You can order Mala Sichuan to be delivered thanks to newly launched Chowbus. Photo by Isabel Protomartir

A new delivery app wants to make it easier for Houstonians to access the best dishes from Chinatown. Chowbus, a nationwide service that focuses on Asian cuisines, has arrived in Houston.

Among the 80-plus restaurants available at launch, diners may use the app to order dishes from Chinatown favorites such as Mala Sichuan Bistro, Arco Seafood, and Ocean Palace as well as relative newcomers like Chengdu Taste, Chongqing Chicken Pot, and Meet Fresh. Deliveries are available from 11 am to 10 pm to points within the Houston city limits as well as to suburbs such as Pearland, Sugar Land, and Katy.

Customers pay a delivery fee that costs between $2.99 and $4.99 depending on their proximity to the restaurant, but the app does provide a bundling option that allows people to order dishes from multiple restaurants without paying an additional fee. True die-hards can subscribe to Chowbus Plus; for $9.99 per month, all deliveries over $25 are free and deliveries between $15 and $25 cost $1.99.

"We are excited to roll out our service to the Houston community," Chowbus co-founder and CEO Linxin Wen said in a statement. "The city is known for its vibrant culinary scene, which includes tons of great authentic Asian restaurants. We're proud to help Space City discover them."

Beyond helping restaurants expand their reach, Chowbus aims to be a good partner to its restaurants by providing them with analysis of best-selling dishes as well as high quality digital photography. On average, Chowbus claims to boost delivery revenue by 25-percent for restaurants on the platform.

"We're thrilled by the opportunity to partner with Chowbus," said Shanjian Li, the owner of Chongqing Chicken Pot, a Szechuan restaurant in Chinatown's Bellaire Food Street complex. "We hope this will help more Houstonians discover the flavorful dishes that we work so hard to create every day."

Based in Chicago, Chowbus has been a growth spurt. The platform now offers delivery from more than 3,000 restaurants in over 20 cities across North America such as Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, and Boston.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Research has found that 86 percent of consumers are now using off premise services at least monthly. Houston restaurants need to factor in that trend and adapt to the shift in the market. Getty Images

Houston restaurants need to get innovative when it comes to the growth of take-out customers

Guest column

The past year revealed a continued increase in the number of people ordering out at home or in the office, rather than dining in a restaurant.

Independent Market Alliance, a network of independent market share leaders in broadline foodservice distribution with 16 brands, found staggering statistics in their research demonstrating that 86 percent of consumers are now using off premise services at least monthly and a third are using it more than they did a year ago. This trend has driven a dramatic increase in third-party delivery service options, further facilitating growth.

Furthermore, consumers now want to better understand the full lifecycle of single-use packaging from how it was made and impact on the environment. With 24 percent of consumers always or usually considering sustainability when purchasing, sustainability has truly become a competitive focus that cannot be ignored, but not willing to compromise on functionality.

Adapting to consumer habits

Restaurants that have traditionally relied on a delivering an exceptional dine-in experience are now being faced with the challenge of creating that same customer experience through their packaging consumed offsite.

Diners expect to receive the same quality of food when they order delivery or take out as they would receive sitting down at a restaurant – from temperature, crispiness to the utensils needed to consume. Quality and the menu item's ability to travel well is important to consumers in the consumers decision-making process as 90 percent at least sometimes think about how well that particular food will travel, according to a recent study by the Cleveland Research Company Foodservice Council.

To combat this, restaurants operators are looking to new delivery solutions such as switching to temperature-control packaging with proper ventilation and carrying packages that separates different foods to prevent sogginess and loss of texture. This is key to succeeding the age of third-party delivery services, as nearly 60 percent of consumers would see the restaurant at least partially at fault if the delivered food is of reduced quality or took too long to arrive, per the study.

There is still a gap, in many instances, between the customer demand and traditional restaurant operators adapting to advanced packaging either due to cost of packaging or lack of product knowledge. National chains have begun to bring in third-party organizations with the core competencies in off-premise product knowledge for guidance and solutions as to what the offsite dining experience could look like. IMA has become a resource to help provide more understanding between cuisine type and the right packaging.

Third-party delivery and packaging innovation

While traditional sit-down restaurants and even their fast-casual counterparts haven't always had the at-home or offsite experience in mind, the rise of third-party delivery systems has led to additional considerations across all operators. In fact, the Cleveland Research Council's Online Food Consumer Survey (Gojak, et al., 2019) shows that 50% of U.S. consumers surveyed have used a restaurant delivery service at least once.

Customers who see that their food provider understands that safety is a priority have increased loyalty to establishment. As a result, the rise of tamper-free packaging has become a staple in food service within the past 18 months albeit providing the security through a label, a stapled bag or even more advanced with plastic seals

Tamper-free food packaging is taking on a higher profile as consumers fret about the possibility of delivery passing through hands of "touchy" third-party workers. Through simple innovations such as seals and button-top lids, tamper-free packaging goes a long way to give consumers peace of mind and demonstrate that operators are concerned about their well-being.

Bottom line, delivery demand is growing given structural tailwinds from shifting consumer demand for convenience and off-site consumption, and operators for both fast casual and traditionally dine-in restaurants must adapt.

Factoring in sustainability 

Sustainability is a frequently used buzzword in the foodservice industry that many do not fully understand. While sustainable and biodegradable are often used interchangeably in the foodservice industry, the word "biodegradable" has been greenwashed and actually means the package will degrade sometime in the next 500 years not what most consumers assume as compostable meaning it will biodegrade between 90 and 120 days

IMA and other industry leaders typically define sustainability of products by items that can be broken down within 90 and 120 days and are made of substrates that can be easily recycled by the average consumer. Many are now looking for ways now to develop these products to be truly sustainable in a way that is cost efficient enough to appeal to operators and help stop this greenwashing

Because operators don't always see the added value of innovative packaging, the additional price tag that comes with also ensuring that packaging is sustainable prevents wider use of sustainable materials in today's take out landscape. For that reason, most operators are just beginning to truly explore the cross over between sustainability and customer experience.

In 2020, operators will still find the greatest success from targeting the customer experience, but as researchers invest in affordable solutions, sustainability in single-use packaging will continue to gain importance.

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Stephanie Nicholson is the senior director of business development and national accounts for Independent Marketing Alliance, a network of independent market share leaders in foodservice distribution with 16 brands.

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2 COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

research roundup

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Elon Musk taps into Texas workforce for out-of-this-world bartender gig

DRINKING ON THE JOB

Can you mix a mean margarita? Are you capable of slinging a superb Aperol spritz? If so, Elon Musk wants you to become a "spaceport mixologist."

Musk's SpaceX, which builds and launches rockets, is hiring a "passionate, experienced" mixologist for its "spaceport" near Brownsville. The ideal candidate possesses at least two years of "superior" mixology experience at resorts, bars, and full-service restaurants, including the ability to pair drinks with themed menus.

Among other duties, the mixologist will prepare drinks, including handcrafted cocktails, and will ensure "consistency and compliance with the restaurant's recipes, portioning, and waste control guidelines."

The new mixologist will concoct alcoholic beverages for SpaceX's launch facility in Boca Chica, a Texas Gulf Coast community about 20 miles east of Brownsville. The job posting indicates the mixologist will work on the culinary team serving the SpaceX workforce.

According to Austin-based job website Indeed, the average mixologist in the U.S. earns $13.53 an hour. The SpaceX job posting doesn't list a salary, but you've got to imagine Musk — by far the richest person in Texas — would fork over more than $13.53 an hour for a spaceport mixologist.

By the way, in case you're not a master mixologist, SpaceX also is looking for a sous chef in Boca Chica. The sous chef will be tasked with cooking up menus that emphasize seasonal items and "creative" options. The chef's duties will include sourcing high-quality ingredients "with a focus on local, sustainable, and organic items."

Musk, who spends much of his time in Austin, is developing what the Bloomberg news service describes as an "empire" in Texas. Aside from the SpaceX facility, Musk-led Tesla is building a vehicle manufacturing plant just east of Austin and is moving its headquarters here. If that weren't enough, the Musk-founded Boring Co., which specializes in developing underground tunnels, lists 20 job openings in Austin on its website. In addition, SpaceX tests rocket engines at a site in McGregor, about 17 miles southwest of Waco.

"Texas has had its share of characters over the years, and many have been larger-than-life, wealthy risk-takers who came from elsewhere," Waco economist Ray Perryman tells Bloomberg. "There's still a wildcatting mentality here, and there's still a mystique about Texas that Elon Musk fits well."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.