A Bao Eatery at Harvard Square
Tong Qihua, a native of Wenling, Zhejiang province, has opened in over 10 years more than 160 bao ( Chinese style steamed stuffed buns) stores in Hangzhou with annual sales of nearly 200 million yuan. His bao won the honorary title of “The Most Popular Fresh Bao in Hangzhou,” which was bestowed upon his humble establishment by likes of the Hangzhou Catering and Cooking Association.
After two years’ preparation, Tong Qihua opened his first bao eatery in the United States on July 7, 2016—Tom’s BaoBao.
The eatery sits in a prime location at Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, located smack dab in middle of the main campus services area of Harvard where there is a large number of cafés, restaurants and bookstores. It is teeming with life and the rent is, as you would expect, an arm and a leg.
The 17 chefs in the store are all Americans selected from a long
list of more than 600 candidates, all trained and scrutinized for three months before they took up their post. Chef’s training costs up to 100 thousand dollars. Their quota is to roll out 22 dough wrappers per minute; which produces a batch of 22 bao every 60 seconds. Each bao weighs 100 grams in total with the dough wrappers weighing 60 grams and the stuffing 40 grams, the margin of error is no more than 2 grams. The chefs are paid at least 15% more than their counterparts at the neighboring hamburger and pizza restaurants, and some even earn up to 100,000 dollars a year. “To respect this industry, we should respect our employees and let them respect our customers,” remarked Tong Qihua.
There are classic varieties such as pork bao, curry beef bao, diced chicken bao with sauce, mushroom and vegetable bao, along with more exotic styles like fresh orange sweet potato bao, and even lobster bao which caters to local tastes. The cheapest fresh orange sweet potato bao costs 3 dollars before tax. Lobster bao is more costly, about 6 dollars before tax.
On the ordering counter, three posters hang prominently for the customers to read. The first is about the making of bao; the second is a menu, and the third is the four Taos of the bao, which are: look, touch, taste and smell. The simple but pleasant decor of
the eatery allows the customers to get an intimate peek into how bao is made through the glass window.
Maybe you readers out there have a burning question in your mind, would Americans actually like bao? Tong Qihua replied with an air of confidence, “There are no national borders for gourmet treats. The key is to make them absolutely authentic.” If the hamburger is a poster child for American food, then, the Bao is the symbol of classical Chinese cuisine, and beyond that a channel of cross- cultural exchange. Tom’s confidence in the marketability of the bao is precisely why he dared to boldly challenge the great American staple— the hamburger— and put his eatery right next to a hamburger restaurant in Harvard Square.
Just as Tong Qihua expected, Harvard University students are open- minded and nonjudgmental, and more than willing to accept a new food as long as it’s flavorful and satisfying. There was a girl who ate four bao in one sitting and yet hadn’t had her fill. Bao has gradually become the delicacy of many of the school’s top students and professors, and a “readymade” snack for meetings. Many Chinese-Americans compelled to take a nibble or two of Tom’s gourmet bao have given an emotional account of their experience summarized as, “Tom’s Bao are like the collective nostalgia of the Chinese people.”
Tong Qihua is confident in his expansion plans going forward. In the next three to five years, he plans to open 20 more bao eateries in the United States. He pointed out, “The United States needs Chinese traditional cuisine; they’re starving for it. Like the long lines at Starbucks or McDonald’s, my Tom’s BaoBao will be the brandname of Chinese bao. I have set the bar high for myself, because I will not stop until I make the world’s best bao.” u( From Liaoning
Youth , March 2017. Translation: Qing Run)