Food at your fingertips

Updated: 2012-02-08 11:22

By Xu Lin (China Daily)

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Food at your fingertips 

Food at your fingertips

A deliveryman is on his way in a snowy day. Online takeout services are popular among university students and white-collar workers in big cities. Xu Jingxing / China Daily

The online takeout industry is still in its infancy, but it is a catering trend that is likely to have mass appeal. Xu Lin investigates.

Lou Jiangjiang, 23, a postgraduate student at Shanghai International Studies University, rushes to open her dormitory door when she hears a knock. She greets the deliveryman, who has a bowl of steaming rice noodles for her. "So yummy!" Lou says, before paying the man and taking the noodles.

Lou orders her meal online via Xpfood.com, a website aimed at university students and white-collar workers in Shanghai and Nanjing, Jiangsu province.

"Most restaurants near the campus provide such a service, which is convenient and creative. I can choose my meals according to the photos on the website. After a few clicks, my lunch is delivered," she says.

She says most fast food chains, such as McDonald's and KFC, also provide 24-hour delivery services, including telephone and Internet ordering.

Ordering online offers choice, with Chinese, Western and Japanese food available, usually without a delivery fee.

Like other e-commerce websites, Xpfood.com enables comments, and it is possible to request a refund if the food arrives late.

"Telephone orders have some disadvantages, such as busy lines and operators who take down the wrong address or order. Online orders can avoid such problems as there is an automatic order processing system, which is very efficient," Mao Yanfei, Xpfood.com CEO's assistant, says.

Mao says there are about 10 similar websites in China, which suit students on a limited budget.

"White-collar workers are another important customer group. We provide online takeout services to several office buildings in Beijing and the number of orders is increasing," says Zhang Xuhao, 27, co-founder and chairman of ele.me.

Ele.me - which means "are you hungry? - was founded by four postgraduates from Shanghai Jiaotong University in 2009. It covers more than 100 universities in Beijing, Shanghai and Zhejiang's capital Hangzhou, and plans to expand to office buildings and other cities.

The website involves more than 6,000 restaurants, most of which are near universities. It has about 300,000 registered members and handles nearly 30,000 orders a day. The average cost per meal is 30 yuan ($4.76).

Zhang says the design of the website is neat, with photos of the food and prices. Users can bookmark their favorite restaurants and comment on delivery speeds or make complaints.

"The profit comes from commissions. We want to be the Taobao (China's largest e-shopping platform) of the dining industry," he says.

"The online takeout industry is still developing, but I'm confident about its appeal as both users and restaurant owners are increasingly online."

Wu Xiu, who runs a restaurant in Shanghai's Xuhui district, says: "I get more than 30 online orders every day."

Wu says that after she joined Xpfood.com in May, the number of takeout orders rose. Most of her customers are white-collar workers and university students.

"About 70 percent of the orders are from the Internet, which saves me a lot of energy, as I don't have to promote the restaurant. Now, I only have one receptionist to deal with online orders, while in the past, I had to have two who took turns taking phone calls," she says.

According to the 2011 Blue Book of the Catering Industry published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and China Cuisine Association, 15 percent of interviewees eat out every day and takeout has become a new dining style.

"I order takeout at least three times a week, because there are more options than at the university canteen," Lou says.

Lou says takeout food has become an important part of her life and that of her classmates - especially when the weather is bad.

Shen Yalan, 25, who works at a finance company in Beijing, is another fan.

"I usually have takeaway on weekends," Shen says, adding even the famous Chinese hotpot chain Haidilao has an online takeout service.

Since September 2010, Haidilao's 13 hotpot restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong province's Shenzhen have been providing takeout orders online. In March 2011, Haidilao introduced its "picnic service" in Beijing, delivering hotpots to individuals on countryside treks.

"Takeaway hotpot is not our main business but was added since customers can wait for hours for a table at peak times. A restaurant typically has about 15 to 20 carryout orders per day," says Tao Yiting, a public relations officer from Sichuan Haidilao Catering Co Ltd.

She says the food is delivered with plates, ingredients, pots, induction cookers, plugs, disposable bags and aprons. After dinner, the leftovers, pots and other items are picked up by the deliveryman.

"It's so amazing to have a takeout hotpot at home," Shen says. "We feel at ease, wear pajamas and drink our own wine. The service is perfect. All I need to do is order and pay. The only thing is the delivery fee is not cheap - 59 yuan."