Chinese cuisine defies easy characterization. It encompasses a wide range of regional sub-cuisines, each defined by local tastes, techniques and ingredients. Even staple dishes like fried tomatoes and eggs or twice-cooked pork can look and taste drastically different depending on the chef’s background. More complex dishes rarely have a standard recipe and require highly refined skills and years of practice to master.
This may be one of the reasons why the Chinese have been slow to embrace chain restaurant consistency. According to a 2021 industry report, chains counted for only 15% of all catering businesses in China in 2020, compared to 61% in the US and 53% in Japan.
However, this gap is rapidly closing. In recent years, Chinese malls have been inundated with an eclectic range of mid- to high-end franchise dining options, led by brands like Haidilao, Home Original Chicken and Xibei Youmiancun. The largest of these, hotpot giant Haidilao, has 935 outlets and has started to expand overseas, although it still only accounts for 5% of China’s hotpot market.
Chains are not a new concept in China. For years, low-cost fast food brands like Shaxian Delicacies, Lanzhou Beef Noodles and Braised Chicken With Rice have been battling for market share. But their business model, in which stores are operated by independent franchisees with little control, results in a far lower degree of standardization and consistency than Western fast-food chains like McDonalds.
What distinguishes the new generation of Chinese restaurant chains from previous Chinese chains is their use of “central kitchens”. These facilities are essentially factories where the ingredients purchased by the chain’s headquarters are prepared, partially or totally, according to a standardized procedure before being sent to the restaurants.
Take the Chinese Sauerkraut chain, for example. Most of the ingredients used in the stores in the chain’s South China region are processed in three central kitchens. These kitchens gut and carve the fish, wrap it with seasonings, and chop the vegetables. Once these pre-processed ingredients arrive at chain outlets, all chefs have to do is boil the soup, blanch the fish flesh and drizzle with oil – basic tasks that can be completed within 15 minutes of a customer’s order.
Central kitchens may go against Chinese culinary tradition, which emphasizes local and seasonal ingredients, but they free the chains from the hassle of local supply chains. According to a department head of Jiumaojiu Group, which operates restaurants specializing in northwest Chinese cuisine, the company buys ingredients in bulk from suppliers across the country. The company directly oversees the production of certain key ingredients, such as pork, to ensure quality and consistency. Chain restaurants are products of industrialized agriculture — and their success is another sign that the traditional relationship between food and land is breaking down.
The central kitchen model also has little use for chefs. A good chef was once a guarantee of a decent meal, with many customers basing their decision to visit a certain restaurant solely on the reputation of its chef. In contrast, central kitchens operate on an assembly line model: all sorts of specialized industrial machinery, such as vegetable cutters and bone saws, are involved in processing ingredients. The culinary experience is no longer in the hands of the chefs, which means they are not required to be masters of their craft; their previous experience is irrelevant; and they are easy to replace.
When it comes to menus, central kitchen chains often take a “less is more” approach. As anyone who has handled a Chinese menu can attest, traditional Chinese restaurants typically offer a wide range of dishes, and top establishments continually update their menus to create new options for repeat customers.
This is not the case in many newer restaurant chains. The shorter their menus, the easier quality control becomes. The goal is efficiency, achieved by minimizing the time it takes to produce each dish. Chinese Sauerkraut Fish takes this minimalist approach to the extreme, offering diners one flavor, one type of fish, and one level of spice.
The financial advantages of this model are obvious. Central kitchens allow Chinese restaurant chains to save on raw materials, labor and rent. (Because the vast majority of ingredients have already been prepared elsewhere, outlets don’t need large kitchen spaces.) Carefully designed assembly lines and standardized outlets make expansion a matter of copy- to stick on.
For some brands, central kitchens have even become a key business in their own right. Haidilao’s subsidiary, Shuhai Supply Chain Solutions, uses the chain’s central kitchen model to supply ingredients to more than 2,000 outlets of more than 300 restaurant brands. By the end of 2019, Shuhai’s overall sales had exceeded 6 billion yuan ($942 million) – more than most of Haidilao’s main competitors.
The pandemic has reinforced the chains’ competitive advantage. Rising labor costs and rents, combined with overworked urban consumers’ growing desire for fast-paced, solitary dining experiences, have given restaurant chains with central kitchens a significant advantage. At the same time, more and more households have started buying ready-made meals, that is, ingredients that have already been carefully processed and that the buyer can simply throw in a pan and warm up after coming home from a hard day’s work. . Even our dinner tables are integrated into the chain system.
But does the rise of chain restaurants really mark the end of traditional Chinese cuisine? I may be optimistic, but I’m not so sure. Chain restaurants still represent a niche market, heavily concentrated in big cities and aimed at young people who value efficiency. Competition in these oversaturated markets is fierce: many Chinese chains are investing huge resources in social media marketing, hoping to become the next go-to destination for young influencers. This tempers the chains’ appeal to other consumers, including families and high-end luxury restaurants.
It should also be noted that the chains dependent on the central cuisine are concentrated in a handful of cuisines, such as hot pot. The heady spice of the mala’s flavor profile isn’t particularly demanding in terms of ingredients or cooking techniques, and it helps mask some of the shortcomings of the central kitchen model. Demand for spicy dishes has increased in recent years, but there are still many diners who have little tolerance for peppers and prefer independent restaurants with a more diverse flavor profile.
China is not immune to the “McDonaldization” of society. Chains promise investors a high degree of control and efficiency while delivering stable and predictable results. They will likely continue to grow for years to come. But they are unlikely to overthrow traditional Chinese food culture. If anything, there’s an argument to be made that many of today’s independent restaurateurs will survive the current crop of chains. After all, when a company relies on machine-like processes to grow, all it takes is a competitor with a slightly better machine to leave them in the dust.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: View of the kitchen of a Chinese sauerkraut restaurant in Beijing, July 2021. VCG)