When living in another country, the language barrier can be one of the most difficult barriers to leading an otherwise normal life.

If not fluent in the country’s mother tongue, you may have to ask people around you for a favor to do something as simple as ordering a pizza.

Two young men — Zachary Marble from the U.S. and his friend Ben Hough from the U.K. — decided to start a food delivery service for people just like them who often faced a similar situation. The two knew each other from living in Seoul for two years from 2008 to 2010. They also target as their main customer Koreans who want to eat premium, quality food, such as authentic Indian cuisine.

Last year, they started the bilingual food delivery business Bird Riders Food Delivery (BRFD). All you need to do is to visit their homepage or call them to choose a restaurant and the menu items of your choice. Then BRFD staff will pick up the ordered food, cooked for them at the restaurant, and deliver it to the customer’s address. The cost includes the price of the food and the delivery fee, based on distance.

The two did experience a few hardships during the first two or three months because the word wasn’t yet out on the street. However, things slowly got better as the business went viral and they began to receive more and more orders from their customers. They built partnerships with more than 70 restaurants within less than a year after launching their business. They have busier days or difficult times due to bad weather, like rain or snow or bad road conditions. However, they feel happy when they get more orders. Korea.net sat down them to share their thoughts and to talk about their future goals.

Zachary Marble (right) and Ben Hough are the co-founders of Bird Riders Food Delivery.

Zachary Marble (right) and Ben Hough are the co-founders of Bird Riders Food Delivery.

You first came to Korea in 2008, but moved to China to get a job at a large corporation. You came back to Korea last year. Is there any special reason you started your business in Korea?
I first came to Korea in 2008 and worked at a school. I had to ask my friends or someone else to even do easy things like ordering a pizza, as there was no English delivery service. Two years later, I moved to Shanghai to work in the export and financial sector. Then I learned about Sherpa’s, a Shanghai-based bilingual food delivery service. It was a very convenient service for foreigners so I often used it. I thought it would be nice to have such a service in Korea. I wasn’t interested in the job I was doing in Shanghai. I talked with Ben about the idea and decided to start the business.
The reason I opened the business in Seoul is because there is no such service here. We found that Seoul and Shanghai have many things in common. As I lived in Seoul for two years before, I know many places and have many friends who can help me.

You’ve built a partnership with more than 70 restaurants within less than a year since starting this business. We can see good Bird Riders reviews online. How do you assess your business performance so far?
It’s just a year since we registered this business, on July 22 last year. Though it’s still small, we’re happy with our growth.
Things aren’t quite like they were a year before. It was like being on a rollercoaster to prepare starting a new business, with many ups and downs. Now, however, quite a large proportion of foreigners here know Bird Riders. We particularly have many customers who order halal food. We also have more Korean customers these days. In the past, they accounted for 2 percent of the total customers, but, particularly after our business was introduced through the media here, it now grew to about 20 percent. This is very encouraging for us as we consider Korean customers very important.

Zachary Marble, one of the co-founders of Bird Riders, says his goal is to deliver premium food to customers in a quick, convenient manner.

Zachary Marble, one of the co-founders of Bird Riders, says his goal is to deliver premium food to customers in a quick, convenient manner.

Why did you choose food delivery as your field of business? What made you so sure this would be successful?
In March 2013, I met Ben at a coffee shop in Shanghai and talked about the idea. Through market analysis, we found that Seoul and Shanghai had many things in common. However, there was no bilingual food delivery service in Seoul. So we thought it would be very successful if we started such a business like Sherpa’s in Seoul. After that, we made a business plan and began to find investors until October that year. One Chinese investor took an interest in our plan so we took him to Seoul for three days. During the three-day stay in Seoul, we explained our business to many restaurants in the city and received letters of intent from about 30 restaurant owners. However, things didn’t go well with the investor in December that year and everything was stopped. We had to find a new investor within two months. It was a difficult time. We managed to solve the situation and came back to Seoul in March last year.

Before registering our business, we had to do so many things to prepare to start a business, such as find an office, hire staff and purchase delivery bikes. I could’ve been overwhelmed or worried about thinking what we had to do, but we did it step-by-step. We painted this office and decorated the walls ourselves.

I guess some people might find non-Koreans working in food delivery to be a bit strange. Others might even regard delivery as being a lower-ranked job. Did you experience any difficulties due to such prejudices?
People used to look down on chefs due to a similar misunderstanding, but not anymore. Now, chefs are like celebrities in Korea. Food delivery is just one of the same jobs. Let’s say you study at a university and work as a bartender part-time. It’s still just a job you’re paid for.
When it comes to hiring new workers at Bird Riders, we receive more resumes for the office jobs than for the delivery jobs, even though the delivery jobs are better paid. Our workers here are all young and fluent in Korean and English. Many of them just graduated from university or are university students who do this part-time. One of our delivery riders speaks really fluent English. He is the best English-speaker in Korea I’ve ever met. I don’t think that many young people have such a misunderstanding.

It could have been difficult for you to learn location names and directions in Korean. Do you have any secret solution to this?
Thanks to the new address system, we can find the road and numbers of the building. The old address system didn’t seem to be well-organized. For example, the number of a place didn’t correspond to the building’s location and it seemed to be here and there with no system. The newly-introduced address system is the one that the whole world uses. We also use Google Maps when finding the delivery location.

Bird Riders Food Delivery scooters are parked in front of their offices in Dongja-dong in Yongsan-gu District, Seoul.

Bird Riders Food Delivery scooters are parked in front of their offices in Dongja-dong in Yongsan-gu District, Seoul.

People here are very-much used to having food delivered. There are all kinds of apps you can use to order food. The market seems very competitive. How can Bird Riders differentiate itself?
Many restaurants here provide delivery services. We can also find many food delivery apps, such as “Yogiyo.” However, many of the restaurants they mainly deal with, like Chinese restaurants or chicken and beer places, have their own delivery services. We try to stay away from those and carefully choose our restaurants to work with. We build partnerships with restaurants known for high-quality international food, and most of them don’t deliver. Our goal is to deliver authentic, premium food to our customers in a quick, convenient manner.

When selecting a restaurant, we keep a close eye on SNS channels like Facebook. These days, some restaurant owners contact us as they don’t provide delivery services. Sometimes, our customers recommend to us a list of restaurants they wish to be included in our service.

Another difference is that we are a bilingual food delivery service targeting both non-Koreans and Koreans.

Unlike smartphone apps that help people run their errands, we receive a smaller commission. This is possible thanks to the partnerships we have with the restaurants. We also take responsibility for the overall condition and quality of the food, and try to resolve complaints from customers regarding the food.

What is the most important thing in your view when running a food delivery business?
The utmost importance lies in delivering good food as fast as possible while keeping it in its best condition. We also consider the safety of our delivery drivers as equality important.

Is there anything you find interesting or pleasant about living in Korea?
I really enjoy my life in Korea. I like everything here. Especially in Seoul, everything is very convenient. I believe Seoul has the best public transport in the world. It is cheap, clean and very convenient. I’m from Michigan. I can’t compare the public transport there with that of Seoul.
People are friendly and the food is nice. I live near Itaewon and I can find almost every cuisine in the world in this neighborhood. Seoul is also very safe in terms of crime. Recently, I’ve seen technology innovations happening in Korea. Technology development is very fast and surprising in Korea.

Isn’t it difficult for you to adjust to the cultural differences between Korea and the U.S., particularly regarding the workplace? Is there anything you find difficult about doing business in Korea?
In the office we are all equal, even though I’m the employer. There is no hierarchy in the office. I heard about typical office hierarchy in Korea from my friends. As our staff here are young and independent, they don’t seem to be affected by such an atmosphere.

What has been one of your most memorable or rewarding moments of running a business here?
I have had many rewarding moments so it is hard to pick one. When I receive orders from Korean customers, I feel happy. When I ask them how they got to know about Bird Riders, they say they learned about us through a good review or something like that. That makes me happy.
One day I received an e-mail from a Korean woman. She was a mother of two kids and spends most of her time at home taking care of the children and doing house chores. She said she was so happy to hear about Bird Riders after seeing a TV spot about us, because she can now pick the restaurant and order the food she wishes to have and get it delivered to the door. She even recommended to us a list of restaurants she wished to be included in our service.

The co-founders of Bird Riders, Zachary Marble (left) and Ben Hough, wish to make their business grow to over 2,000 orders every day, from the current daily rate of about 100.

The co-founders of Bird Riders, Zachary Marble (left) and Ben Hough, wish to make their business grow to over 2,000 orders every day, from the current daily rate of about 100.

Please share with us any future plans or goals you have for your company.
I received a few requests to expand our business through franchises after there was a spot on TV about us, but I don’t want to do that. We’re currently focusing on food delivery in designated areas of Seoul.

When we first opened our doors, we received only two orders on the first day. We were so nervous and didn’t know what to do. Now, we receive about 100 orders per day, on average. We even received 140 orders one day. My ultimate goal is to turn this business into a company like Sherpa’s, which receives as many as 2,000 orders a day.

By Yoon Sojung
Photos: Jeon Han
Korea.net Staff Writers