Photo: Olivia Dimmer

One day, when he was a graduate student, Linxin Wen (M.P.A. ’15) started knocking on doors in Chicago’s Chinatown. All he had to sell was an idea, born of his own frustration that many of his favorite “mom and pop” restaurants weren’t listed on mobile food-delivery platforms. What was Wen’s idea? He would deliver the food himself.

“I just went and pitched to about 20 or 30 restaurants,” he recalls. “Only one restaurant agreed to do it. The others just said ‘Go away.’”

For Wen, one was enough, and he asked his friends—and their friends, as word spread—to text their food orders to him. Then he would call the restaurant, place the orders, and make the deliveries. “They loved the service,” he says, “and it just keeps going.”

Going through the roof, that is. Seven years after arriving in the United States to begin the Master of Public Administration program at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business, Wen has built his idea into Chowbus, a third-party food-delivery platform that has seen explosive growth since Wen and co-founder Suyu Zhang launched it in 2016. Chowbus now operates in more than two dozen cities in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, and in recent months made headlines in the business news circuit by raising a total of $63 million in two rounds of funding from investors.

Growing up in a small town in China, Wen dreamed of starting his own business.

“I was told that being a boss means you are rich,” he says. “But when you start a company, that’s not true. You barely make money. Then I realized that being the boss means that you can do something according to your vision. You can benefit more people than you thought. So that has kept me motivated.”

Chowbus has carved out space in the crowded food-delivery marketplace with its curated, dish-centric approach. Staff handpick the best dishes from each restaurant to showcase on the app, and customers can bundle dishes from different restaurants in one order without extra fees.

As Chowbus has picked up speed, Wen has maintained his close connection with owners of authentic, independent Asian restaurants. “Our passion is to help small business owners,” he says. “I always say if they succeed, we succeed.”

In early 2020, Wen saw that Chinese restaurants were among the first affected by public reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, suffering large drops in business even before the first cases showed up in the U.S. Chowbus shifted into gear to soften the blow by lowering the commissions they charge their partner restaurants, adding perks for customers such as free masks and appetizers, and even hiring a bilingual consultant to help restaurant owners apply for small business Paycheck Protection Program loans.

“As long as we can do it and as long as the restaurants need help, we’ll be there,” Wen says.

Da Mao Jia in Chicago is new to the Chowbus fold, but the restaurant’s chief executive officer, Heng Shi, is already seeing results with increased delivery sales.

“They are helping me push advertisements through email, Instagram, Facebook, and WeChat [to] gain visibility,” he notes. As another plus, Shi points to the company’s sales representatives, who are local, speak Chinese, and check in “almost daily” to talk about marketing strategies.

With new funding and plans for scaling up, Wen says the focus at Chowbus is on building a long-term sustainable business. “Some people ask me, ‘How did you get here today?’” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m successful yet, there are so many things to do.”