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 who prefer to eat Chinese food — even of inferior quality — on their trips, rather than what might be considered higher quality host country food.
Doubters argued that tour operators served low-quality Chinese food to cut costs, but I found the “Chinese stomach” at work throughout the United States under other manifestations. For instance, Chinese food is used to entice Chinese Americans to casinos along the East and West Coasts. When college campuses see surging Mainland Chinese student populations, authentic Chinese restaurants and food trucks quickly follow. On these campuses, some Chinese students will even shell out $50 delivery charges for food from far-flung restaurants. And at upscale shopping malls frequented by well-heeled Chinese tourists, Chinese restaurants either open onsite or nearby restaurants adapt their menus to serve these visitors.
Now the “Chinese stomach” has hit Wall Street. Thanks to technology and social networking, Chinese American workers are getting their lunchtime Chinese food fix.
WeChat, the social network that’s ubiquitous throughout China, combines the features of Facebook, Twitter, and Facebook Messenger. One of WeChat’s features is the ability to form private groups with a hard limit of 500 members.
With the love that Chinese and Chinese-Americans have for Chinese food, it is no surprise that WeChat groups organized to discuss food topics. One such group lamented the plight of Chinese-Americans who work on Wall Street. Manhattan’s Financial District totally lacks satisfactory Chinese food options. Yes, Chinatown might be relatively close, but most Chinese-Americans who work in Manhattan have Mainland roots, a food genre not particularly well represented in Fujianese-dominated Chinatown. Your favorite Chinese restaurant was unlikely to deliver to your office, and a roundtrip subway ride would be too time-consuming.
Instead of complaining, one WeChat group member decided to do something about it. True, restaurants that served the food that Chinese Wall Streeters craved would not deliver on a one-off basis. But what if a 500-member WeChat group placed a bulk order from that restaurant? And so, Yunbanbao was born.
Essentially, Yunbanbao has set up numerous 500-member WeChat groups and contracted with Chinese restaurants in Flushing and Manhattan. These restaurants prepare meals for eager “Chinese stomachs” on Wall Street and other parts of metropolitan New York City. Each WeChat group is organized around a particular pickup location.
Meals are delivered by a motley group of minivans and SUVs. Members are notified of the exact pickup point when the vehicle arrives. To locals not in the know, a puzzling spectacle of Chinese workers and students line up for orders out of unmarked, seemingly random vehicles.
About a hundred restaurants provide Yunbanbao customers with a rotating variety of meal choices, and there is often a premade box lunch alternative, too. Most meals are priced is the $10 to $15 range, including delivery.
Operating within this structure has its limitations, however. For one, you have to be able to read Chinese in order to use WeChat. With WeChat groups capped at 500 members, you have to hope there’s an opening in a group that’s geographically convenient. And you have to order your lunch the day before it’s delivered.
With its success on WeChat, Yunbanbao has entered into the English language market with YBB Plus, its mobile app for Apple and Android. No group membership is necessary to join as on WeChat.
As I sit here in Los Angeles looking at YBB Plus, it is fascinating for me to watch the variety of participating restaurants and the growing number of pickup locations. Yunbanbao currently offers 27 locations, mostly in Manhattan near office buildings, medical centers, and universities, though there are also a few in Brooklyn and Jersey City.
YBB Plus users choose a restaurant 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.
Yunbanbao’s group ordering has caught the attention of players within and without the Chinese community. Food industry analysts see group orders as a potential new model for restaurants to expand their distribution options. The “Chinese stomach” is shaking things up and may even potentially change the greater restaurant industry in the United States.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.