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Home Kitchen Apps Pair Hungry Young Consumers with Amateur Chefs

Time-strapped young, urban office workers are increasingly turning to online home kitchen apps as a means of securing competitively-priced home cooking from a network of enthusiastic amateur chefs looking to supplement their pensions.

Photo: Turning kitchen downtime into a business: A retiree gets to work.
Turning kitchen downtime into a business: A retiree gets to work.
Photo: Turning kitchen downtime into a business: A retiree gets to work.
Turning kitchen downtime into a business: A retiree gets to work.

Home kitchen apps are increasingly popular among the young residents of many of the mainland's major cities, notably Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. These apps work by linking consumers with amateur work-at-home chefs who cook dishes on demand, with delivery and logistics being handled by the operators of the app. At present, Huijia Chifan ("Home-cooked Meal"), Mama Decai ("Mother's Dishes") and Cengfan ("Neighbour's Meal") are the three major home kitchen-sharing apps on the mainland.

Idle Kitchens Present Huge Business Opportunities

Currently, more than 4,000 people from some 100 communities in Beijing are said to be using the Huijia Chifan app, while the number of online home kitchens is also on the rise. Typically, the service providers tend to be retirees, housewives and cooking enthusiasts, with the retirees constituting the highest proportion (around 40%). Using the Huijia Chifan app, they are able to share their home-cooked dishes with consumers – often young, affluent officer workers – at their preferred location.

These home cooks are obliged to apply for free hygiene certification via the platform operators, while also being provided with training on the standards of service and app protocols before being listed online. They are, additionally, subject to regular home inspections by the platform operator. Customers can also check any kitchens' hygiene standards and food quality during dining visits or meal pickups. Acknowledging the importance placed on health issues, one Beijing West home cook said: "All of our ingredients are purchased from supermarkets, and we put great emphasis on our food's nutritional value and appearance."

To date, the majority of diners seem satisfied with the quality of the meals ordered via the service. One Beijing South home kitchen has received nearly 400 reviews, of which 90% left a five-star rating. One typical diner commented: "Home kitchens provide clean and non-greasy meals."

Photo: Home cooking packaged for delivery.
Home cooking packaged for delivery.
Photo: Home cooking packaged for delivery.
Home cooking packaged for delivery.
Photo: App operators provide free packaging.
App operators provide free packaging.
Photo: App operators provide free packaging.
App operators provide free packaging.

Currently, a search on the Huijia Chifan app for home meal vendors in the vicinity of the Beijing South Third Ring Road returns some 10 results. Of these, six have senior retirees as their cooks, while two of the listed kitchens claim to have each served more than 1,200 customers. The menu of one of the kitchens features 11 dishes, with each costing around Rmb20. According to the kitchen's head cook, he makes an average net profit of Rmb3,000-4,000 per month. He said: "It is worth the while for me to do something and earn money at the same time."

According to the latest demographic statistics, China's senior population will exceed 350 million by 2030. The home kitchen app is one way of helping retirees better use their idle kitchens as a source of supplementary income, helping reduce their financial dependence on their children. From the consumer point of view, these apps are a boon to those with little time or a disinclination to cook.

Profit Sharing Scope

Many home kitchen-sharing apps are still at any early stage of their development. Huijia Chifan, with its 500-plus team, has already secured Series A & B financing of more than Rmb100 million. Similarly, Mama Decai has in place multi-million-yuan angel investment seed funding, while its Series A financing has already been initiated. Cengfan, which currently has a 30-strong team, has also received nearly Rmb10 million in angel investment funding.

Photo: High hygiene standards: A must for kitchens.
High hygiene standards: A must for kitchens.
Photo: High hygiene standards: A must for kitchens.
High hygiene standards: A must for kitchens.

The services provided via home kitchen apps differ from those offered by traditional take-away meal operators in a number of ways. In particular, the home kitchen model fulfills diners' requirements for original home-cooked dishes by matching them to those cooks most adept at their favoured dishes. This has facilitated a mutually beneficial 'win-win' situation for both groups.

Zhou Tong, the Operations Director of Yueyang-based Huijia Chifan, said his platform aims to build a link between online service provider and consumer desire. He also emphasised that the company was committed to promoting the service both off- and online. To this end, Huijia Chifan offers a subscription model, Weibo access and its own website, as well as its dedicated app. Offline, the company organises leaflet drops and a series of promotional community activities.

Many home cooks signed up to the home kitchen platforms after seeing the promotional leaflets. One home cook said he had never thought cooking home meals could make money until reading Huijia Chifan's literature. Huijia Chifan is presently run on a trial basis in Beijing, and will be promoted across the country in the near future.

At this early stage in their development, many home kitchen platforms are offering a number of incentives to attract home cooks. These include free training and free packaging supplies (meal box and chopsticks) for the home kitchens, as well as access to a third-party meal delivery logistics service.

Huge Potential Market Among the Young

With young people in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen increasingly faced with demanding workloads and little leisure time, their requirement for third party catering is considerable. Frequently jaded by the selection at their local restaurants and takeaway establishments, home kitchens have proved adept at filling the gap. To date, more than one million customers have registered on the Huijia Chifan app, with 50% of them being active users.

Photo: Home cooking hits the road.
Home cooking hits the road.
Photo: Home cooking hits the road.
Home cooking hits the road.

According to a number of home kitchens operators, many young people are unwilling to cook during the weekend. Instead, they order meals from home kitchens or go to the locations themselves, frequently ordering basic one-dish meals. This direct contact has helped several home kitchens establish good relationships with their customers.

One young resident of the Xizhimen district said: "At the weekend, I like to have a good rest and eat home-cooked meals. My best option is home kitchens. They are both convenient and economical." Even when the system does not function perfectly, customer satisfaction remains high, with one diner saying: "Even though the meals may not always arrive punctually they always taste really good."

Many of the home kitchens, despite their tight schedules and a lack of staff, have to deliver the meals themselves, despite the option of third-party delivery. According to one hone kitchen operator in the Guangqumen district, its high-level of lunchtime orders make on-time deliveries almost impossible. In line with this, a number of diners have complained about having to wait up to two hours for their meals.

In order to address this problem, the app operators advise that diners outside should made aware of any delivery delay. The companies also provide compensatory customer services, including waiving bills or offering discounts on future purchases.

Qiao Xue, Special Correspondent, Beijing

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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