Almost all successful tech startups are created to solve a problem. Uber helps you get places, Pinterest helps you organize inspiration, and Airbnb helps you rent out boutique properties. Chicago-based entrepreneur Linxin Wen's conundrum was personal: He couldn't find the independent Asian restaurants he loved on popular delivery platforms. More frustrating still was the fact that ordering from these restaurants cost a small fortune in delivery fees.
"At that time, I thought, 'Maybe I can build a platform to serve them,'" Wen says. "And that’s basically the reason Chowbus started."
Unlike Grubhub and Postmates, Chowbus features only independent Asian restaurants and stores. And as it turns out, Wen wasn't the only one craving the tailored service. Since its launch in 2016, Chowbus has expanded to 26 other cities across the globe—from Los Angeles and Toronto to Minneapolis and Melbourne. Last year, the company also netted $38 million in funding, a vote of confidence following Chowbus's pandemic-induced business boom.
Despite the massive success Wen and co-founder/CTO Suyu Zhang have experienced over the past few years, the two are adamant that Chowbus remains rooted in trust. The confidence is twofold: On one hand, Wen and Zhang must build strong relationships with small business owners who might be hesitant to join a delivery platform. They're able to do that by keeping their fees low and embedding themselves in the community. Wen says word-of-mouth referrals between restaurant owners has translated to huge business for Chowbus.
And then there's the consumer—the business model hinges on the fact that it's critical for diners to feel comfortable ordering dishes that might be new to them. Chowbus's secret weapon? Stunning photography.
"It’s about building trust between the dish and the diner," Wen says. "It’s similar to Airbnb: Early on, they didn't take photos [of properties]. The moment they started taking photos, they found that it built trust between hosts and renters. It's the same thing here. How can you build trust around a dish you are not familiar with or a restaurant you are not familiar with? I think that a photo is a great medium."
It goes one step further than pretty pictures, though. Wen and Zhang want to encourage Chowbus users to get out of their comfort zone of Americanized Asian food, like sweet and sour chicken or crab rangoon. Photography acts as a means to help people visualize and commit to truly authentic dishes. Some of Wen's personal favorites are the deeply spicy mapo tofu from Szechwan JMC as well as the snow white mango juice with black rice from Mango Mango—both of which can be found in Chinatown.
"Before, [restaurants] might have had two separate menus: One menu is more Americanized, one menu is more authentic," Wen says. "But nowadays, they don't feel like they have to do that anymore. They can cook whatever dish they want and still make decent money. The diner is more adventurous now than a few years ago. That's a great trend."
Wen and Zhang soon realized that their customer base was so eager to try new things that some were having a hard time deciding on just one restaurant to order from. Zhang got to work developing technology within the platform that now allows customers to order from more than one business at a time. "Sometimes I want to order dim sum but I also want bubble tea," Wen says. "But I don’t want to pay two separate delivery fees, right? They are next to each other, so why not have the driver pick up [both orders] at the same time and deliver to you?"
At the start of the pandemic early last year, Chowbus also added Asian grocery stores to its roster of offerings, allowing users to stock up on everything from lychee and bok choy to frozen meals and bakery items. The added service has been a huge hit during Chicago's stay-at-home advisories.
But Chowbus isn't done innovating. With millions in funding, the co-founders are now turning their attention back to the restaurant owners, who will undoubtedly need help surviving the months to come.
"We want to help restaurants in all perspectives, not just delivery," Wen says. "Marketing, infrastructure—that’s something we’ll focus on in the next few years. We want to make restaurant owners’ lives easier, and we're glad to help."
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