Chinese entrepreneurs still find success in Chicago

By Beixi (Bessie) Xu

In Chicago there’s a Chinese online food ordering platform that became known for its modest $1 delivery fee. All the co-founders and employees are Chinese, it delivers meals of 26 Asian restaurants, mostly in Chinatown, and after just two years, it already has 12,000 users, 90 percent of them Chinese. This is Chowbus.

It was launched by Linxin Wen, now 27, then a graduate student in public administration who objected to paying higher meal delivery fees. “At that time I was a master’s student in Illinois Institute of Technology. When I ordered food I found the delivery fee in Chicago is ridiculous. I spent $5 to $10 for each meal. At that time I figured out there should be some way to reduce the high delivery fee,” Wen recalled.

The staff of Chowbus is all Chinese, all young and full of passion.

The word spread quickly, without advertising. Chowbus’s total sales last year jumped to $520,000, and they continue to grow, mounting to $81,000 in January and $97,000 in February. Wen said that in 2017 the company will expand to another city and he’s are very optimistic about 2017 total sales, expecting to reach at least $2 million.

“I begin to use Chowbus in this year; I order both lunch and dinner,” said Yang Xiang, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. “I like their interface, their menu is concise and I can easily order my favorite food in a short time.”

The company launched an app in March 2016, and business exploded.

“We only had 40 to 70 orders every day, said Wen. “However, on Chowbus, we have 400 to 500 orders for lunch, and since we added dinner delivery on the app last month, we have 100 to 200 orders for dinner every day.” Chowbus still charges only $1 for delivering lunch, but dinner costs more: $1.99 if you order before 4:30, after 4:30 is $4.99. The price of the meal is split between the restaurant and Chowbus, though it doesn’t disclose the formula.

Wen considers two of his colleagues–Xiping Wang and Suyu Zhang–as co-founders of the business, and they now have four employees, in accounting, marketing, web design, and photography. The Chowbus app displays the photographer’s vivid photographs of the restaurants’ meals, a marketing device that’s valued by the restaurants.

“We don’t have our own food delivery service,” said Perry Zhao, manager of Spice Spirit in Chinatown. “So we work with Chowbus. For other food delivery apps, they just help us to show our menu online. But Chowbus is not only a platform that can help us deliver the food, but also a publicizing platform. Their employees come to my restaurant and take great photos, and show the greatest dishes to customers. Chowbus helps us double the number of customers and improve online orders. We have more than 800 orders a month now.”

Chowbus has 24 contract drivers, all Chinese; two are full-time. They are paid $22 to $30 per hour for lunch, and $20 for dinner.

“I prefer their lunch, the driver deliver the food really fast,” said Xihan Wang, a law student at Northwestern University. “I like their photos, they are attractive. I can have 10 to 20 choices for lunch.”

Some of Chowbus’s restaurants are in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, one is in Evanston, and there are even three in downstate Champaign, for lunch only.

“If customer only orders a bubble tea on our app, we still deliver it to them,” said Zhang. “It is unique that users can order food from different restaurants at a time on our app, and we only charge them one time. In this way, users can enjoy the most popular food through our app.”

The app helps the customer choose. “I read lots of reviews online,” said Wen, “and find out many customers choose the worst dish in restaurants. Customers want some recommendations when they pick the dish in a long menu. Chowbus helps them choosing the best dish from different restaurants, and update menus timely. That’s the reason our users choose us.”

Co-founders Linxin Wen (left) and Suyu Zhang discuss their business in the 1871 incubator, in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart.

Chowbus now delivers Chinese, Korean and Japanese food, and next month will add Thai food.

“Asian food market has potential and is underestimated by people,” said Wen. “In the U.S., when people order the food, their first choice is fast food or Asian food. There are almost 41,000 Chinese restaurants in America, and we need a good platform to combine restaurants together and help them improve their quality.”

Among Chowbus’s current restaurants are the well-known MingHin Cuisine and Lao Sze Chuan. But at the outset enlisting restaurants wasn’t easy, Wen said.
“When I was a student and I went to restaurants one by one and asked them whether they want to work with me, most of them rejected.” And setbacks still occur. “When restaurants have some emergencies and cannot provide food, we need to call customers to apologize and return their money. Sometimes picky customers cannot understand us.”

​Photo at top: Chowbus’s special lunchbox. (Beixi Xu/MEDILL)​