With his sugarcane juice stall at Monga Nightmarket (艋舺夜市) floundering due to COVID-19, things took a turn for the worse for Lin Chih-hang (林志航) when he was furloughed from a part-time job.
The crowds are trickling back to this nightmarket in Taipei’s Wanhua District (萬華), but Lin is now so busy that he has hired a friend to run his stall. As the sole driver of the night market’s delivery service, established on April 12, Lin takes on an average of 20 orders on weeknights and over 60 on weekends, with his father helping out when he is too busy.
Chen Tzu-hui (陳姿卉), who owns a seafood stall in the middle of the market, says that the delivery service has helped the night market regain at least 30 percent of its business before the coronavirus struck, and many of their counterparts throughout Taiwan have been using similar methods to salvage their losses. And what was just a temporary measure for Monga Nightmarket’s vendors to weather the pandemic is likely to stay as a permanent service.
Photo: Han Cheung, Taipei Times
“I didn’t expect it to become so busy,” Lin says. “Given how popular the service is now, we can’t just suddenly stop it after the pandemic is over. There’s no going back.”
SELF HELP DELIVERY
Lin delivered 37 orders on his busiest night last month. Since he only delivers within Wanhua, he often takes five different orders on one trip. He inspects the orders to see which items require immediate delivery — deep fried foods, for example — and then determines his route.
Photo: Han Cheung, Taipei Times
Chen’s stall is the dispatch center. Replying to Line messages on two phones and answering the occasional call, Chen scribbles down each order on a notepad and broadcasts it through the street’s loudspeakers. The vendors arrive one after another with their goodies — the customers usually order from multiple stalls for a total of between NT$200 and NT$300 — and Lin sets off on his scooter.
“When visitor numbers dropped to almost zero, we were panicking,” Chen says.
As the head of the Monga Nightmarket Development Association, Chen worked with the popular neighborhood Facebook group Monga People (我是艋舺人) to advertise the offerings — 68 stalls have joined so far — and the venture took off.
Photo: Han Cheung, Taipei TImes
Chen says that since the beginning of the month crowd have returned to about half their original size, but the night market also significantly relies on foreign tourists — especially those from South Korea and Southeast Asia.
“That hotel over there used to cater to Japanese customers,” Chen says. “Now it’s a quarantine hotel. We’ve been delivering many meals there.”
Both Chen and Lin say that they elected not to join major food delivery platforms such as Uber Eats since they take up to 33 percent of the cut. Chen says that he already has to pay rent and utilities for his stall, and he will barely make any profit if he forks out any more.
Photo: Han Cheung, Taipei TImes
JOINING THE GIANTS
Tim Lin (林定國), director of the Ningxia Night Market Tourism Association (寧夏夜市), takes a different approach. In November, the night market became Taiwan’s first to join a major delivery platform, after it inked a deal with Uber Eats.
“We just wanted to diversify our market; we had no idea a pandemic was coming,” Lin says. He added that “since we are pretty famous, we managed to negotiate a lower percentage cut. We promised to boost their popularity.”
While people avoided Ningxia due to COVID-19, the night market still remained profitable thanks to the delivery platform.
With only about 20 stalls participating at first, the night market saw 15,000 orders between Dec. 13 and March 13. As of press time, about 80 stalls have joined — numbers that Lin says will continue to grow.
Instead of making the customers browse through all 80 stalls, the night market has divided its vendors into groups of five on Uber Eats, with each group counting as one order. The night market has chosen items that would go well together. For example, group 7 offers sandwiches, pork stew, scallion rolls, grilled squid and grass jelly.
Tim Lin says that another benefit of joining a major platform is their aggressive advertising, which has since December featured popular celebrities such as Jolin Tsai (蔡依林) and Crowd Lu (盧廣仲).
“Even though [Uber Eats] still takes a significant cut, the benefits are worth it,” he says. “One might think 30 percent is a lot, but if you don’t try, you’re not making any money anyway. If you don’t stake your claim in the market first, someone else will.”
Tim Lin has more plans for what he calls the “stay at home economy” (宅經濟): he’s encouraging vendors to create reheatable packages of their signature items that can be delivered via online platforms to all corners of Taiwan.
“I want to replicate by 99.9 percent the stall’s original flavor,” Tim Lin says.
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