Nora Zhou and Xiang Robert Li are big fans of Emei, the Szechuan stalwart in Chinatown they used to visit frequently for spicy chicken, cold sesame noodles, whole fish, and a sleek ambience that was renovated just months before the pandemic.

“It has a nice ‘service-scape,’” says Li, the head of Temple University’s Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management. “They have good service, good interior design that looks nice. And spicy food is kind of my favorite.”

But their family’s regular shopping and restaurant trips from Lower Merion to Chinatown have been far more limited during the past year due to time constraints and concerns over of the virus. Fortunately, a new food delivery company targeting Philadelphia’s suburbs called RiceVan launched in May 2020 by Emei owner Dan Tsao is bringing the taste of Chinatown to them. The white van that rolled up to their Wynnewood home last week brought boxes filled with beef and bamboo stew, rice noodles with diced beef in Szechuan sauce, braised cabbage with century eggs, bags of frozen Shanghai dumplings, fresh green plums, YiBeiNimilk tea and crunchy guoba rice snacks.

“The best thing about RiceVan is that it’s a one-stop shop,” says Zhou, the finance director of a medical group, who has ordered weekly from the service since it began. “I normally order groceries, bakery, and restaurant food altogether, so it’s kind of perfect.”

Aside from the 26 Chinatown restaurants including Emei currently on RiceVan’s roster, from ShangHai 1 and Spice C to Chubby Cattle and Xi’an Sizzling Woks, 30% of the company’s revenues come from delivering specialty groceries. Whether you’re looking for fresh-killed black silkie chickens from the Q&Q live poultry market, Taishan cauliflower or pastry franks and snow bunny cakes from Paris Baguette, RiceVan has it covered.

And unlike most competitors in a multi-billion-dollar food-delivery sector that doubled revenues during the pandemic, deliveries are not limited to within relatively close proximity of the origin restaurant. In fact, RiceVan has been targeting a largely Chinese American audience, currently about 2,000 steady customers, who have settled within a 60-mile radius from the Lehigh Valley south to Delaware, and from as far east as Princeton west to Chester Springs.

“We don’t want to be in competition with Center City delivery services like Chowbus or UberEats,” says Tsao. “We want to reach the market beyond 5 miles away with bigger households that, even prior to the pandemic, found it harder to drive to Center City.”

It’s a community Tsao knows well considering he also owns the Philadelphia-based Metro Chinese Weekly newspaper and Metro Viet News, as well as the region’s largest channel (”PhillyGuide_official”) on the Chinese messaging app, WeChat. But his publishing business was suffering devastating effects from the pandemic nearly as much as the restaurant he owns with his wife, Tingting Wan. “We went from 100 pages of weekly ads to 64 overnight.”

“All our restaurant clients (advertising in the newspaper) were suffering in Chinatown,” says Tsao, “and many of our subscribers in suburbs like Paoli and Blue Bell were afraid to go out to eat, to come into Chinatown and buy groceries.”

That realization suddenly rang a bell of opportunity for Tsao as he gathered the eight members of his newspaper’s sales staff, whose jobs were in jeopardy, to brainstorm “pandemic proof” ways to stay employed. RiceVan is the entrepreneurial result and has redefined Tsao’s position at the crossroads of commerce, restaurants, and media in the local Chinese community.

The service has had an immediate and beneficial impact for restaurants that have suffered drastically diminished revenues during the pandemic.

“A lot of orders!” says Tai Lake assistant manager Alvin Chen, who says the Cantonese seafood specialist can average up to 40 RiceVan orders a day, and sold over 200 package deals of lobster fried rice, black pepper short ribs, steamed whole fish, and honeyed walnut shrimp for $88 during the Chinese New Year. “It definitely helped us.”

And RiceVan is rolling full steam ahead, earning a profit since its seventh month, says Tsao, as it sold through 1,500 roast ducks, 12,000 bags of frozen dumplings, 800 cakes, and 90 tons of fresh produce this past year. He’s in the midst of upgrading his platform software, investing in a billboard with a giant roast duck and dumplings facing city-bound traffic on I-76, and settling into a large new packing warehouse at Ninth and Callowhill. That’s where the orders roll in after midnight and his staff begins dispatching details for the day by 8 a.m.

By 10 a.m., the chefs at Emei can begin preparing up to 100 orders for daily delivery, from fu qi fei pian to scallion pancakes, spicy dry pot frogs, and crispy sea bass with pine nuts in sweet and sour sauce — all prepared in time to be collected by the noon van that circles Chinatown picking up dishes from participating restaurants. Once they’re organized at the warehouse along with assorted groceries for each customer, a dozen vans are dispatched six days a week no later than 2:45 p.m. with optimized routes destined for Allentown, Paoli, Middletown, Del., and elsewhere.

Of course, that’s a long way for something as delicate as a whole fish or even a crispy spring roll to travel without losing quality. So there is an expectation that customers will order takeout-friendly dishes wisely, be reheating their dinner, and adjusting expectations.

“We all know when you order takeout food, it has to be a compromise,” Li says. “But for us it’s OK, especially if we order something we might not cook at home.”

There are, no doubt, several restaurants in the suburbs serving high-quality traditional Chinese cuisine (Mama Wong, Margaret Kuo’s, Han Dynasty, and Dandan near the Main Line alone) as well as many markets targeting a diverse range of Asian communities. But RiceVan, Li and Zhou say, captures the breadth of spontaneity that a shopping trip to Chinatown offers, and also reinforces their connection to a neighborhood that remains a cultural hub.

“We enjoy the convenience of it,” says Li. “But there’s also some trust built because you’re ordering from a reliable source, and we know they’re not going to fail us in terms of food quality or safety. We know Emei well, so we had no hesitation jumping on to try this thing.”

The benefit of that long-earned Chinatown loyalty, though, may be tested as RiceVan prepares to enter its next phase and expand beyond core Asian flavors. Tsao says they plan to add about 20 non-Asian restaurants from Philadelphia to its roster in the coming months, beginning with a famous cheesesteak purveyor in the final stages of signing on. La Colombe coffee was just added to its grocery section. And the website’s default language will soon be switched from Chinese to English to expand their reach into non-Chinese speaking Asian American communities.

While such expansion might seem like a logical move, it’s not without risk of altering its successful brand identity, says John Stanton, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University.

“I really like the concept of having something focused on a specific target market establishing a level of loyalty by bringing Chinatown into the suburbs,” he said, “But I get nervous when people say, ‘And we can do cheesesteaks! And we can do doughnuts and pizza!’ I think you lose something when you add something. You really don’t have an identity.”

A key question to a brand’s success, Stanton says, is understanding exactly what is being sold.

“Is it simply food? Or are people actually buying a feeling of supporting the Asian community? A feeling of eating food that can be difficult to get outside of Chinatown?” asks Stanton. “If (RiceVan) is just another food delivery service, then it loses that panache and they’re competing with UberEats, DoorDash, and the others.”

Tsao says that RiceVan is in transition, and plans to leverage its ability to deliver from the city to suburbs, a unique service without direct competition currently that falls somewhere between the closer range of most delivery apps and a service like Goldbelly that delivers nationwide through UPS. Any non-Asian additions to the restaurant portfolio will be places that can only be experienced otherwise by coming to Center City.

“We started as a cultural company and that’s how we built our foundation of 2,000 regular customers,” he says. “That is still going to be our competitive advantage because we’re sensitive to the needs of ethnic communities in the greater Philadelphia area. We may launch the service in other languages, too. But the Asian American market in the long term is still a niche market, and I think what we provide has bigger, broader potential.”

The brand messaging will be key as RiceVan moves forward, says Stanton.

“It all depends on how they promote themselves,” he says. “I’d love to see these guys be successful. But it’s a razor thin line between being extremely successful and going out of business. If you make the right decisions, you probably become very rich.”