Illustrations by Joyce Siu
In China, food delivery apps are king. During the lunch hour, office lobbies are filled with workers huddled in small groups eating takeout. Food delivery drivers park outside buildings waiting for customers to pick up their orders.
The apps took off a few years ago and gradually became part of everyday life in China, so much so that ordering from a restaurant and paying with cash has become passé in big cities, and food delivery drivers are even fetishized.
The most popular apps are Eleme and Meituan, which have partnerships with major fast-food chains like KFC and McDonald’s. They’re so convenient, says 25-year-old Liang Xinhao, a videographer in Beijing, that few people leave the office for lunch.
“Even though there are many places to eat near my office, I really don’t want to leave for lunch sometimes,” he says. “I’ve also stopped cooking for myself.”
Zhu Danpeng, a Guangzhou-based food industry researcher, says a faster-paced work life is driving this trend. Fewer young people are also keen on cooking, he says, because few grew up learning how to cook.
Delivery apps make it easy, too. Most orders show up at the door within a half hour of placing them, and the apps compete aggressively for customers by offering steep discounts.
The standard promotion is 10 yuan ($1.50) off a 40-yuan bill. Larger orders bring bigger discounts, so office workers often coordinate and pool together orders to save money.
“I think they are trying to tap into people’s psychology,” says Liang, the videographer, “where people keep spending if there are always promotions.”
Another delivery option is ordering from amateur cooks—stay-at-home moms, retirees, and aspiring restaurateurs who want to start small.
There’s an app for that, too. Home Cooked connects customers to people who prepare meals out of their homes. After an order is placed, a driver will pick up the food and deliver it.
Pan Weipeng used the app in college when he got sick of cafeteria food.
“The cook we ordered from was an older gentleman who lived on our campus,” he recalls. “When I saw that the food was made by him, I felt an immediate sense of reassurance since we lived so close together.”
He still uses Home Cooked whenever he craves a homemade stew or simple dish like tomatoes and eggs.
Some of the more enterprising cooks skip the middleman altogether and go directly to their customers through the messaging app WeChat.
Which just goes to show that whatever you need in China, there’s probably an app for it.