienic training course, for which they are awarded a special health certificate, before getting started. Furthermore, app staff members inspect applicants' private kitchens to make sure everything is as it should be, and to give some last minute tips. They also advise on how to create an appealing profile page. The last step is a test through a selected customer, who gives their evaluation of the meal.


Similar to the practice of the successful lodging-travel portal airbnb, "Home-Cooked" offers chefs registered with it the free services of a professional photographer to take shots of home-cooked dishes that appear on the cook's personal menu.


"Home-Cooked" is already available in several large cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou. And it is the hobby chefs themselves who deliver the food to nearby customers. This is one of the core ideas of the new start-up, and might also be one of its recipes for success as it gives the deal a personal touch. If you order from home, you will have the chance to meet new people in your neighborhood. A pleasant side effect is thus that the community becomes tighter knit.


In the past, before the time of small and single households, when several generations lived under one roof, the principle of "one cook, many diners" was normal. In that sense, "Home-Cooked," with the help of modern technologies and business structures, reunites human resources that were in the past organically connected. For many hobby chefs, this part-time job is like cooking an extra portion for another family member. The innovations of the Internet age, therefore, seem magically to complete the circle leading back to our home kitchen and to good, homemade food once more. And, in the words of Auguste Escoffiers, good food is the foundation of genuine happiness.