Linxin Wen — the 29-year-old CEO and co-founder of Chowbus, a delivery app that specializes in high-quality Asian cuisine — is intent on providing customers with access to authentic Asian food, and helping mom-and-pop shops break through a system designed to benefit larger chain restaurants. Chowbus does this by providing “dish-focused” delivery service from independent Asian eateries that might not garner much attention on the likes of GrubHub and UberEats. The perspective of Wen — himself an immigrant who moved to the United States seven years ago — is unique, as seen through the prism of this Voices in Food story, told to Anna Rahmanan.
Most Americans who aren’t interested in authentic Asian food aren’t interested only because they don’t know about it. That’s why so many Asian restaurants have a separate menu they give Americans, featuring non-traditional dishes like “orange chicken” that Americans are more familiar with. They think they have to [do that] to survive.
The reality is, Americans often love authentic Asian dishes once they’re introduced to them. Whenever I’ve brought American friends to eat at some obscure Chinese mom-and-pop restaurants they’ve never heard of and I’ve ordered for the table, everyone has loved it.
Most of the time, they don’t know which dishes are good. That means that, too often, they order the same thing over and over again. For example, when they eat Chinese, they order chicken and broccoli. When they eat Thai, they order pad Thai — and so on. By taking the time to figure out what a restaurant’s four to five best dishes are and featuring those [on our app, alongside] professional photographs that help newcomers get a better sense of what the dish will look like, we help all kinds of people discover new flavors they otherwise wouldn’t have felt confident ordering.
“A lot of our restaurant partners saw business fall off in the first month or two of the COVID-19 outbreak. But it’s hard to say if that was due to anti-Asian racism or just because people were afraid to eat out in general given the fear they’d catch the virus.”
One of the biggest struggles for independent restaurants has been getting their name out there. That’s been a problem since long before the pandemic — and it’s one of the major reasons those restaurants sign on with big delivery services that promise to bring them droves of new customers. The problem is, too often those droves of new customers don’t materialize. That’s partly because, on most of the major apps, independent restaurants are deprioritized and pushed so far down in the feed that people can hardly find them. Or, sometimes, the delivery apps do bring in new customers but high commissions and other fees mean only a very small amount of that new revenue goes to the restaurant.
We don’t allow big chains on the platform, only authentic, independently owned restaurants. We [also] don’t let restaurants pay to appear higher in our feed; it’s a flat rate for everyone. If you want to support your community and small businesses, you should order from an independently owned restaurant versus a big chain. Also, the food tends to be better, fresher and more authentic [at mom-and-pop eateries].
A lot of our restaurant partners saw business fall off in the first month or two of the COVID-19 outbreak. But it’s hard to say if that was due to anti-Asian racism or just because people were afraid to eat out in general given the fear they’d catch the virus. In any case, business has rebounded for a lot of these restaurants, in many cases above and beyond where it was pre-COVID-19, so if there was a backlash, it’s long gone by now. Actually, some restaurants are making more money by just doing delivery. Asian food travels well and has a lot of variety, so I think it’s getting better — which is what I want to see.
I came to the United States seven years ago to pursue my master’s degree and, through hard work and some luck, here I am today. Like many immigrants that come to the U.S. to pursue their dreams, I’ve faced challenges, whether direct or indirect, whether intentional or unintentional. My goal is to bring people together through food, whether that’s providing Asian immigrants with a sense of home through their favorite dim sum or introducing others to a new culture through Szechuan cuisine. My hope is that Chowbus can take a small part in bringing people together.