A few years ago, I first discussed the concept of the “Chinese stomach,” which describes the preference of Chinese diners for Chinese food over other types of food. My initial article focused on Chinese travelers preferring to eat Chinese food during their travels, even of inferior quality, compared to what might be considered higher-quality host country food.
A few doubters posited that tour operators serve low-quality Chinese food to travelers to cut costs, but this viewpoint was subsequently belied by other instances of the “Chinese stomach” at work:
- Chinese food entices Chinese Americans to patronize West Coast and East Coast casinos.
- Authentic Chinese restaurants are opening for the first time in communities adjacent to college and university campuses experiencing an enrollment surge of Mainland Chinese students.
- Chinese food trucks also serve campuses with a large Mainland Chinese student population.
- Chinese foreign students pay $50 delivery charges for food from far-flung authentic Chinese restaurants.
- Authentic Chinese restaurants have opened in upscale regional shopping malls frequented by well-heeled Chinese tourists. And authentic Chinese restaurants are opening or adapting their menus near other tourist hotspots frequented by Chinese visitors.
The Chinese stomach on Wall Street
Chinese American workers on Wall Street and other parts of Manhattan offer the latest demonstration of the “Chinese stomach.” At lunchtime, they get their Chinese food fix thanks to Chinese social networking.
The China-based social media platform WeChat is ubiquitous throughout China and in overseas Chinese communities. The service combines features of Facebook, Twitter, and Facebook Messenger. On WeChat, members may form private groups around a common topic. These groups each have a hard limit of 500 members.
With the love that Chinese nationals and Chinese-Americans have for Chinese food, it comes as no surprise that WeChat groups organize to discuss Chinese food topics. One group lamented the plight of Chinese-Americans who work on Wall Street, who must contend with a total lack of authentic Chinese food available in the Financial District. Yes, Chinatown might be relatively close to Wall Street, but the Chinese-American worker in Manhattan typically has Mainland Chinese roots, a food genre not particularly well represented in Chinatown. Satisfactory lunch options seemed few and far between. Your favorite Chinese restaurant was unlikely to deliver your lunch to Wall Street, and a round-trip subway ride for pickup would be too time-consuming. Though bringing food from home is an option, for many it is a non-starter, as they would rather eat out for lunch rather than prepare an extra meal.
Hearing of the problem, one WeChat group member decided to do something about it. Restaurants that could provide the food that Wall Street’s Chinese-American workers craved would not deliver on a one-off basis. But what if the members of a 500-member WeChat group placed a bulk order from that restaurant? And so the Yunbanbao food app on WeChat was born.
How Yunbunbao works
Essentially, Yunbanbao sets up numerous WeChat groups and contracts with Chinese restaurants in Flushing and Manhattan to deliver meals to eager “Chinese stomachs.” Each WeChat group picks up its lunch orders at a particular location throughout metropolitan New York City such as Wall Street.
About a hundred participating restaurants provide Yunbanbao customers with a rotation of choices. Most meals are priced between $10 to $15, delivered.
Operating within the WeChat imposes some limitations, however. A WeChat user must be able to read Chinese to get into a geographically-convenient group that is capped at 500 members. A user must also order their lunch on the day before delivery so the restaurant can prepare the bulk order in time. Meals are delivered by a motley group of minivans and SUVs which notify customers of the exact pickup point when they arrive. Locals who are not in-the-know watch the puzzling spectacle of dozens of Chinese workers and students line up to pick up their meals from unmarked, seemingly random vehicles.
With its success on the WeChat platform, Yunbanbao has now entered into the English language market with the YBB Plus mobile app. No chat group membership is necessary to join the fun, though the selection may not be as great as on WeChat. Choose a restaurant on the app and click through to see their selections. For example, Healthy Chinese Food in College Point in Queens offers $10 lunch combos, $13 whopper lunch combos, and $10 “dumblings,” among other choices.
Sitting here in Los Angeles, it is particularly fascinating for me to open YBB Plus and see the variety of restaurants and pickup locations. Yunbanbao has expanded to 27 pickup locations near office buildings, medical centers, and universities mostly in Manhattan, though there are also a few in Brooklyn and Jersey City.
The Wall Street Journal documented this phenomenon, followed by coverage on New York Eater and other mainstream restaurant websites. Yunbanbao’s group ordering system has caught the attention of other potential players both within and without the Chinese community, and some are already springing into action. Food industry analysts see bulk orders as a potential new model for restaurants to expand their distribution options.
Who knew that the “Chinese stomach” could shake things up in such a revolutionary manner and even potentially change the greater restaurant industry in the United States?
"How an App Satisfies the “Chinese Stomach” on Wall Street" originally published on The Menuism Dining Blog.