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The Vancouver Food ‘Super App’ Aiming to Conquer North America

Fantuan’s two young founders set out to feed the city’s Chinese newcomers. Even in a pandemic, they’ve got bigger plans.

Christopher Cheung 10 Apr

Christopher Cheung writes about the sociology of the city for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung or email him.

The sight of a masked, gloved delivery guy handling my Chinese takeout like nuclear waste was a strange thing to behold mid-February, when there were only four cases of COVID-19 in Vancouver.

But in China under the coronavirus, this care was already commonplace — and not complete without a slip telling you the body temperature of your cook and courier.

I ordered the spicy dish of fish and pickled mustard greens through Fantuan, an ambitious local startup that launched an app specializing in Asian food delivery.

Fantuan is the brainchild of two millennials from China. Its couriers first started zipping across Metro Vancouver six years ago. Now, the company is delivering to foodies in big cities like Toronto and New York.

The company already had its hands full with its North American expansion when COVID-19 hit, pushing much of daily life indoors. In Vancouver, restaurants closed one by one; some transitioned to take-out only. On March 20, the city banned table service entirely, and hungry Vancouverites leaned harder on the precarious workers of the gig economy for conveniences and pleasures.

But by late January, unlike other delivery apps operating locally, Fantuan was already at the ready, arming couriers with masks, gloves, sanitizer and alcohol cleaner for its delivery boxes. A new drop-off option was introduced to the app, eliminating the risks of an in-person handoff.

“We started to take precautions quite early, so we had more time to deal with the situation,” said Crystal Li, the company’s public relations manager. “The virus wasn’t that severe here in January, but at that time it was very serious in China.”

In February, before COVID-19 tightened its grip on society, I visited Fantuan’s offices in a generic industrial park in south Burnaby. Nearby is a Jordans furniture store, a flooring supplier and a trophy maker. A golf course is next door. In this most North American setting, a company is recreating ultramodern Chinese convenience.

Inside, the walls are awash in Fantuan’s signature turquoise, with young workers clicking away at their terminals. Li and Feng Yaofei, one of the company’s co-founders, were there to tell me the Fantuan story — one that hints at the flavour of Vancouver’s future.

Dragon Crepe, Vancouver. Photo via Fantuan Instagram.

Once upon a meal

It is fitting that the duo behind Fantuan should forge a friendship online before ever meeting in person.

Randy Wu, an economics student in Burnaby, B.C., and Feng, an Amazon engineer across the border in Seattle, connected on the massively popular combat game Dota 2.

Then Wu quit the game.

Feng asked why, and Wu told him he was starting an Asian food delivery app in Metro Vancouver.

The idea, Wu said, came to him when he was sick and wanted something familiar to eat. Originally from Hunan, he was studying at Simon Fraser University on Burnaby Mountain where there were few dining options that offered familiar food. Not many international students had cars, and even if they were to venture off campus, many weren’t familiar with local restaurants.

Feng could empathize. In 2011, he moved from Zhejiang to do a masters degree in computer science at Oregon State University and knew the craving for familiar cultural food. The options near the university’s campus in the small college town were lacking.

“You have to get used to it,” he said. “You just eat a salad, no problem.”

But Feng was curious about Wu’s startup, so he went up to Vancouver to meet his friend and see Fantuan in action. Compared to established apps such as Foodora and Grubhub, Fantuan was a primitive operation then.

“He’d call the restaurant and order the food himself,” Feng remembered. “It was a lot of manual work. I delivered with him together — he’d drive and I’d sit in the car. But I saw a lot of opportunity. There are so many Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, but there isn’t this kind of service.”

Vancouver has long enjoyed a reputation for Chinese cuisine, but in recent years the selection has ballooned far beyond the fare of its long-established Cantonese community. Now everything from Xinjiang lamb pilaf to Xi’an liangpi cold noodles are on the menu.

Immigration brought a new wave of eaters and restaurateurs — between 2011 and 2016, 36,000 Chinese immigrants to Vancouver became residents — and Fantuan arrived just in time to connect customers with cuisine.

Wu and Feng poured their personal savings into the company and in six years it has paid off. The service has expanded from Vancouver to 14 North American cities, boasting 4,000 merchants and over 400,000 users, by the company’s count. It’s on track to $100 million in annual revenues, the company reports, with over 150 employees handling app development, sales, design, finance and customer service. Originally only in Chinese, an English version launched last month.

As for the duo, they have just reached their 30s.

A ‘super app’ in Canada

Like other apps, you use Fantuan to order from a restaurant. The restaurant preps the food and an online driver can choose to pick it up. You pay through Fantuan, which pays the driver, an independent contractor, and passes on tips.

But Fantuan was one of the first in North America to specialize in Asian food and offer a range of services, from delivering goods to running errands.

“Life can be easier” is Fantuan’s motto, promising the same convenience of urban China’s multifunctional, all-in-one “super apps.” They go beyond food delivery and take on tasks from sending flowers to loved ones to booking travel and hotels — on the same platform.

Fantuan also designs advertising and promotions for restaurants looking to go online. New restaurants have used Fantuan to get the word out before opening.

“Fantuan” is Mandarin for rice ball or rice roll, a grab-and-go food like a sandwich that suggests speedy eats. (Drivers’ vests and cars are emblazoned with a cheery image of the food.) The name also evokes the 600-million-user Chinese app Meituan, which also offers delivery and services.

Tapping into the food industry of a large diasporic community might sound simple, but it wasn’t easy introducing a new way of doing business.

Chinese cities are big and have high population densities — over 160 cities have more than one million people. Vancouver pales in comparison.

“We have fewer people, fewer shopping malls, fewer restaurants, and we need to cover more area,” said Feng.

Delivery, therefore, doesn’t come cheap.

There was also a cultural barrier to overcome. Vancouver has a long history of Chinese migration from Cantonese-speaking communities. Their restaurants, like those that serve dim sum, rely heavily on adult regulars who dine in. Fantuan, on the other hand, represents a different culture: hyper-connected, Mandarin-speaking modern China.

“When we launched, no Cantonese restaurants talked to us,” said Feng. “A lot of old Chinese restaurant owners didn’t really understand it. They had no idea what was going on.”

Even when they did, they had a lot of questions. For example, what if they used Fantuan and the food got cold, upsetting customers? Who would be to blame?

But over time, all kinds of Asian restaurants, not just Cantonese, signed on. “A lot of restaurants didn’t want to partner with other apps,” said Feng.

Some owners told Feng that they were reluctant because they weren’t confident with dish names on their own English menus. Fantuan has been stepping in to help with translation.

Feng showed me the blue Fantuan vest that many drivers choose to wear, an example of the differences between the company and North American counterparts.

Job postings by Skip the Dishes — also a Canadian-born delivery app, but one that serves the English-speaking mainstream — reveal a different culture than Fantuan. “We Keep It Casual,” they read. “We don’t believe in a uniform or a dress code. And you can crank your ’90s boy band one-hit wonders (we won’t judge).”

But in China, uniforms are standard. “This is very important to our restaurants — professionalism,” said Feng.

Customers also played a role in helping restaurants get on Fantuan, telling owners that they were interested in delivery.

“Owners started to understand that it’s extra earnings,” said Li. Partnering with Fantuan’s delivery services are free, but restaurants might choose to purchase space for advertising or promotions on the app.

And deciding to focus on the Asian market, “we can have a closer relationship with restaurants,” says Feng. A number of restaurants are exclusively on Fantuan and no other app.

With COVID-19 afoot and take-out only restrictions, Fantuan and other delivery apps are proving to be even more important for restaurants. Immigrants isolated at home, newcomer parents in particular, have Fantuan as a tool to stay stocked and fed.

“I think we can definitely be considered as an essential service right now,” said Li. “We don’t see it as an opportunity; it’s a responsibility for us.”

Photo via Fantuan Instagram. Taiwanese restaurant JiangHu in Richmond.

A deep-pocketed diaspora

The recent growth of the Chinese student population in Metro Vancouver helped feed Fantuan’s growth, as well as the local Chinese food industry. Almost every week, there is range of new openings: bubble tea shops at $5 a drink, hot pot chains at $50 a meal or high-end fare like Quan Ju De Beijing Duck House at $500 a meal.

Many of the young newcomers are children of families who profited from China’s breakneck boom this past decade; between 2010 and 2017, the country’s GDP doubled to US$12.3 trillion. These well-to-do parents want their children to study overseas, especially in the West. As youth are sent abroad, they bring with them tech habits, sophisticated palates and spending money from mom and dad.

There are about 186,000 Chinese students in Canada, according to China’s Toronto consulate, which means that they make up one-third of the country’s international students. (According to Global Affairs Canada, international students as a whole spent about $15.5 billion in Canada.)

Catering to newcomers from China, Fantuan was quick to implement online payment platforms, like China’s Alipay, the world’s largest, and WeChat. Serving this community wouldn’t make sense without these platforms, which have also been adopted by local retailers like T&T and London Drugs.

“We know most of our customers are international students, so the source of their income is their parents,” said Feng. Parents in China can transfer money from their bank accounts into their children’s Alipay and WeChat accounts as an overseas allowance.

These young Chinese students are dramatically transforming the communities they reside in, said Chang Lu, who holds a PhD in strategic management and organization and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia.

“I remember when I was in my undergrad, the typical story was that if you were a Chinese student overseas, you’d have to work in a restaurant,” said Lu, who is 31 and originally from China. “Now, they don’t even need to know how to cook.”

With apps like these, students don’t even need to go outside. Lu said some might even see eating in a restaurant as “labour.” An app from Toronto aimed at Chinese students called Lanyangyang translates loosely to “lazy.”

The students’ habits — and now COVID-19 — have made Fantuan’s recent forays into product delivery and everyday errands, from courier service to grocery pickup, so popular. “There is huge demand for this,” said Lu.

He sees Fantuan’s rise as both remarkable and unremarkable. The idea of a food delivery app coupled with other services is not new, even if North Americans are unaware of it.

However, the fact Fantuan was founded by young entrepreneurs is special, said Lu. It’s not easy for people new to Canada to read up on all the rules and regulations around business.

“It’s the right idea at the right time,” said Lu on Fantuan. “There’s a wave of these apps, but the market’s not saturated yet.”

After two years in Vancouver, Fantuan launched in Toronto in 2016. Another two years later, it expanded to other Canadian cities — including Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal.

Competition has also ramped up. In Vancouver there are apps like Quite Soon (a clever homonym for its Chinese name of kuai song, which means fast delivery), and in Toronto there’s Lanyangyang, Food Hwy, CMEOW and Food on Delivery, which also does alcohol delivery and calls itself a “whatever-you-can-think-of” delivery service.

Fantuan still boasts of being the largest, and a $5-million boost from investors last year enabled the company to launch in the U.S., serving Seattle, Los Angeles and New York.

Chen Jie, a managing partner at CentreGold Capital, one of the investors, saw the success of Fantuan in Canadian cities and believes the model of serving newcomer Chinese would do just as well in the U.S.

Indeed, in each American city, Chinese students embraced the app.

“It’s been very successful,” said Feng. “When we launch our service, we always find the university area first. Then, we gradually cover the city.”

Word of mouth has helped boost Fantuan’s popularity, with students telling their friends who are about to go abroad that such an app exists. However, so does the simple fact that Chinese students take this kind of service for granted. When they arrive in North America, they seek it out.

As Li from Fantuan says, young people simply “expect” this type of service.

Delicious diplomacy

Fantuan has high reviews on Apple and Google’s app stores, with 3.9 and 4.0 stars respectively, but a few users have criticized it over its lifetime for operating in Chinese.

“Can’t help feeling bitter everytime I see this logo across town,” wrote one user in a Google review, also calling Fantuan “unfair.”

“English speaking country. Chinese only app. What gives?” wrote another. “It flies in the face of cultural integration… Certainly a bit rude, and not very Canadian.”

These complaints about Fantuan — which have plagued other Chinese-language services such as ride-hailing apps Udi and Raccoon Go — are familiar in multicultural cities like Metro Vancouver that have trouble knowing what to do with newcomers and the way they do business.

During the 2010s in Richmond, a few English-speaking locals complained to city hall about Chinese-language signs on businesses in their city, calling them exclusive and inappropriate.

Apps like Fantuan show that the digital world is simply a new landscape for old arguments about inclusion and exclusion.

Li believes Fantuan can be a tool of diplomacy. It doesn’t just connect newcomer Chinese to local Asian cuisine; it also introduces locals to what their city has to offer.

The English version officially launched this month, but before that a beta version was already seeing steady growth, a sign of the appetite of curious eaters.

“People just want to try!” she said.

Vancouver has long enjoyed a reputation for Chinese cuisine, but in recent years the selection has ballooned far beyond the fare of its long-established Cantonese community. Photo via Fantuan Instagram.

Demographic delivery

It used to be that almost everyone in Fantuan’s office was once an international student, but these days, the company is welcoming a different kind of newcomer.

“We actually now have more immigrants in their 30s and 40s who used to work in China with very big companies like Baidu and AliBaba,” said Li, “and they chose our company to continue their careers.”

This, said UBC’s Lu, is a glimpse of the future.

“Engineers get paid very well in China, but they don’t have very good work-life balance,” he said. “They worry about the education of their children, the environment and everything.”

When many of these tech workers feel like they have enough money, Lu believes they will emigrate for the life that Western countries like Canada have to offer. Expect more and more human deliveries of Chinese talent and innovation.

The demographic of Fantuan’s eaters is changing too. It’s skewing older, no longer just students. Feng’s co-workers have spotted their couriers zipping through the city to deliver to offices and banks.

It might not be a Chinese metropolis, but the Vancouver workforce is biting.  [Tyee]

Read more: Food

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