En­tre­pre­neur en­vi­sions mut­ton for the masses

Idea merges mod­ern fast-food chain and a tra­di­tional Uygur del­i­cacy

China Daily (Canada) - - XINJIANG - By MAOWEIHUA in Urumqi and LIN SHUJUAN in Bei­jing

Al­mas Pu­lat’s restau­rant in Urumqi of­fers a rare com­bi­na­tion: it is a mod­ern, styl­ized fast-food out­let that fea­tures a tra­di­tional Uygur del­i­cacy, a mut­ton pi­laf known as zhuafan.

Within a year of open­ing the restau­rant, calledWemily, Al­mas added a se­cond eatery. And that’s just the be­gin­ning. The 29-year-old, US-ed­u­cated en­tre­pre­neur in­tends to de­velop the brand into a mod­ern­ized fast­food chain, a McDon­ald’s of tra­di­tional Uygur del­i­cacy.

“It is­notjust thezhuafan­we­make. It is her­itage and em­brac­ing our tra­di­tional eth­nic cui­sine,” Al­mas said. “My goal is that some­day, in coun­tries other than China, you might be able to or­der a bowl of zhuafan.”

In Northwest China’s Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion, zhuafan is a sta­ple dish that blends steamed rice, mut­ton, car­rots, onions and, some­times, dried fruits. It is pop­u­lar among lo­cal eth­nic groups, and in­creas­ingly, among oth­ers.

Al­mas grew up watch­ing his father, Hushur Pu­lat, pre­pare the pi­laf, de­velop the recipe and build the fam­ily’sMayflower brand into a suc­cess­ful busi­ness. His father owns the lo­cally pop­u­lar Mayflower chain, which has three restau­rants and more than 100 em­ploy­ees. The star prod­uct, zhuafan, is so loved that“Mayflower” be­came as syn­ony­mous with zhuafan as “Star­bucks is to coffee”, Al­mas said.

Still, it took Al­mas a few years to re­al­ize that he could build a busi­ness from the fam­ily recipe, al­though he stud­ied en­trepreneur­ship dur­ing his four years at col­lege in the United States.

In 2007, as a sopho­more at Zhe­jiang Univer­sity in Hangzhou, Zhe­jiang prov­ince, Al­mas joined an ex­change pro­gram to the US. He was im­pressed by his US coun­ter­parts.

“They learned com­pre­hen­sively in class and they en­joyed life cheer­fully af­ter class,” Al­mas re­called.

Com­ing back, he spent a sum­mer im­prov­ing his English and a few months later, he en­rolled in theUniver­sity of Ne­braska at Lin­coln, where he spent four years.

“The ex­pe­ri­ence of study­ing in the United States helps me a lot in my en­trepreneur­ship,” Al­mas said.

Upon grad­u­a­tion, he con­sid­ered start­ing an English school in Urumqi, his home­town, so he joined New Ori­en­tal, the largest ed­u­ca­tional com­pany in China. A year later, when he quit, he was al­ready a star teacher.

The young en­tre­pre­neur re­turned to Urumqi to start his busi­ness. But by then, his in­ter­est had shifted to the mut­ton pi­laf, which he ad­mit­ted to have taken for granted — both as the sig­na­ture taste of his youth and as the fam­ily busi­ness.

When he was study­ing in the US, he cooked zhuafan for his friends, who raved about the dish and asked him for the recipe and where they could or­der it. In­spired, Al­mas de­cided to take over the fam­ily busi­ness and push it for­ward in his own way.

“I saw more-ad­vanced busi­ness mod­els in theUS, and I be­lieved that tra­di­tional restau­rant chains, such as Mayflower in Xin­jiang, would de­cline,” Al­mas said. “It’s nor­mal for a com­pany to have peaks and troughs, and I be­lieve Mayflower has gone be­yond its peak, un­less it changes.”

It is not just the

we make. It is her­itage and em­brac­ing our tra­di­tional eth­nic cui­sine. My goal is that some­day, in coun­tries other than China, you might be able to or­der a bowl of

He has his eyes on the po­ten­tial for a mod­ern­ized fast-food chain of tra­di­tional Uygur del­i­ca­cies, much like aMcDon­ald’s or KFC.

“The taste of zhuafan in eth­nic restau­rants varies ac­cord­ing to the chef’s ex­pe­ri­ence and mood,” Al­mas said. “But stan­dard­iza­tion is the key to mod­ern cater­ing.”

His father was not keen on the idea at first. But af­ter much dis­cus­sion, Al­mas per­suaded him to trans­form the restau­rant into a fast-food chain. Aim­ing at young cus­tomers, he started an­other brand, Wemily. “It is a pun on the phrase ‘a grain of Uygur rice’ in Chi­nese, and it’s also short for ‘ we are fam­ily’ in English,” Al­mas said.

In con­trast to his father’s or­nate restau­rant, which fea­tures eth­nic decor, a floor show, del­i­cate cut­lery and many kinds of dishes, Al­mas chose a sim­pler, more youth­ful theme.

In­sid­eWemily, graf­fiti andMarvel comic he­roes take the place of elab­o­rate hand-carved pat­terns and fancy fur­ni­ture. The shop signs are writ­ten in Chi­nese and English in dy­namic fonts.

“The cost ofmy father’s tra­di­tional restau­rant is way too high. It’s time to turn zhuafan into mod­ern fast-food,” Al­mas said.

His team puts a lot of ef­fort into se­lect­ing and pro­cess­ing in­gre­di­ents. Lamb chops and shanks from free-range sheep, yel­low car­rots from south­ern Xin­jiang and white onions from Hami in the east of the re­gion add lo­cal fla­vor to the dish. The rice, grown in north­east­ernChina, is cooked in small pots to guar­an­tee qual­ity and taste.

Al­mas also tried on­line pro­mo­tion­sand­starred in twocom­mer­cials, in­clud­ing one in English about the process of mak­ing zhuafan. “Whether a bowl of zhuafan can be re­garded as a piece of art­de­pend­son­the­chem­i­cal re­ac­tion when in­gre­di­ents meet cook­ing meth­ods,” Al­mas said in English in one of the on­line ads.

The com­mer­cials went vi­ral, re­ceiv­ing more than 1 mil­lion views. He is now plan­ning a third.

“Frankly, to some ex­tent, what I pro­mote in the com­mer­cials is not the food, per se, but me,” Al­mas said. “Af­ter all, you can find zhuafan ev­ery­where in Xin­jiang. But it draws more at­ten­tion that I’ma youngCEO in busi­ness with tra­di­tional food and an over­seas back­ground.”

His tar­get cus­tomers are those who are fa­mil­iar with the mod­ern world and en­joy on­line shop­ping and in­ter­na­tional style, he said.

His cus­tomers ap­pre­ci­ate his ef­forts. “I par­tic­u­larly en­joy the at­mos­phere here,” saidWang Li­juan, a stu­dent at Xin­jiang Univer­sity. “This is a fast-food restau­rant serv­ing aXin­jiang spe­cial del­i­cacy, which is quite rare.”

Thanks to a warm re­cep­tion among the young and work­ing classes, Al­mas opened his se­cond restau­rant in Urumqi within a year and is plan­ning a third in down­town Shang­hai.

In Al­mas’ opin­ion, many Xin­jiang restau­rants in in­land cities fo­cus too much on the eth­nic and mys­te­ri­ous Uygur style, cre­at­ing a bar­rier be­tween the restau­rant and the lo­cals.

He hopes Wemily will bring some changes.

“If a grandpa from Shang­hai brings his grand­daugh­ter to our restau­rant to eat and leaves happy, then we’re suc­cess­ful,” Al­mas said. “Peo­ple fromShang­ha­iare rel­a­tively del­i­cate, and a grand­fa­ther is nor­mally very pro­tec­tive of his chil­dren.”

Xin­hua con­trib­uted to the story.

Con­tact the writ­ers through lin­shu­juan@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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