The vendors don’t have a permit, but they do have a long list of clients. ‘Not only do they have better prices, but also better quality than the canteens’, says a PhD student who uses the service regularly. She won’t identify the vendors by name. ‘They wouldn’t want us to, because they don’t pay taxes.’ She also doesn’t want to risk getting kicked out of the app group, and asks to remain anonymous, herself.
Finding real Chinese food is not easy in Groningen – the food offered by most ‘Chinese’ restaurants is pretty Westernized. But the secret food delivery trade? It’s excellent.
‘They post a different menu daily and you can order a big portion for around five euros’, another student customer reports. ‘Today we had noodles with eggs, fried meat and cucumber.’
At least four hundred students are subscribed to lunch groups in WeChat. The only way to enter these groups is if a friend adds you and you are fluent enough in Mandarin to understand the information published.
Customers can pay with Chinese money through the app, or with cash when the food is delivered. From 11:30 until 13:00 students can pick up their orders under a code name in different locations around the Bernoulliborg.
It’s against the law to sell food without a permit, because authorities cannot monitor the preparation and food for hygiene.
‘To protect consumers we have rules that vendors need to follow. If they don’t, they could be fined. But the worst consequence would be making a customer sick, which is why we enforce those rules so strictly’, explains Rob Hageman with the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA).
The Chinese students at Zernike clearly don’t mind. One of the customers said: ‘I know their food is good because I have tried it. They even send pictures of how they cook it; it looks good and it tastes good.’
The RUG and the municipality of Groningen weren’t aware of this growing, secret food business. RUG spokesperson Jorien Bakker says that students buying food from external vendors – instead of the RUG canteens – is not a problem. ‘But if it’s true that these vendors don’t have a permit, that’s a different story altogether.’