Chihuo.org is the most popular Chinese-language food and lifestyle website in Los Angeles. It has accumulated more than 3,000 followers on Facebook and a whopping 178,000 followers on the Chinese social networking site Weibo. It has a roster of 20-some employees: two full-timers and the rest a mix of part-timers, interns and eager volunteers. It's planning to launch a Northern California branch soon and, hopefully in the coming months, a Seattle one. Chihuo also has been around for only two years.
“Most of our followers are Los Angeles residents, but we have a sizable number of people from China as well,” Amy Duan says.
Duan is the founder of Chihuo. She's a 28-year-old Hangzhou immigrant who is able to transition seamlessly from Chinese to nearly unaccented English. A USC graduate student, she's been in the States for four years already.
“I went to college in Shanghai for accounting. But I didn't like it and so I decided to come here for school,” she says.
Duan enrolled in USC Annenberg for graduate school with a focus on media and marketing. “It was then where I started a dining group with a couple of friends,” she says. The dining group was named Chihuo — which means foodie in Mandarin — and it became the starting point for what would later turn into Chihuo.org, the website and company.
We caught up with Duan and asked about her journey from grad student to entrepreneur:
SQUID INK: How did this dining club work?
AMY DUAN: We would keep connected through Chinese social networking apps QQ and then Renren. Our group would eat out about three times a week. Most of our attendees were Chinese nationals at USC. Eventually I started posting our food finds on a Weibo account, and it just escalated from there. We realized there was a huge need for a food blog specifically targeted to Chinese-speaking people who live in Los Angeles.
When did you decide to make it into a full-on business?
My co-founder, who is currently based in Seattle, and I decided to make a website for Chihuo. He does the programming and I'm in charge of the business and editorial side. In June of 2011, we reached 1,000 fans in one month on Weibo, then 10,000 fans in March 2012 and then 40,000 in August 2013. In May of 2014, we reached 100,000 fans. I quit my full-time job at the end of July last year and now I work out of a home office. In terms of our staff, we have approximately 20 people on our team. Only two of us are full-time. It's amazing, really. A lot of our staff are volunteers or interns, and we see that they have faith in Chihuo.
Right now, Chihuo is a website with a focus on Chinese food in Los Angeles. Where do you plan on taking this?
My goal is to take Chihuo across the nation and get as many users and fans as we can. We're expanding to Northern California soon and then Seattle. We want it to be a mix between Zagat and Yelp in the future, though, and start to encourage user-generated reviews. But we also want a strong editorial voice, because I feel that is important. We've been expanding to general lifestyle content, so we'll do area neighborhood guides or holiday-themed articles. We're also branching into event planning. But right now, our articles are still mostly Chinese food–focused.
Tell me about your audience and what the most popular articles are on your site.
Our audience is mainly Chinese immigrants living in California, but we have quite a few followers from China who are just interested in seeing what there is in Los Angeles. In terms of popular articles, people really like DineLA round-ups and Chinese food dishes that remind them of home. Food lists always do well, as well as Southern California–minded guides like “where to see flower fields.”
What are your top Chinese food picks?
For dumplings I like Wang Xing Ji, because the style (Zhejiang) is like the food back in my hometown. For bao zi (buns), it would be Qing Dao Bread Food in Monterey Park. Spicy — I like Hunan Spicy Taste. Dim sum, I prefer Sea Harbour in Rosemead or King Hua. And for noodles, there's a place in Temple City called Happy Noodle Restaurant that is good.