First China, now Starbucks gets an ambitious VC-funded rival in Indonesia

Asia’s venture capital-backed startups are gunning for Starbucks .

In China, the U.S. coffee giant is being pushed by Luckin Coffee, a $2.2 billion challenger surfing China’s on-demand wave, and on the real estate side, where WeWork China has just unveiled an on-demand product that could tempt people who go to Starbucks to kill time or work.

That trend is picking up in Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest country and Southeast Asia’s largest economy, where an on-demand challenger named Fore Coffee has fuelled up for a fight after it raised $8.5 million.

Fore was started in August 2018 when associates at East Ventures, a prolific early-stage investor in Indonesia, decided to test how robust the country’s new digital infrastructure can be. That means it taps into unicorn companies like Grab, Go-Jek and Traveloka and their army of scooter-based delivery people to get a hot brew out to customers. Incidentally, the name ‘Fore’ comes from ‘forest’ — “we aim to grow fast, strong, tall and bring life to our surrounding” — rather than in front of… or a shout heard on the golf course.

The company has adopted a similar hybrid approach to Luckin, and Starbucks thanks to its alliance with Alibaba. Fore operates 15 outlets in Jakarta, which range from ‘grab and go’ kiosks for workers in a hurry, to shops with space to sit and delivery-only locations, Fore co-founder Elisa Suteja told TechCrunch. On the digital side, it offers its own app (delivery is handled via Go-Jek’s Go-Send service) and is available via Go-Jek and Grab’s apps.

So far, Fore has jumped to 100,000 deliveries per month and its app is top of the F&B category for iOS and Android in Indonesia — ahead of Starbucks, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut .

It’s early times for the venture — which is not a touch on Starbuck’s $85 billion business; it does break out figures for Indonesia — but it is a sign of where consumption is moving to Indonesia, which has become a coveted beachhead for global companies, and especially Chinese, moving into Southeast Asia. Chinese trio Tencent, Alibaba and JD.com and Singapore’s Grab are among the outsiders who have each spent hundreds of millions to build or invest in services that tap growing internet access among Indonesia’s population of over 260 million.

There’s a lot at stake. A recent Google-Temasek report forecast that Indonesia alone will account for over 40 percent of Southeast Asia’s digital economy by 2025, which is predicted to triple to reach $240 billion.

As one founder recently told TechCrunch anonymously: “There is no such thing as winning Southeast Asia but losing Indonesia. The number one priority for any Southeast Asian business must be to win Indonesia.”

Forecasts from a recent Google-Temasek report suggest that Indonesia is the key market in Southeast Asia

This new money comes from East Ventures — which incubated the project — SMDV, Pavilion Capital, Agaeti Venture Capital and Insignia Ventures Partners with participation from undisclosed angel backers. The plan is to continue to invest in growing the business.

“Fore is our model for ‘super-SME’ — SME done right in leveraging technology and digital ecosystem,” Willson Cuaca, a managing partner at East Ventures, said in a statement.

There’s clearly a long way to go before Fore reaches the size of Luckin, which has said it lost 850 million yuan, or $124 million, inside the first nine months in 2018.

The Chinese coffee challenger recently declared that money is no object for its strategy to dethrone Starbucks. The U.S. firm is currently the largest player in China’s coffee market, with 3,300 stores as of last May and a goal of topping 6,000 outlets by 2022, but Luckin said it will more than double its locations to more than 4,500 by the end of this year.

By comparison, Indonesia’s coffee battle is only just getting started.

The next big restaurant chain may not own any kitchens

If investors at some of the biggest technology companies are right, the next big restaurant chain could have no kitchens of its own.

These venture capitalists think the same forces that have transformed transportation, media, retail and logistics will also work their way through prepared food businesses.

Investors are pouring millions into the creation of a network of shared kitchens, storage facilities, and pickup counters that established chains and new food entrepreneurs can access to cut down on overhead and quickly spin up new concepts in fast food and casual dining.

Powering all of this is a food delivery market that could grow from $35 billion to a $365 billion industry by 2030, according to a report from UBS’s research group, the “Evidence Lab”.

“We’ve had conversations with the biggest and fastest growing restaurant brands in the country and even some of the casual brands,” said Jim Collins, a serial entrepreneur, restauranteur, and the chief executive of the food-service startup, Kitchen United. “In every board room for every major restaurant brand in the country… the number one conversation surrounds the topic of how are we going to address [off-premise diners].”

Collins’ company just raised $10 million in a funding round led by GV, the investment arm of Google parent company, Alphabet. But Alphabet’s investment team is far from the only group investing in the restaurant infrastructure as a service business.

Perhaps the best capitalized company focusing on distributed kitchens is CloudKitchens, one of two subsidiaries owned by the holding company City Storage Solutions.

Cloud Kitchens and its sister company Cloud Retail are the two arms of the new venture from Uber co-founder and former chief executive, Travis Kalanick, which was formed with a $150 million investment.

As we reported at the time, Travis announced that he would be starting a new fund with the riches he made from Uber shares sold in its most recent major secondary round. Kalanick said his 10100, or “ten one hundred”, fund would be geared toward “large-scale job creation,” with investments in real estate, e-commerce, and “emerging innovation in India and China.”

If anyone is aware of the massive market potential for leveraging on-demand services, it’s Kalanick. Especially since he was one of the architects of the infrastructure that has made it possible.

Other deep pocketed companies have also stepped into the fray. Late last year Acre Venture Partners, the investment arm formed by The Campbell Soup Co., participated in a $13 million investment for Pilotworks, another distributed kitchen operator based in Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, Kitchen United has been busy putting together a deep bench of executive talent culled from some of the largest and most successful American fast food restaurant chains.

Former Taco Bell Chief Development Officer, Meredith Sandland, joined the company earlier this year as its chief operating officer, while former McDonald’s executive Atul Sood, who oversaw the burger giant’s relationship with online delivery services, has come aboard as Kitchen United’s Chief Business Officer.

The millions of dollars spicing up this new business model investors are serving up could be considered the second iteration of a food startup wave.

An earlier generation of prepared food startups crashed and burned while trying to spin up just this type of vision with investments in their own infrastructure. New York celebrity chef David Chang, the owner and creator of the city’s famous Momofuku restaurants (and Milk Bar, and Ma Peche), was an investor in Maple, a new delivery-only food startup that raised $25 million before it was shut down and its technology was absorbed into the European, delivery service, Deliveroo.

Ando, which Chang founded, was another attempt at creating a business with a single storefront for takeout and a massive reliance on delivery services to do the heavy lifting of entering new neighborhoods and markets. That company wound up getting acquired by UberEats after raising $7 million in venture funding.

Those losses are slight compared to the woes of investors in companies like Munchery, ($125.4 million) Sprig, ($56.7 million) and SpoonRocket ($13 million). Sprig and Spoonrocket are now defunct, and Munchery had to pull back from markets in Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle as it fights for survival. The company also reportedly was looking at recapitalizing earlier in the year at a greatly reduced valuation.

What gives companies like Kitchen United, Pilotworks and Cloud Kitchens hope is that they’re not required to actually create the next big successful concept in fast food or casual dining. They just have to enable it.

Kitchen United just opened a 12,000 square foot facility in Pasadena for just that purpose — and has plans to open more locations in West Los Angeles; Jersey City, N.J.; Atlanta; Columbus, Ohio; Phoenix; Seattle and Denver. Its competitor, Pilotworks, already has operations in Brooklyn, Chicago, Dallas, and Providence, R.I.

While the two companies have similar visions, they’re currently pursuing different initial customers. Pilotworks has pitched itself as a recipe for success for new food entrepreneurs. Kitchen United, by comparison is giving successful local, regional, and national brands a way to expand their footprint without investing in real estate.

“One of the directions that the company was thinking of going was toward the restaurant industry and the second was in the food service entrepreneurial sector,” said Collins. “Would it be a company that served restaurants with their expansions? Now, we’re in deep discussions with all kinds of restaurants.”

Smaller national fast food chains like Chick-Fil-A or Shake Shack, or fast casual chains like Dennys and Shoney’s could be customers, said Collins. So could local companies that are trying to expand their regional footprint. Los Angeles’ famous Canter’s Deli is a Kitchen United customer (and an early adopter of a number of new restaurant innovations) and so is The Lost Cuban Kitchen, an Iowa-based Cuban restaurant that’s expanding to Los Angeles.

Kitchen United is looking to create kitchen centers that can house between 10-20 restaurants in converted warehouses, big box retail and light industrial locations.

Using demographic data and “demand mapping” for specific cuisines, Kitchen United said that it can provide optimal locations and site the right restaurant to meet consumer demand. The company is also pitching labor management, menu management and delivery tools to help streamline the process of getting a new location up and running.

“In all of the facilities, all of the restaurants have their own four-walled space,” says Collins. “There’s shared infrastructure outside of that.”

Some of that infrastructure is taking food deliveries and an ability to serve as a central hub for local supplier, according to Collins. “One of the things that we’re going to be launching relatively soon here in Pasadena, is actually in-service days where local supplier and purveyors can come in and meet with seven restaurants at once.”

It’s also possible that restaurants in the Kitchen United spaces could take advantage of restaurant technologies being developed by one of the startup’s sister companies through Cali Group, a holding company for a number of different e-sports, retail, and food technology startups.

The Pasadena-based kitchen company was founded by Harry Tsao, an investor in food technology (and a part owner of the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Football Club) through his fund Avista Investments; and John Miller, a serial entrepreneur who founded the Cali Group.

In fact, Kitchen United operates as a Cali Group portfolio company alongside Miso Robotics, the developer of the burger flipping robot, Flippy; Caliburger, an In-n-Out clone first developed by Miller in Shanghai and brought back to the U.S.; and FunWall, a display technology for online gaming in retail settings.

“Kitchen United’s data-driven approach to flexible kitchen spaces unlocks critical value for national, regional, and local restaurant chains looking to expand into new markets,” said Adam Ghobarah, general partner at GV, and a new director on the Kitchen United board. “The founding team’s experience in scaling — in addition to diverse exposure to national chains, regional brands, regional franchises, and small upstart eateries — puts Kitchen United in a strong position to accelerate food innovation.”

GV’s Ghobarah actually sees the investment of a piece with other bets that Alphabet’s venture capital arm has made around the food industry.

The firm is a backer of the fully automated hamburger preparation company, Creator, which has raised roughly $28 million to develop its hamburger making robot (if Securities and Exchange Commission filings can be believed). And it has backed the containerized farming startup, Bowery Farming, with a $20 million investment.

Ghobarah sees an entirely new food distribution ecosystem built up around facilities where Bowery’s farms are colocated with Kitchen United’s restaurants to reduce logistical hurdles and create new hubs.

“As urban farming like Bowery scales up… that becomes more and more realistic,” Ghobarah said. “The other thing that really stands out when you have flexible locations … all of the thousands of people who want to own a restaurant now have access. It’s not really all regional chains and national chains… With a satellite location like this… [a restaurant]… can break even at one third of the order volume.”

 

The 21-day bitcoin challenge

There is a documentary series currently airing on iQiyi, China’s Netflix equivalent, about a Chinese bitcoin enthusiast who attempts to survive 21 days by merely living on 0.21 bitcoin, or $1,300, without any help or donations.

He You Bing is traveling and carrying nothing with her, and she has to retrieve food, housing, and basic necessities all through bitcoin transactions done on her phone. Interestingly, she is also doing this challenge in some of China’s largest cities including Beijing and Shenzhen.

Her name is something of a nom de guerre – a nickname, with “You Bing” directly translating to “having a disease,” and the whole name alludes to the girl’s over-enthusiasm for bitcoin.

It’s a fascinating time for making this attempt. In the last few weeks, there have been numerous reports of China’s crypto bans – including Beijing and Shenzhen banning public cryptocurrency-related speeches, events, or activities, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Also included in the purported ban were a number of WeChat media accounts that promoted cryptocurrencies, which have been permanently blocked. Furthermore, Beijing blocked access to the websites of over 120 offshore exchanges in the mainland and banned large crypto purchases through popular Chinese payments platforms Alipay and WeChat transactions.

Given the sheer number of these bans, readers who live outside of China may be led to think that there is a bleak outlook for the cryptocurrency environment on mainland China. But He You Bing’s Bitcoin challenge reveals a refreshing perspective on the crypto awareness of people living in these local cities as well as the power of WeChat. $1,300 may not sound like much for 21 days of travel in the U.S., but in China, where a cheap meal costs just $1, it can go a long way. The real question is, will people accept bitcoin?

Finding acceptance with bitcoin

Through daily video-log like documentaries, Bing is filmed running around asking different business vendors whether they accept bitcoin. The vendors, varying from small hole-in-the-wall eateries to employees from large chain stores like Uniqlo, express their reactions that are telling of their preconceived notions, or lack thereof, of bitcoin and cryptocurrency. Similar to the U.S., people’s attitudes vary from ignorance and distrust to welcoming. It’s eye-opening to see how different Chinese people think about bitcoin.

On the first day of her challenge, Bing arrives in Beijing, where she wants to go to an amusement park. The entrance fee is 2 Chinese Yuan, or around 30 cents in USD, but the park didn’t accept bitcoin. Bing also asked several fast food restaurants whether they accepted bitcoin so she could buy food, but neither of them did.

As she approaches these vendors, rather than paying in bitcoin, she often has to explain what a bitcoin is in the first place, and finds very little success along the way. One feat on her first day is that she was able to find an unlocked Ofo bike, a dockless bike that can be unlocked and paid for with one’s cellphone. With it, she biked around in an attempt to reach out to more vendors. By the end of the first day, Bing didn’t succeed in finding a food place that accepted bitcoin, and she subsisted on four packets of ketchup and food samples from a supermarket. She slept in a 24-hour McDonald’s on her first night.

The second day, Bing foraged for food. She grabbed fruits from wild trees. Her food intake for the second day consisted of some fruits on a tree and someone else’s leftover burger at a McDonald’s. She ended up getting a stomach ache and threw up, sleeping in another 24-hour McDonald’s. 

Bing was becoming hopeless by the third day. She was on the the verge of fainting and the filmmakers sent her to a hospital. At this point, the challenge had gathered some attention, and supporters were able to contact the filmmakers. They then brought Bing food and she paid for it by bitcoin. On the third night, she slept in an art gallery.

It’s not the currency, it’s the community

Bing’s story soon spread and people started finding her through WeChat where they would offer to exchange bitcoin to fiat. At that point, the challenge would have become too easy, so the filmmakers changed the rules so that Bing had to transact offline and exchange Bitcoin with people in real life.

On the sixth day, Beijing was having the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Summit, so the filmmakers moved to Shenzhen to continue the challenge. The audience started getting suspicious of the filmmakers, asking whether they were related to scam projects. The filmmakers said that they were approached by crypto projects but that they declined them. By then, six support groups in WeChat had been created to support Bing, with every WeChat group having 500 people (500 is the max number of people one can have in a WeChat group). These chatroom participants included bitcoin believers, real estate agents, and advertising salesmen.

Despite the current ban on crypto activities, the documentary shows that bitcoin is alive and well in China within digital communities, albeit not prevalent in the physical world. Most of Bing’s days are documented on iQiyi. And her encounters are telling of what is actually happening in China when it comes to cryptocurrency and mobile technology adoption. Notably, Bing was able to get through living in China simply through her phone. The power of WeChat brought her supporters directly to her.

By day seven, Bing got in contact with some of her WeChat supporters and was able to purchase face wash from them. The next day, she found a restaurant that accepted bitcoin. She got someone to buy her clothes at Uniqlo by exchanging bitcoin with them and then also found someone who was willing to book a hotel for her by exchanging bitcoin.

Gradually, Bing’s bitcoin challenge started a small movement, where her supporters would also approach shops to ask whether they accepted bitcoin and relay the information to her.

On a daily basis, the filming team recorded how many business and pedestrians Bing reached out to and the number of successful bitcoin transactions she made. From the initial ten days to now, Bing has gradually gained confidence. She now has a strategy on how to find people to exchange her bitcoins and what to exchange them for. Over time, the number of inquiries Bing did increased from ten to twenty a day to over a hundred per day. The number of successful transactions was still only a handful a day, however.

Bing’s story continues, and she is now at day 19. She and the filmmakers have migrated to the southern city of Guangzhou. As she assimilates into this new lifestyle, Bing found people to exchange Bitcoin to fiat with her to purchase her train tickets, her hotel rooms, and her meals. Nonetheless, more often than ever, the pedestrians and small business vendors she approached were ignorant, skeptical, and did not want to be part of the filming.

Finding utility in bitcoin

Recently, China Daily covered Bing’s challenge. The documentary has gotten some media attention in China, and companies and institutions have asked to donate and sponsor the filmmakers. They have claimed that they have turned them all down.

In the last year, the narrative around bitcoin has gradually centered on becoming a “store of value” in the U.S. given the increasing transaction costs on the blockchain. Bitcoin transaction prices have increased from 30 cents at the beginning of 2017 to $40 at end of 2017 during the peak of bitcoin prices. As a result of such large fluctuations in fees, transactions no longer happened as frequently as before. Bitcoin’s transaction cost is now back down to about 60 cents this year.

However, as the market has come down in the last few months, bitcoin has once again become a “safe haven” for individuals to go to, and as a result, bitcoin now makes up more than 56% of the total cryptocurrency market cap, up from 34% at the beginning of January 2018.

Bing still gets people suspecting that she is trying to scam them. Since the rise of crypto prices and bitcoin reaching almost as high as $20,000 at the end of 2017, there have been numerous scam coins coming out everywhere. In China, there are often obscure and random coins that appear with no real value-add, no relationship to any blockchain, and are devised purely to fool non-savvy citizens who think they can make a quick buck. In fact, one of the purposes of Beijing’s ban on commercial venues hosting cryptocurrency events was aimed at purging coins from scamming the public.

Bing will continue and finish her bitcoin challenge, but the greater challenge is on all of us in the blockchain community to continually improve this technology for broader consumption.

Ritzy-sounding Caviar is now working with fast-food king McDonald’s

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Food delivery service Caviar is adding another big brand to its list of partner restaurants. Today it will start delivering McDonald’s to offices around New York.

This whole week, Caviar’s quick delivery service, Fastbite, will be serving up McDonald’s sausage McMuffin and hash browns for five bucks. Fastbite promises to deliver meals in 15 minutes or less to hungry workers at lunchtime. This is the second major food chain that Caviar has teamed up with, after Chipotle.

Caviar is a subsidiary of Square, which has been bulking up its restaurant services since acquiring Caviar last August. This year, the company acquired Fastbite and added a point-of-sale interface geared toward bartenders. The partnership with McDonald’s is helping to solidify its position in the fast-food delivery space.

McDonald’s has struggled for the past few years to maintain relevance in a country that is increasingly moving toward healthy and organic eating. Targeting a lunch crowd tethered to their desks could be a good opportunity to get McDonald’s back on people’s radar. The fast-food giant recently made their breakfast menu available all day to the delight of many.

 










McDonald’s now accepts ‘two-second’ mobile payments in China amid big data push

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McDonald’s has teamed up with Ant Financial — the financial services subsidiary of Alibaba, China’s largest ecommerce player — to start accepting mobile payments in more than 2,100 of its restaurants in China using Alipay. (Think of Apple Pay or Android Pay in the U.S.)

McDonald’s Shanghai chains will be the first to integrate the new mobile payment option, with the countrywide rollout to be completed by March next year.

The fast-food chain is also looking to partner with Alipay on “data technologies” to learn more about its customers, businesses, and ecosystems — essentially to compile big data on Chinese consumers to really take its business in the country to the next level.

“It will take customers only two seconds to pay their meals at McDonald’s after introducing Alipay to its outlets, by scanning the QR code in users’ Alipay,” Ant Financial said in a statement.

While for now it’s just getting started, the timing is interesting. Just yesterday, Alibaba inked a strategic investment in India’s largest ecommerce and mobile payments company Paytm, in a deal that is said to be worth $680 million and leave Paytm valued at $4 billion.

Alibaba is now estimated to own around 40 percent of Paytm, making it a global ecommerce/payments force to be reckoned with — no longer just inside China. It also makes you wonder if this latest tie-up in China between McDonald’s and Alibaba means that there could eventually be new synergies for the fast-food chain to expand its mobile payments into India on the back of the Paytm deal.

In the U.S., McDonald’s already accepts Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Samsung Pay.

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