It’s a rainy Sunday evening in London. I pull out my phone and look for regional Chinese cuisine on food delivery apps. Disappointment quickly hits.
Browsing London food delivery platforms like Just Eat, Uber Eats, and Deliveroo, I only find typical British-Chinese sweet and sour dishes, as well as dim sum. Not exactly the regional cuisine I’m looking for.
London is far behind New York or San Francisco when it comes to authentic regional dishes from China. While the UK capital has a Chinatown and plenty of Chinese restaurants, it’s often difficult to find menus that don’t specialize in Cantonese dim sum and an anglicized version of Cantonese food dishes geared towards a sweeter and less spicy taste.
Yuebai Liu is a London-based ethnographer working at the intersection of technology, culture, and policy.
Frustrated by the lack of better options, I open Hungry Panda, a Chinese food and grocery delivery app only available in Chinese. Founded in 2016 by Nottingham University graduate Liu Kelu, the service targets overseas Chinese students and communities. Its social media campaigns are aimed at young homesick Chinese.
I came across Hungry Panda at Seveni, a hotpot and charcoal BBQ eatery in South London popular among Chinese students. Restaurant staff were handing takeaways to young men in blue uniforms with a panda logo and “Hungry Panda” on their bags. The company quickly piqued my interest.
I’m not a fluent Mandarin reader, so, with the help of Google Translate, I opt for a restaurant with food from China’s southwestern Sichuan province—famous for its delicious, spicy cuisine—and another specializing in hearty meals from Northeastern China.
The regional combination is odd: Liaoning province in China’s northeast is more than 2,500 kilometers from Sichuan. It’s also going to take over 90 minutes to deliver my meal. Ordering isn’t easy for non-Chinese speakers, as it requires basic Mandarin. Only a handful of restaurants have added English translations to parts of their menus. The platform and most of its content is in Chinese.
But I won’t complain if I’m able to have some real barbecue skewers (chuar), a spicy numbing stir fry pot (malaxiangguo) from Sichuan, and a tasty mix of stir fried potato, aubergine and peppers (disanxian) from northern China.
Hungry Panda is tapping into a niche by promising to bring authentic ingredients and dishes to its users, but is the app trying too hard to bring the same user experience people are used to in China to overseas markets?
Targeting the homesick
A quick search in the app pulls users into what feels like a hidden world of Chinese food that goes beyond dim sum and fried noodles.
Hungry Panda’s menus feature classics like spicy pickled fish soup (suanlayu), spicy cumin barbecue skewers, and grilled pancakes with egg and chives (jiucaihezi). These are dishes that are usually found in small corners of larger menus and not included on menus on apps like Deliveroo and Uber Eats—restaurateurs just don’t believe their non-Chinese customers are interested.
Hungry Panda’s interface is a near-clone of Eleme, one of China’s biggest food delivery platforms. It’s so similar that I initially thought the Alibaba-owned food delivery giant had started operating in London.
Hungry Panda was actually founded in 2016. Headquartered in London, in February the startup raised $20 million from Felix Capital, a backer of Deliveroo and 83 North, a venture capital firm and early investor in JustEat.
In less than four years, Hungry Panda has expanded its services to more than 30 cities across six countries, all while keeping the app in Mandarin. The size of its user base is not public, but the app has been downloaded more than 100,000 times from the Google Play Store.
In 2019, the company’s direct-to-consumer brand Dada Chinese Supermarket started delivering Asian groceries to its users within two hours of ordering, meeting a demand that was long there. Then, at the beginning of lockdown, the platform started delivering Covid care packages that included health and safety products like N95 masks, hand sanitizer, and traditional Chinese medicine.
“Hundreds and thousands of miles away from home, it’s brave to fight against loneliness” says the voiceover in a Hungry Panda video ad. The commercial shows a man in his 20s thinking about the life he temporarily left behind to study in the UK. “Life abroad, but the stomach belongs to home” continues the voiceover.
But to Xiao Xiao, a Guangzhou native studying engineering at Durham University, Hungry Panda is far from replacing food from home: “There are only a handful of Chinese restaurants that will deliver to where I live and the food is average, but I use it during Chinese festivities or when I’m alone watching Chinese shows,” she told me.
Users can’t access the same variety of restaurants they would at home because Hungry Panda’s focus on a niche market means less demand—and therefore less supply, which is required to create enough density for on-demand deliveries to become viable.
Hungry Panda’s interface shares many similarities with delivery platforms in China.
Just like apps in China, users receive daily red packets, or hongbao, which can be used for discounts at restaurants that sell food through the app. Food is categorized by the region it comes from in China. The touch and feel of adding dishes to the app’s cart is so similar to Eleme. Memories of ordering Yang’s Dumplings, a popular Shanghai pan-fried soup dumpling chain that only operates in China, hit me when I use Hungry Panda.
Payment is also indistinguishable. Users can use popular Chinese apps Alipay and Wechat Pay to buy their meals. Those that don’t have access to the Chinese payment platforms can also opt for credit and debit card payments.
Ads for special offers pop up when you open the app, along with banners for new restaurants and Chinese festivities. The app now even has a carousel that lands the user on a local Covid-19 stats page in Chinese. There is little space and a lot of content is crammed into the small screen, a design principle common to websites and apps in China.
For those who are not used to Chinese apps, however, Hungry Panda might feel like visual chaos. “It’s convenient for Asian groceries, but the app is confusing. There’s a lot going on—it’s like Taobao. I’m more used to a clean Western interface,” Michelle, a Taiwanese-born Londoner, told me.
There are 400,000 people of Chinese ethnicity in the UK, and many more that are discovering an appetite for authentic regional food and groceries from China. For Michelle, an Eleme or Meituan duplicate may meet that occasional demand, but will it be enough to retain users like her in the long run? Is Hungry Panda aiming for a user experience that is almost too “Chinese,” excluding other potential users?
Xiao Xiao is planning to go back home once she completes her degree abroad. She’s not the only one—many have moved back home after classes moved online.
As the Covid-19 pandemic wears on, travel restrictions could mean that a much smaller number of Chinese students can continue their studies abroad this year. As a result, Hungry Panda could find itself stuck in its niche, and there may not be enough homesick students to make the business viable.
“As soon as plane ticket prices went down a little, I packed up and flew back,” Aaron, a second year student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told me. He now continues his studies online at his home in Harbin, a city in Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province.
There is, however, enough of an appetite for regional Chinese food for Hungry Panda to expand its current target market. Authenticity is a big selling point to those that are looking for something different, and as we move into a new tiered system with local lockdowns in the UK, perhaps it’s time for Hungry Panda to make its platform available in English.