Asians love their food. We take photos of our meals before eating all the time. Instead of saying “Hello”, we like to greet one another with “Have you eaten yet?“. After all, food is often recognized in many cultures, especially within Asia, as a social glue, which helps people bond. But if there’s one common denominator within Asia, it is rice, the staple diet of some 3.7 billion people in this part of the world.
Enter OpenRice. Launched in Hong Kong 13 years ago, the premier dining guide now has a presence in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Regionally, as of August 2013, the website claims to have over 137 million pageviews, and eight million unique visitors for both their web and mobile channels. Within mobile for Asia, it also boasts some 1.5 million iPhone app downloads and 1.3 million Android app downloads.
Kenett Wong, Country Manager for OpenRice Singapore, shared with e27 that the company has been seeing 60 percent of users access the guide via their mobile devices locally.
In the city-state alone, the company shared in its release, there are now 37,000 iPhone app downloads and 17,000 Android app downloads. The release also said that there are 24,000 restaurant listings and 60,000 restaurant reviews available on the website. Generally, OpenRice has been doing reasonably well, with one million monthly pageviews and 15,000 members originating from its product in Singapore.
OpenRice Singapore functions on both – curated content and user-generated reviews. Wong said, “We focus a lot on user-generated content. […] We have our own editorial team who cover food news.”
Wong added that within OpenRice, there is an active group of people under content generation who collect information about new and up-and-coming places. “Even down to hawker centres, cafes, restaurants, we cover everything about food,” he added.
With competitors like Burpple and Hungrygowhere taking a stake in the food discovery and journaling business, what is OpenRice Singapore offering as a key differentiator? Well, for one, it is its commitment to readers and reviewers, be it online or offline, that sets it apart.
While new entrant and competitor 8 DAYS Eat, created by MediaCorp, the country’s flagship broadcasting company, might boast actual celebrities using its app to share dining spots, OpenRice thinks it might be better to turn users into celebrities. Users are classified according to the quality and volume of reviews left on the site and given badges to recognise their support for the platform.
Kenett said, “Singaporeans are all about food. They (users) try the food, want to talk about it, share the dining experiences and leave reviews with us.”
With 15,000 users from Singapore, e27 spoke to two star OpenRicers to get their experience with the platform. One pro-user, Edsmond Cheong, or better known as The Chosen Glutton, said that he first discovered OpenRice in January 2012. As an avid food reviewer, he posts his thoughts on both HungryGoWhere, another dining guide website, and OpenRice.
Cheong said, “I wouldn’t say if one is better than the other; both have their pros and cons. I chose to also post reviews on OpenRice SG because I feel that the site looks promising and has a long way to go. Largely, because of that, I started putting in effort into contributing to the site. It’s a win-win situation for both parties since it enlarges my blog’s exposure, while adding to the database of OpenRice SG.”
While he usually posts reviews on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, he feels that juggling a day job and a blog could come off as a chore. He added that most readers, regardless of the website or blog, look out for thoughts about ambience, service and most importantly, the food. Cheong stated over email that when he writes about food, it is important to put a price tag along with the dish. Taste, in general, he added, is just a subjective opinion, and should only be used as a reference.
Another pro-user Chong Yap Tok, started using the service in Hong Kong while working there, and told e27 that it was the main platform used by the general public. Upon his return to Singapore for work, he realised that the platform was available in Singapore too and started contributing to the local site in May 2013.
Like Cheong, Chong is also an avid food reviewer. He had started blogging about “good food” while schooling in the UK. When he was back in Singapore, mainly for holidays, he would contribute on local sites like Hungrygowhere (HGW) or Makansutra. He said, “I slowed my contributions on HGW largely due to the change in interface, which makes it slightly less user-friendly than what it used to be.”
Chong contributes about three to five reviews every week, and said that he would like to write more whenever time allows. He doesn’t consider himself a “pro” by any means of measure. “I try to share as much useful information as possible in each of my reviews. I simply put myself in the shoes of a reader and ask myself the ‘no-brainer’ questions of my objective in reading a food review,” he said.
Evidently so, OpenRice users are independent writers with no intention of influencing readers to eat at or boycott eateries. Chong said that he often tries to paint the most honest illustration of his dining experience. He also suggested that it would be good if OpenRice would think about platforms like the BlackBerry 10, include traditional web short-cuts (like control+C to copy) in formatting of reviews, and allow reviewers to chat with their readers.
OpenRice also has a strong offline presence. For example, the company organises weekly food tasting sessions with active members at unique eateries or places the team thinks, deserves a mention. The hosts, from the marketing department, open up each session with a round of introductions, and proceed with detailed explanations of each item.
However, does OpenRice Singapore edit reviews or reject those which come off as unflattering to the restaurants? Kenett informed, “Before you publish anything, an Editor will check it. No vulgarities, no hate languages. We want to avoid those things like competitors complaining about each other. We want to be fair to both users and F&B establishments. If somebody claims that a place is bad without even mentioning about the food they tried, it’s not fair to the restaurants. So we do reject reviews, but of course we don’t rewrite.”
Wong added that initially, when they rejected reviews, users were a little annoyed. These users had felt that the reviews were their “most honest opinions” put into words. However, he explained that it does take a little educating.
Wong said, “After awhile, they started to know where we were coming from. They automatically know that if they want to whine about a place, they will also share their experiences of the food. You can see people complain about service but say that the food is pretty good or all kinds of combination.
“We don’t want the user-generated platform to be just complaints. There’s no point I let people complain and I’ll tell merchants, ‘Hey come, pay me and I’ll remove your complaints.’ That’s never our approach.”
OpenRice Singapore’s earns through display advertising, and providing restaurants with solutions. These solutions could mean anything from web hosting, marketing campaigns and logo design services. Wong said, “We are trying to evolve more with our offerings. We are even trying to connect them with raw food suppliers.”
Focusing on mobile
At the moment, OpenRice Singapore has both an iPhone and Android app for users to take the reviewing experience onto their mobile devices. Two weeks ago, it also updated its iOS app to provide social sharing features, real-time search tips display, which show up while users type, bookmarking functions, and the ability to check out news on the local dining scene.
The press release noted that the current Android version will be updated with this new interface by the first quarter of 2014.