One afternoon in 2017, a Chinese computer science graduate student at the University of Nottingham had a craving for a Chinese-style comfort meal. However, when Eric Liu opened the delivery apps on his phone, he noticed something strange. While Nottingham, in central England, had its share of Chinese restaurants, Liu was unable to order from any. The reason was a language barrier.
Liu quickly realized that local Chinese restaurants were not on delivery apps because none of the owners spoke English. The apps did not support Mandarin. DoorDash and Uber Eats were not set up for this corner of the market.
Liu saw an opportunity: Build a food delivery app that caters specifically to the 40 million Mandarin and Cantonese speakers around the world. While most live in other Asian countries, many live across Europe and the United States.
Growing around the world
Liu started HungryPanda while still a student in 2016. Written exclusively in Mandarin, the app allowed Chinese students to order from local Chinese restaurants. The side project quickly grew to 60 cities in 10 countries by the end of 2017. In 2019, HungryPanda, based in London, entered the U.S. market in New York City, and by the end of 2021, it had expanded into the Midwest and West Coast. The company now operates in 20 U.S. cities and has set its sights on Atlanta and several markets in Florida.
The company has also expanded, and now delivers both Chinese groceries and prepared meals from Chinese restaurants.
HungryPanda’s U.S. manager Xiaohan Feng said the company focuses on three key areas: restaurants, couriers and customers. Restaurants need HungryPanda’s tablets in their stores to take orders, but they also need tech support, something the company provides. Couriers need real-time logistics to be as efficient as possible. (The company’s couriers are gig workers and set up in the same way as Uber Eats or DoorDash). Customers, of course, have ever-evolving needs. HungryPanda’s biggest challenge, he said, is meeting all three of these groups’ needs simultaneously while also improving both their business model and the various end-user experiences.
HungryPanda has raised serious money. The company’s latest funding round was $130 million, bringing the total raised to $220 million.
HungryPanda plans to use the new funding to focus on growing the grocery delivery side of the business. Called PandaFresh, the delivery service engages with warehouses and grocery stores and provides delivery service throughout Asia.
“This new round of investment is an affirmation of our past achievements and shall open a new chapter for the business to explore new opportunities and more spaces in lifestyle services for our customers,” Liu said in a statement. He added: “HungryPanda has achieved exceptional growth over the last four years. We now have the ability and experience to launch and operate in new cities in just two weeks, and have established ourselves as the market leader due to our laser focus on developing the best service and providing high-quality products for our customers.”
HungryPanda is committed to continual evolution. While the app began solely in Mandarin, the platform now supports other languages due to the company’s international expansion. Up to 10-15% of users are now non-Chinese speakers — Japanese, Korean, and English make up some of these newly supported languages.
Asked about HungryPanda’s competitors, Feng shared the company’s outlook toward more popular platforms in the U.S.: “We do not think of DoorDash or Uber Eats as competition. The market is growing so fast, and there are so many competitors in this space that we do not look at those as a threat.”
He said the real competition is smaller companies that also target the Chinese-speaking market.
“We are the only global company targeting Chinese abroad,” Feng said. “There are a small number (of competitors) in the U.S. One is in both the U.S. and Canada, but it is much smaller.”
Asked about the company’s narrow focus, Feng doubled down: “HungryPanda is a marketplace company. We solve problems for restaurants that cannot find solutions with Uber Eats or DoorDash. We aren’t worried about them.”
Maybe HungryPanda’s end goal is acquisition after gaining dominance over the Chinese-abroad U.S. populace. Or, maybe they really are so laser-focused on their demographic that they do not care about the bigger fish. It seems difficult to believe that there is absolutely no thought to a $30 billion company like DoorDash deciding to pivot into HungryPanda’s space.
Regardless, in five years, HungryPanda has swept across a dozen countries and received millions in funding from investors across the globe. Their narrowly focused model seems to be highly effective. Liu has said publicly that the company is profitable in most markets.