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Yumso co-founders, from left to right: Yao Sun, CTO; Aaron Li, CEO; Max Yan, COO; and Harry Wang, chief marketing officer. (Yumso Photo)

For Max Yan, if he sees General Tso’s chicken on a restaurant’s menu, he keeps moving.

“For me, I will never eat in that place,” Yan said. “That’s a red flag.”

For Yan and many of his friends, who like himself are international students from China, it’s hard to find restaurants serving legit food from home. Too many places are over-Americanized and serve faux Chinese items, like the general’s deep-fried chicken. So they turned to chefs in the “invisible market,” many of whom are foreign-born and sell homemade dishes from China and other countries through sites like Facebook or WeChat, a Chinese social media outlet.

The solution filled their bellies — and it inspired the idea of creating a business to help connect these chefs with hungry customers craving authentic meals.

In 2016, Yan, Aaron Li, Harry Wang and Yao Sun launched Yumso, a Seattle-based online business and app for made-to-order meals delivered to your home.

Max Yan, sitting in Yumso’s new office in the University District of Seattle, shares an image of desserts being sold by one of the chefs on his company’s app. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Right now the site mostly features Chinese and Korean chefs. There’s the woman who creates desserts that are as much art piece as foodstuff, with a pale pink, cotton candylike marshmallow or a glossy green confection that looks like bamboo. Another chef offers “19-spice soup” flavored with 18 spices, the 19th a reference to his nickname, Spice. One couple — she’s Korean, he’s Chinese — started out selling little triangles of rice filled with tuna, chicken or crab that are meant for on-the-go snacking, a sort of gourmet Korean granola bar. The small bites went so well, they’ve branched into main dishes, too.

The company also helps home chefs find commercial kitchens to work in so that they’re operating legally. It guides cooks through the process of getting business permits, insurance and licensing.

“The expense and risk to opening a restaurant is too high, especially when Seattle real estate costs are increasing every year,” Yan said. “A lot of people have excellent cooking skills, but they don’t have the resources and knowledge to open up a restaurant. You can come to us and we can take care of them.”

Yumso has 12 mostly part-time employees. Yan, who graduated from the University of Washington with an art history degree, works full time as COO. Li, CEO, and Wang, chief marketing officer, are still UW students. Sun works part-time for Yumso as CTO.

The startup’s biggest challenge has been finding kitchen space for their chefs that’s convenient to delivery locations. Most commercial kitchens are in south Seattle, so Yumso is partnering with restaurants that serve only lunch or dinner so their chefs could use the space in off hours. The chefs sign a contract with Yumso to sell with them exclusively for the first six months.

The app is currently available only for iPhones, but an Android version is under development. .

Yan appreciates how focused the chefs are on their performance and reviews. “If a customer gives them three stars, they will get crazy and call me, asking, ‘What do I do?’” Yan said. He advises offering a coupon and trying to do better next time.

“They are constantly improving,” he said, “step by step.”

We caught up with Yan for our Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Yumso is a marketplace where you can find authentic gourmet meals cooked by independent chefs. It is also an incubator that helps those chefs successfully form their business.”

Inspiration hit us when: “We couldn’t find real Chinese food in restaurants, and the ‘invisible’ market for homemade foods was growing so fast.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “We received an angel investment from a personal investor who is also a restaurant owner.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “We know the market very well, and are getting our start early when other people do not even know there is a market there. Plus, we’re all foodies.”

Screen shot of the Yumso app.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “First, we designed an efficient ordering system where the chefs can set their own delivery schedule and require people to order 30 minutes, 60 minutes or 24 hours ahead. With this pre-order policy, chefs can guarantee a high level of quality and several orders can come out at once.

The policy has four advantages: chefs can manage their own time and have plenty of time to prepare the foods; our drivers can deliver more than one order in a trip so long as they’re in the same direction; the customers pay less for delivery; and customers can better plan their meals in advance before they starve!

Second, we turn the chefs into our marketing representatives. Many chefs were selling foods on Facebook or WeChat, so they already have a customer base before using our app. They bring a lot of customers to us, and we give them some reimbursement to encourage them to build a stronger bond with their customers.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “We’ve had a lot of small setbacks, but no big mistakes so far.”

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Bezos. Amazon is also in the delivery industry and his resources would help us a lot. Delivery is a very tricky part, especially for small companies.”

Our favorite team-building activity is: “Trying new dishes together from the chefs on our platform.”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Whether the person is willing to do the essential work and get their hands dirty while keeping a bigger goal in mind.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Do not spend all the time making plans. You never discover the biggest problems or opportunities until you start going.”

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