Before the online food delivery space was dominated by the Ubers and Deliveroos of the world, entrepreneurial Adelaide restaurateur, Qiu Yu, launched Bento Queen - a virtual restaurant founded on WeChat and now available across nine digital platforms.
How to build a restaurant on WeChat
Bento Queen is a two-seat restaurant on Sturt Street.
CityMag visits the eatery just as the lunchtime rush starts to ebb; the counter rings with digital bells, whistles, and musical refrains as orders come in, but there are no customers in sight.
Instead, the sounds are converted to dockets, then to food, and then transported out of the kitchen by delivery drivers and bike couriers, destined for distant customers ordering through one of the nine online platforms on which Bento Queen is present.
As we sit for our interview, the owner of the business, Qiu Yu, occupies one half of a leather couch (and 50 per cent of the available seating space) by the front window.
“When it’s beeping at dinner or lunchtime, he’s really busy,” she laughs, as a young guy in a cap standing behind the front counter responds to customer orders coming through the screen in front of him.
Bento Queen started in July 2016 at a time when food delivery was still a new concept to the Adelaide market – Mlkman was just finding its footing and word of UberEATS’ arrival was still months away, but the idea came to Qiu after she identified an untapped local market.
“Back when I was an international student, I understood the pressure from study… most of us have a part-time job working at other places, so we don’t really have time to look after ourselves,” Qiu recalls.
“When we go home, just so tried, I want to sleep, otherwise I’ve got lots of assignments to do, and making a proper meal is lots of work for students, so I want to do something for that.
“The ability I have is making home-made-style meals. It’s my mum’s recipes and the very famous meals from different parts of China we’re all familiar with… I started getting my friends to try and they all love it and they wanted to buy it from me.
“It’s weird if your friends want to buy something from you, and I’m like ‘Ok, why don’t I just start a business like this and do it the proper way.’”
Qiu took to WeChat, the Chinese Facebook equivalent with more than one billion users worldwide (“Ninety-nine per cent of Chinese, we all have that, and we use that a lot,” she says) and she built a program within the app to sell her food, hired another person to run delivery, and in doing so, Bento Queen became one of Adelaide’s first virtual restaurants – a kitchen set up purely to service the online delivery market.
While Qiu was an early adopter, the concept is being pushed by food delivery giants around the world to continue to develop their offerings.
Uber has worked with some of its listed restaurants to create fake businesses with an entirely different menu in order to fill ‘trend gaps,’ and Deliveroo has even gone so far as to construct pop-up kitchens in shipping containers (AKA Rooboxes) to address the same problem.
In order for Qiu to grow her business, it has been necessary to have a presence across these and other platforms as they have come to market (her reach extends across WeChat, UberEATS, Deliveroo, Buy@Home, HarkHark, Adelaide Deliver, Menulog and OzFoodHunter).
As is the case for physical restaurants though, the major apps’ commission rates make growth in a small business difficult.
“From my point of view, we have to [be on these platforms] as a restaurant, or a shop. That’s the train for the future,” Qiu says.
“More and more people, either they go out to a proper place, have a nice meal, or they check their phone. That’s the way they’re shopping. So we have to work with [the apps] as a partner. It’s just… they just ask for too much… We don’t get any profit actually from that, 35 [per cent commission] plus GST.”
Virtual restaurants rely solely on the marketing power of the apps they’re presented on, which are designed so that every restaurant essentially looks the same: a flat lay of selected menu items and an indicator of price. Marketing, therefore, is a challenge.
The one advantage that Qiu’s WeChat store has over her delivery competitors is that apps like Uber and Deliveroo cater specifically to convenience, and less to experience.
“The feature for us is we receive your order and we’ll reply to you: ‘Hello sir, we received your order. It will be ready in 20 minutes,” Qiu says.
“The customer feels like they can talk to the person, not a robot. They feel like they’re being served, even though there’s distance in between.”
This is a problem Krystian Wielgosz is also working to address through his business, Fusion Workshop, which has operated out of the Bento Queen kitchen for the last month.
“For me, it’s trying to work out and engage with the customers,” Krystian says.
“I think convenience, with the life that people are leading, is what’s going to happen more. But people still want the interaction, because when you get an order through UberEATS, it’s just basically ping, it comes in, the food rocks up – it removes that human experience.
“And so it’s just about creating it through a different platform. So I’m hoping that, through Facebook, through Messenger, there will be a way that I can build a community.
“I think if it’s utilised in the right way, massive opportunities for that, and for your customers to become a creative director in your menu as well.”
Since launching, Qiu left her part-time catering job, moved from hiring space in commercial kitchens to fitting one out herself, and now employs 12 casual staff, and even catered for the likes of Chinese actors Jin Dong and Jiang Xin while they were in town on their 10-day SA tourism campaign.
It’s the flexibility in being able to cook whatever she likes that drew her to this business model, and she has no desire to operate as a conventional restaurant.
“As a chef, I work in the other hotels, or other places, I do their menu. I do what I’m told. I do a high standard for everything, but it’s not from my heart,” Qiu says.
“And now, because I really like this meal, that’s why I make it, and lots of people give me a like. That’s what I want to do.
“And for the specific group of people, the international students… I want to help them have a good experience studying overseas. It’s very important for me and for them as well.”