More than delivery: How the Burnaby-based Fantuan app is serving cultural connections
Fantuan’s story is about its tremendous tech success, but also its cultural impact.
Fantuan’s story is about its tremendous tech success, but also its cultural impact. (Fantuan/ Supplied)
This article is a collaboration with the Vancouver Tech Journal. Read their coverage here.
When you think of food delivery apps, Uber Eats, SkipTheDishes, or DoorDash usually come to mind, but does Fantuan ring a bell?
The Burnaby-based app is making a global impact with its focus on delivering customers homestyle Chinese food and authentic Asian cuisine.
Fantuan’s story is about its tremendous tech success, but also its cultural impact. And the path the app’s founders took is quite different from the industry giants.
Instead of focusing on a large market of customers, Fantuan’s original founder, Randy Wu, initially narrowed in on a niche market: hungry Chinese international students.
Wu started Fantuan right here in Burnaby when he was a student at SFU in 2014.
While delivery apps are a commonality in our lives today, at that time the concept was fairly new.
Uber Eats launched in 2014, and DoorDash had just expanded to the Canadian market in 2015.
While there are many more food and drink options available at SFU today, that wasn’t really the case in 2014, and there was a lack of restaurants offering authentic Chinese food on campus.
Wu thought there had to be a way to fulfill this need, and that’s how the idea for Fantuan was born.
Focusing on what was overlooked
At the time, Fantuan wasn’t developed as an app. Wu would use Chinese messenger apps to connect with customers and get their orders. He would then talk to the restaurants, place the orders and complete the deliveries.
“Everything was done manually,“ explained Crystal Li, Fantuan’s public relations manager.
“Randy, he [would] talk to the restaurants, and also take orders and do the deliveries and even the customer service.”
Wu had identified a niche market where there was a demand for specific types of food—and Burnaby was the right place for Fantuan to grow.
Burnaby is rich in diverse dishes from all over China, many of which can be found at Crystal Mall. (Vikki Hui/ Burnaby Beacon)
Although Richmond is often seen as a destination for Chinese cuisine—not just in Metro Vancouver, but all of North America—Burnaby cannot be discounted for what it has to offer.
The city is rich in diverse dishes from all over China, with gems that can be found everywhere from Crystal Mall to North Road.
While the larger delivery giants were focused on bringing customers food from well-known chain eateries, Fantuan was concentrating on a group of diners and restaurants that were being overlooked.
Wu wasn’t just personally connecting with customers, he was also doing the same with restaurants, and working to build relationships with their owners.
“Food delivery was still not big back at that time. So Randy would have to knock on the door of the restaurant and just walk in and talk to the restaurant [owner],” said Li.
“So at the beginning, it was quite difficult because some restaurants, they have good business but don’t understand food delivery.”
Soon, Fantuan’s fast growth in Burnaby was becoming too much for Wu to handle alone, and he needed someone to help him take the concept to the next level.
Enter Yaofei Feng, who first connected with Wu through gaming.
Fantuan co-founder Yaofei Feng at the company’s Burnaby headquarters. (Simran Singh/ Burnaby Beacon)
Feng, a Chinese international student himself, initially worked as a developer for Amazon in Seattle but in 2015, decided to quit his job and join forces with Wu to develop Fantuan into a fully functioning app.
At first, they concentrated on a smaller amount of deliveries in Burnaby, and worked with restaurants in the Metrotown area, Crystal Mall and Lougheed, with a focus on partnering with Mandarin-speaking restaurants. They gradually began adding Cantonese eateries as well.
Eventually, Fantuan expanded all over the Lower Mainland. Fast forward to 2023 and the app is available in over 40 cities across the globe. It has also expanded its restaurant offerings to feature diverse Asian cuisines (Thai, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese), as well as Western, Mexican, Indian, and Italian to name a few.
Connecting over a cultural commonality
But the basis of its success is how it connected with the community (both customers and restaurant owners) over a cultural commonality: food.
The initial customer focus was a very specific market: international students who wanted a taste of home.
Kevin Huang, director of the Hua Foundation—a Vancouver-based non-profit connecting cultural heritage and social change—said Fantuan’s approach is a reflection on “parallel food systems,” which specifically connects to Chinese history in Canada.
“What that means is that in a region that is really diverse, especially linguistically but also culturally, Chinese demographics have always really built their own systems, and originally it kind of stemmed from segregation,” he explained.
This could be seen especially in the food sector, he added, “so …the Chinese farmers were excluded from marketing boards, and also in Chinatown barbecue meats were banned. So, there were a lot of racist-driven food policies that forced a racialized community to build their own,” said Hua.
“I think what we’re seeing with Fantuan is a legacy of … not being fully included in the quote-unquote mainstream system.”
Huang added that as globalization brings more immigrants into the community, there will always be a need for cultural safety and recognition in food systems, whether it be ethnic grocery stores or niche food delivery apps.
“As a first-generation immigrant myself, I do seek out the comfort of … home and I think if Fantuan provides that, there is a market demand.”
The focus on cultural connection
The focus on cultural connection to authentic food is growing in the food delivery industry.
For example, “tiffin services” are very common amongst the South Asian community here in the Lower Mainland and now across Canada. A tiffin box is an aluminum-stacked lunch box that is used to pack meals across regions in India.
Now, the idea of a tiffin box has become a food delivery medium, where various companies create tiffins with homestyle dhals, saabjis, and roti, allowing them to connect with international students, immigrants and others who are craving a taste of a homecooked Indian meal.
A screenshot of Fantuan’s English homepage which breaks down its cuisine offerings into several categories
Bon Appetit highlighted how niche food delivery apps also bring attention and business to smaller restaurants while allowing them to keep to their authentic roots. During the COVID-19 pandemic, support for smaller eateries became extremely important to help them stay afloat.
This is something Feng said was essential to Fantuan’s growth. They were tapping into a market of business owners who may have experienced a language barrier with the bigger apps like Uber Eats and SkipTheDishes, and featuring smaller mom-and-pop eateries on the app or little-known restaurants that don’t partner with the larger companies.
“In [the] Vancouver area, we have a lot of exclusive restaurants that only partner with us, so you can probably only see the delivery option on Fantuan. Probably most of them are authentic Chinese food,” said Feng.
Li said that more and more local Chinese restaurants started noticing the app and wanted to partner with the company.
“So now some of the local, mainly Chinese restaurants, when they first open their restaurant, they come to us and say, ‘Hey, I want to be on Fantuan as well.’ Because besides food, it’s also like an online promotion for them,” she said.
Essentially partnering with Fantuan, serves as a marketing tool for smaller businesses, noted Huang.
“I think for mom-and-pop shops that are very specific for regional cuisine, it’s a way for them to connect to broader audiences that might not be geographically local,” he said.
Expanding to English speakers
What started as a food delivery app concentrated on specific cuisines (and primarily Cantonese and Mandarin-speaking communities) has now developed into one that accommodates orders to the English-speaking population as well.
Feng said that Fantuan wanted to be “more diverse” with the English version of the app.
He said the aim is to get the general population to utilize the app more if they want authentic Asian cuisines.
“If you want to order Chinese food, it’s very complicated and you have different categories…like hotpot, barbeque, different kinds of noodles. Chinese food is so diverse,” said Feng.
As for what’s next for Fantuan, Feng said the company is now looking to expand to Southeast Asia and the UAE, but they have no plans to move their headquarters out of Burnaby.
“We’ve become bigger and bigger and we’ve never left Burnaby,” he said. “It all started here.”