Protocol | China

A guide to the Asian food apps blowing up in the U.S.

By catering to underserved markets in the U.S. and taking lessons from Chinese ecommerce giants like Alibaba and Meituan, Asian grocery and meal-delivery apps are finding markets under the gig-economy giants' radar.

Steamed potstickers dumplings stuffed by shrimps, served on ceramic plate with soy sesame sauce.

Steamed potstickers dumplings stuffed by shrimps, served on ceramic plate with soy sesame sauce.

Photo: Natasha Breen/Getty Images

Just 10 years ago, it was a pipe dream for the Chinese diaspora to get fresh Chinese ingredients and meals true to their tastes delivered to their doors. These days, unbeknownst to most Americans, Chinese foods — be it the universally beloved Laoganma chili crisp or regional cuisines — are easily accessible in the U.S. through mobile apps.

Niche delivery services targeting primarily Asian immigrants have sprung up across North America over the past decade, coinciding with a drastic ecommerce boom in China and an influx of increasingly wealthy Chinese international students on foreign university campuses. Some Chinese international students, who felt deeply the pain of not being able to get their hands on comfort food, started delivery services after graduation to serve fellow Chinese immigrants. Gradually, those businesses expanded into different regions and countries, while diversifying their customers to include non-Asians interested in Asian foods and cultures.

On the operational side, these Asian-centric food and grocery delivery services replicate the best practices from ecommerce behemoths like Alibaba, JD.com and Meituan. Compared to delivery apps in other markets, these services acquire users at a significantly lower cost while engaging customers in more effective ways.

Here's a list of essential Asian-focused delivery apps and their user engagement secrets.

Yami

Yami is the first and largest Asian-focused online retailer in North America. Founder and CEO Alex Zhou, a native of eastern China's coastal city of Dalian, founded Yami (亚米) — meaning Asian rice — in 2013 after graduating from Kansas State University.

Headquartered in Brea, California, Yami started as an online shop selling Chinese condiments, dry foods and snacks, targeting Chinese international students and young professionals like himself. It now carries over 4,000 brands of groceries and the trendiest Asian snacks, beauty, home and kitchen products. Through mostly word-of-mouth, Yami has amassed 2 million customers across the United States and Canada, 20% of whom are non-Asian customers. Two of Yami's best-selling products are the Laoganma chili crisp and Korean instant noodles.

One successful strategy Yami shares with other apps in this article is that it's able to acquire new users through niche social media channels while building a community for customers. From the get-go, Yami has been encouraging its users to share shopping experiences and products on Weibo, WeChat, Xiaohongshu and KakaoTalk (a popular Korean messaging app) with monetary incentives. Yami also operates hundreds of WeChat groups, interacting with customers with promotions, new product releases and soliciting feedback. Across the U.S. and Canada, Yami deploys over 100 "school ambassadors" who help promote Yami and build communities among international students for free.

"The customer acquisition cost is way cheaper than just spending money on Google, on Facebook, on all these traditional channels," Zhou told Protocol. "If you encourage your customers to post something on WeChat or Weibo, I bet all their friends in the U.S. [will be] your customers," Zhou revealed that it costs a single-digit dollar amount for Yami to acquire a new user, far below the average $45 customer acquisition cost for the U.S. ecommerce industry.

Food delivery apps

Chowbus

Chowbus is an Asian food delivery service based in Chicago. Founders Linxin Wen and Suyu Zhang — two Chinese international graduates — started Chowbus in 2016 out of frustration with the lack of authentic Chinese food options on mainstream delivery apps.

Originally a local Chicago Chinese lunch box delivery service, Chowbus is now one of the go-to apps for Asian dishes in nearly 30 American and Canadian cities. Chowbus partners with 4,000 Asian restaurants, many of which are mom-and-pop stores run by non-tech-savvy immigrants that are not necessarily on Yelp or Instagram.

Like Yami, Chowbus also attributes its popularity to social sharing and promotional events, tactics commonly shared across Chinese apps. "We always look to China for new marketing and user engagement tactics," Gigi Zhang, marketing director at Chowbus, told Protocol. Chowbus manages hundreds of WeChat groups to increase user "stickiness." "Each time we start a new WeChat group, we see explosive user growth in that locality."

Compared to its competitors Fantuan and HungryPanda, Chowbus is better-recognized in the mainstream market — about 30% of its 500,000 users are non-Asian. In 2020, Chowbus was listed by Andreessen Horowitz as one of the largest and fastest-growing consumer-facing marketplaces.

Fantuan

Fantuan (饭团), meaning Rice Roll, is the largest Asian food delivery service in North America. Fantuan was founded in Vancouver in 2014 by Randy Wu, who was then a college student at Simon Fraser University. Seven years later, Fantuan has raised over $50 million in funding and expanded into 40 cities in Canada and the U.S., partnering with more than 10,000 restaurants.

Most of Fantuan's 1.2 million users are Chinese immigrants. It didn't start targeting non-Chinese customers until earlier this year, when it launched a full English-language service in selected cities. With plans to attract more English-speaking users, Fantuan's public relations manager Crystal Li told Protocol that the startup will promote more heavily on Instagram and Facebook, alongside the usual Chinese social media channels.

HungryPanda

HungryPanda is even more global. Headquartered in London, HungryPanda was founded in 2016 by CEO Eric Liu, then a student at the University of Nottingham. After raising $90 million in 2020, HungryPanda is now available in nearly 50 cities in nine countries across Europe, North America and the Asian Pacific.

While Chowbus is better known among non-Asian consumers, Fantuan and HungryPanda are perhaps more frequently used among Chinese immigrants for their wide varieties of Chinese restaurants, ranging from hole-in-the-wall food joints in immigrant enclaves to trendy restaurants in glitzy neighborhoods. Their UI designs are more similar to Meituan and Ele.me than DoorDash and Uber Eats.

Grocers

Weee!

The Fremont, California-based Asian online grocer Weee became a unicorn earlier this year after a series D funding round that valued it at $2.8 billion, according to Bloomberg.

CEO Larry Liu came to the U.S. for a master's degree in business from China in 2006. Liu started Weee in 2015 as a group-buying service in the Bay Area. The company launched its app in 2017 and transitioned into an online grocer. It now delivers both Asian and Hispanic groceries to over a dozen cities in the U.S. Weee currently has more than 5 million registered users.

Liu has personally experienced the impact of fostering a community through WeChat-based group purchasing events. One member in a chat group that Liu was also a member of made over $10,000 on a single day after selling Pacific Cod she sourced from a local fisherman to group members. "No inventory, no website and definitely no app," Liu told Protocol. "I was intrigued and saw this as a strong signal to how exciting food can be, especially when shared."

Weee has definitely mastered social commerce tactics. For instance, It has a feature that allows users to earn points, which can be redeemed, if they share orders with friends and their friends then follow suit to buy the same products.

FreshGoGo

Weee's East Coast rival, the New York-based FreshGoGo has been around since 2017. FreshGoGo delivers both Chinese groceries and meals from local Chinese restaurants to 21 states. In the past four years, FreshGoGo has acquired 200,000 registered users through Chinese social media, including over 1,000 WeChat groups.

FreshGoGo CEO Jianbing Duan told Protocol the startup borrows the entire supply chain management and social commerce operation models from China. Unlike Weee, FreshGoGo is internally financed. Duan revealed to Protocol that FreshGoGo has kept its average user acquisition cost to $15, while its annual revenue has tripled or even quadrupled each year since inception. He sees tremendous growth potential for FreshGoGo's future.

"Our penetration in the Chinese immigrant community is not deep enough. Each time we entered a new locality, customers flooded in," Duan said. "We hope to win customers with our one-stop-shop service for both meals and groceries … It's ethnic food for now, but [we] also want to penetrate into different markets with a variety of product offerings."

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