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Food for Thought
Culinary fads have caused online sensation in China, but success isn't always as it seems
By Yuan Yuan | NO. 2 JANUARY 11, 2018

People queue up for Heytea in Sanlitun, Beijing, on December 17(VCG)

An enormous snake winds around the Apple Store in Sanlitun, one of the most bustling areas in downtown Beijing. The zigzagging line of people, however, is not made up of the usual devotees waiting to buy the latest iPhone, but for a cup of tea.

The seemingly endless queue, at last culminating in a small store called Heytea located in the heart of Sanlitun, has been a common sight since it opened here on August 12, 2017. With a name meaning "happy tea" in Chinese, Heytea has already caused tea mania in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Shanghai before opening its latest branch in Beijing.

It is not unusual to wait in line for more than two hours just to reach the cashier before joining another queue to wait for the tea to be served. In Guangzhou, the maximum wait time is around five hours, according to a report by, a major news website in China, whilst in Beijing and Shanghai the wait can reach seven hours at peak times.

But what ingredient could be so enticing as to compel people across the country to endure such eye-watering waiting times? The answer is cheese. Specializing in cheese topped milk tea, Heytea boasts a variety of Chinese teas served beneath a layer of surface cheese around one centimeter thick. Founder Nie Yunchen, himself an ardent fan of milk tea, came up with the idea for this unusual recipe when he was unable to find a decent cup of his favorite brew in his hometown, Jiangmen, in south China's Guangdong Province.

"All the local milk tea vendors were just mixing cheap milk powder with tea made from cheap teabags," Nie told media. "I didn't want to drink that and so I decided to make my own from good quality, natural ingredients."

Before long, the idea had grown into a business and a small milk tea shop in Jiangmen, and after a couple of years, had spread across the country's first-tier cities on the back of a wave of popularity.

Bittersweet success

Nie, however, believes the craze for Heytea is not necessarily a good thing, and he seems more concerned than overjoyed regarding his product's sensational reception.

"It is not a good sign," Nie said. "This initial intensity might lead to the quick death of the business."

Nie's trepidation is well founded. Since 2012, a slew of eateries dubbed "Internet famous" by netizens have sprung up across China, replete with novel ideas or innovative marketing methods and attracting much attention, leading to large investment and rapid expansion. In most cases, these restaurants have been unable to maintain their business for more than three years.

Back in 2012, just as Nie was opening his first tea store in his hometown, a Beijing local by the name of He Chang was also starting a business selling traditional egg pancakes in Beijing.

The egg pancake is a common breakfast item in the north of China, a staple of street stalls and restaurants across the region. But He Chang was different from the other countless pancake vendors on the streets of Beijing. His small, nicely decorated shop was based in the city's central business district, and he would deliver pancakes in his Mercedes Benz. His unusual approach soon made him and his business a hot topic on the Internet.

Alongside the popularity, cash also flowed in. In 2015 alone, more than 180 million yuan ($27.7 million) was invested into He's pancake business Huangtaiji. The number of locations in Beijing rocketed to 44, all situated in gleaming shopping malls and bustling business areas, whilst the fad also spread to Shanghai and Guangzhou. In July 2016, the first overseas restaurant was opened in Sydney, Australia.

He proudly shared pictures of people queuing for his food on Weibo every time a new shop was opened. But for all Huangtaiji's apparent success and the boasts of its owner, reviews of the pancakes themselves were lackluster. Dissatisfied customers claimed on the popular online review platform Dianping that, despite Huangtaiji's boasts of a secret sauce, the flavor couldn't compare with many of the city's street vendors. Similarly pejorative comments were made about the hotpot and dumplings that the chain later offered as part of its expanded business.

In 2017, more than 20 outlets of Huangtaiji were shut down in Beijing. "The three most important factors for a restaurant are taste, taste, taste. No matter how wonderful the brand's story is, if it's not tasty, it will die," Lin Xiao, a Beijing local who claims to have foreseen the fate of Huangtaiji, told Beijing Review. "After I tried it once, I decided not to come back again."

"The pancakes not only taste worse, but they are more expensive and less convenient than the vendors at the subway exits," Tao Wensheng, the co-founder of Allpku, a consulting company located in Beijing, told Nanfang Metropolis Daily. "Most of the outlets are in shopping malls, which don't normally open until 10 a.m., so it's no good marketing it as a breakfast business."

In Tao's opinion, hasty expansion is another reason for the decline of the business. "This is a mistake that many restaurants often make," Tao said.

Diaoye Sirloin, a restaurant specializing in sirloin steak, shares a similar business trajectory with Huangtaiji. In order to start his business, Meng Xing, the founder of Diaoye, bought secret sirloin recipes from Dai Long to the tune of 5 million yuan ($768,557). Dai is a renowned master chef from Hong Kong, himself famous for exquisite sirloin dishes and the head chef of the state banquet held on the evening of Hong Kong's handover to China in 1997.

The fee paid by Meng for the recipes is equivalent to the highest available prize in China's state-run national lottery. The marketing opportunity presented by this likeness has not escaped Meng and the first sentence of their official website poses the following question to visitors: "The secret recipe in exchange for a winning lottery ticket, cheap or expensive?"

A ceremony was also held to ritualize the purchase of the recipes, and the media were invited to report on proceedings. Before the restaurant's official launch, a six-month trial period saw hundreds of culinary critics and celebrities tasting Meng's food and posting reviews online. All this pageantry gained Diaoye a lot of exposure.

Described in its own terms as China's first "light extravagant meal," Diaoye prides itself on understanding the food it serves, paying special attention to every detail of its operation, including ingredients, cooking methods, cutlery and service.

In June 2013, Diaoye opened its first restaurant in Beijing, in late 2014 established its first outlet in Shanghai, and by 2015 had expanded to eight other locations in the capital. After their meal, Diaoye's customers are invited to provide scores for every dish they have eaten. Low scoring menu items will be deleted from the menu, which is updated monthly. These novel marketing methods have since been copied by many other startup restaurants.

However, for all its innovative marketing, only five outlets were left by the end of 2017 in Beijing. "We used to have to wait in line for about two hours before, but now we don't have to wait at all," Shu Huirong, a Beijing local, told Beijing Review. "The average expense of 170 yuan ($26) per person is not cheap at all," Shu said. "The sirloin soup is too thick and heavy for me. I used to come for the free desserts, but they stopped offering those after a while. Now I won't go unless my friends want to."

Shu believes that the marketing tricks of such restaurants are just gimmicks, a word that many critics turn to when concluding why such restaurants struggle to maintain their early success.

"They first create a story, either around the food or the founder, to attract potential consumers and lay intense attention on marketing instead of improving the quality of food and service," Jia Xin, an independent gourmet critic in Beijing, told Beijing Review. "It is no surprise that their business fails in the end."

Customers eat at the popular breakfast restaurant Taoyun Village in Shanghai CFP(VCG)

Breakfast with a twist

Nie Bao and Cheng Hui, the founders of Taoyuan Village, a restaurant chain serving Taiwanese food, seem to be defying the rule that culinary gimmicks cannot last.

Both hailing from China's mainland, they were amazed by Taiwan's cuisine while traveling on the island, and decided to open a restaurant at home in order to bring Taiwan's culinary delights to a local audience.

As an interior design professional, Nie is responsible for the company's image, and worked every day on site during the construction of the first outlet in Shanghai in 2014. The menu is simple: fried twisted sticks of dough, soy bean milk and freshly baked pancakes, all ordinary breakfast fare for most Chinese. Their flagship store located in a downtown part of Shanghai popular among white collar workers and fashion conscious youngsters is open from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m., with night owls also part of their targeted customer base.

This business model seems to be working well. "You wouldn't believe how many people stay up late in Shanghai," said Wu Ninggang, a designer who lives and works in the city. "Normally I work until midnight and want to eat something light. Taoyuan Village is a great option even though the taste is not all that ideal."

Wu Kejing, the CEO of a Shanghai startup, even holds his company's daily morning meetings at Taoyuan Village. "The taste of the food is not as important as the environment it offers. We are all kind of fed up with the food at McDonald's and KFC. Here we can get better food, and even if we don't eat, it is still a nice place to chat."

In March 2016, Taoyuan Village opened its first branch in Beijing's Sanlitun. In August 2017, Heytea moved in nearby. Next to them both, a new bakery offering so-called "dirty dirty bread" is the latest source of marketing-powered popularity for followers of the country's culinary fads. The bread, filled with chocolate sauce, is apparently so delicious that the irresistible urge to unreservedly devour it leaves customers dirty and covered in chocolate. It seems that with the correct marketing, anything can be made popular in China for a time.

The line for Heytea is still long, but not as long as it once was. In Guangzhou, where Heytea currently has 20 outlets, the queues are also far shorter than they used to be. Nie says he plans to be cautious in expansion, but the speed of the company's growth hardly seems restrained, especially after raising funds of 100 million yuan ($15 million) from IDG Capital in August 2016. In addition to the Guangzhou stores, Heytea already has 17 shops in Shenzhen, eight in Shanghai and two in Beijing.

"I don't know how far Heytea can go," Liu Changxi, a scholar from the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, told The "Internet famous" restaurants, in Liu's opinion, have made consumption habits less rational. Whether the food or drink tastes good isn't that important any more. For consumers, it is more of a way to show off among friends, that they managed to get something that is very difficult to obtain.

"They have to make a real effort, not only through superficial means like marketing and publicity stunts, but via the improvement of both service and the food or drink that they serve, if they are to survive such intense competition," Liu said.

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

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