Entrepreneur envisions mutton for the masses
Idea merges modern fast-food chain and a traditional Uygur delicacy
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.
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