QUICK FIX

众口难调:中式连锁快餐会成功吗?

The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY HATTY LIU

KFC and Mcdon­alds are China's big­gest restau­rant chains, and do­mes­tic restau­ra­teurs and even the govern­ment want to du­pli­cate their suc­cess with noo­dles and rice. But how does one make “fast food with na­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics” with such var­ied re­gional tastes, and just as er­ratic food safety stan­dards?

Mr. Lee, the fast-food chain for­merly known as “Cal­i­for­nia Beef Noo­dle King,” is a source of an­nual be­muse­ment for my over­seas rel­a­tives on their vis­its home. “What do beef noo­dles have to do with Cal­i­for­nia?” my father or un­cle ask, with­out fail, each time they en­counter the restau­rant’s signs in a Chi­nese train sta­tion and air­port lounge.

The an­swer—quite a lot. Mr. Lee, which calls it­self China’s old­est do­mes­tic fast-food brand, has its roots in a Los An­ge­les beef noo­dle restau­rant founded in 1972 by P. C. Lee, a Chi­nese-amer­i­can busi­ness­man born in Chongqing. Cor­po­rate lore claims that an un­named “ma­jor Amer­i­can fast food chain” ap­proached Lee in the 1980s, when he al­ready had a small em­pire of seven shops with top re­views in the Los An­ge­les Times, and asked him to be its part­ner in China, the emerg­ing mar­ket al­ready be­ing eyed by in­dus­try jug­ger­nauts like Mcdon­alds and KFC.

In­stead, Mr. Lee de­cided to move his en­tire busi­ness, head of­fice and all, to China. Ac­cord­ing to one cus­tomer’s rem­i­nisces on Weibo, the 1988 open­ing of the first “Cal­i­for­nia Beef Noo­dle King USA” in Beijing drew lines com­pa­ra­ble to the city’s first KFC, which launched the year be­fore. De­spite its un­re­mark­able food, al­ready avail­able at hun­dreds of thousands of mom-and-pops and or­di­nary

homes, the restau­rant se­duced din­ers with its sleek in­te­rior and West­ern ca­chet—the name, the ma­chine-like ef­fi­ciency of its prepa­ra­tion sys­tem, and it’s claim to be the first Chi­nese restau­rant in the coun­try to of­fer canned soft drinks.

To­day, though, the noo­dle king— since re­named “Mr. Lee” in mem­ory of its founder, who passed away in 2008—is firmly clas­si­fied among do­mes­tic Chi­nese brands, whose in­abil­ity to achieve international recog­ni­tion on a par with for­eign chains like Panda Ex­press and Taco Bell is be­moaned reg­u­larly by in­dus­try ex­perts. Hav­ing opened around 800 lo­ca­tions, af­ter 30 years in the busi­ness, Mr. Lee is the most pro­lific of the na­tional chains. The next big­gest is Zhen Gong Fu, “Real Kung Fu,” founded in Guang­dong prov­ince in 1997, with 600 shops.

By com­par­i­son, there are over 5,000 KFC lo­ca­tions on the main­land alone, mak­ing it China’s big­gest restau­rant chain. Mcdon­alds fol­lows, with 2,500 lo­ca­tions, even though it ar­rived in China two years af­ter Mr. Lee. For fur­ther con­trast, the Amer­i­can burger fran­chise had over 1,000 restau­rants in its home coun­try by 1968, af­ter just 13 years in busi­ness; by 1978, Mcdon­alds sur­passed 5,000 out­lets and has barely stopped grow­ing.

Restau­rant own­ers are won­der­ing where Chi­nese chains went wrong. A much-pub­li­cized food scan­dal, in which a Shang­hai sup­plier was found to be repack­ing ex­pired meat for sev­eral US fast food chains in 2014, was tipped as a pos­si­ble turn­ing point in the for­tunes of do­mes­tic chains, but those hopes have since pe­tered out—if any­thing, Chi­nese brands seem even

less competitive than be­fore. Ac­cord­ing to a 2017 study by Caiy­in­ren Bidu, a so­cial me­dia ac­count for the in­dus­try, brands like Real Kung Fu and Yonghe King have seen their growth plateau since at least 2013, while the listed value of Real Kung Fu fell by 50 per­cent from 2012 to 2015 due to in­ter­nal scan­dals.

“Are Chi­nese ‘lower-end’ restau­rant [chains] un­der a curse?” asked one 2016 study by Shen­zhen con­sult­ing firm Ge­longhui. Real Kung Fu co-founder Pan Yuhai has called the present state of the in­dus­try a “bot­tle­neck,” while Yi Zheng­wei, restau­rant con­sul­tant and co-founder of the 72Street chain, more specif­i­cally called it “a curse…to do with stan­dards.” In a 2015 es­say, Yi writes, “if you just want to in­vest in a Chi­nese fast food restau­rant, you can eas­ily be­come a leader in the [do­mes­tic] mar­ket. But if you ac­tu­ally want to be great, you can think again.”

in The Founder, the 2016 biopic of Mcdon­alds co-founder Ray Kroc, an iconic mo­ment is when anti-hero sales­man Kroc pulls up at the Mcdon­ald broth­ers’ diner in the desert, and finds his food ready just sec­onds af­ter or­der­ing. More cen­tral to the story, though, is what comes af­ter­wards, when one of the broth­ers shows a slack-jawed Kroc the well­co­or­di­nated dance that leads to their speedy and iden­ti­cal de­liv­ery: “Ev­ery Mcdon­ald’s burger has two pick­les, a pinch of onions, and a pre­cise shot of ketchup and mus­tard.”

Yi be­lieves that, in China, the speed and in­ge­nu­ity of food prep are not the chief strug­gles of its “fast” food in­dus­try. Af­ter all, it’s a na­tion where stores have whole aisles de­voted to vac­uum-packed in­stant meals, where road­side ven­dors can cook and roll up a jian­bing with egg and baocui in a minute flat. The rea­sons China strug­gles, as Kroc would say, to “fran­chise the damn thing from sea to shin­ing sea,” seem to lie in three ar­eas: stan­dard­iza­tion, qual­ity, and brand­ing.

As with ev­ery mod­ern Chi­nese prac­tice, there have been re­cent at­tempts to find in­dige­nous roots for fast food in an­cient lit­er­a­ture. In this case, it’s a type of eighth-cen­tury ban­quet know as the liban (立办): Ac­cord­ing to the Tang Dy­nas­tic His­tory Sup­ple­ment, a courtier named Wu Cou re­ceived a ma­jor pro­mo­tion from the em­peror, but had lit­tle time to cel­e­brate be­fore he had to re­port to work. His so­lu­tion: Or­der ev­ery course brought to the ta­ble be­fore his guests ar­rived (the idea ap­par­ently caught on).

The mod­ern kuaican (快餐)—lit­er­ally, “fast meal”—ac­tu­ally pre­dates the ar­rival of West­ern chains in the late 80s and 90s, and refers to a type of no-frills diner or road­side stall, pop­u­lar with blue col­lar work­ers. Still com­mon in “third-tier” cities or lower, kuaican ven­dors of­fer cut-rate combo meals with rice and en­trees kept in steam trays sim­i­lar to Amer­i­can-chi­nese buf­fets, or “one dol­lar Chi­nese food” joints, in all but the ac­tual food.

KFC adopted the term when it landed in Beijing in 1987, call­ing it­self meishi kuaican (“Amer­i­canstyle fast food”), and chang­ing the con­no­ta­tion of quick fix for­ever. When KFC pub­lished the rec­ol­lec­tions of its orig­i­nal restau­rant’s em­ploy­ees in 2017, they unan­i­mously agreed the speed and (rather greasy) West­ern food were not what im­pressed Chi­nese din­ers 30 years ago. Rather, the uni­formed cashiers (hired with strict height re­quire­ments), “white-gloved” san­i­ta­tion staff, and “95 per­cent im­ported equipment,” down to the cut­lery and pic­tures on the wall, all spoke of moder­nity and mod­ish­ness to 80s Chi­nese so­ci­ety. “If it hap­pened to­day, peo­ple would post pic­tures of it ev­ery day on Wechat Mo­ments,” claimed em­ployee Sun Zhi­jun.

As fast food fever be­gan in the 90s, the govern­ment tried to push for an of­fi­cial def­i­ni­tion of kuaican. In 1997, the Min­istry of Do­mes­tic Trade pub­lished guide­lines that de­ter­mined it as “cui­sine for the masses that sat­is­fies the de­mands of the con­sumer’s

The uni­formed cashiers, “white­gloved” san­i­ta­tion staff, and im­ported equipment all spoke of moder­nity and mod­ish­ness To 80s chi­nese so­ci­ety

ev­ery­day life,” and “fast to pre­pare, con­ve­nient to eat, stan­dard­ized in qual­ity, bal­anced in nu­tri­tion, handy of ser­vice, and eco­nom­i­cal in price.” The same year, the min­istry named Beijing’s Quan­jude Roast Duck, Tian­jin’s Goubuli Baozi, and Shang­hai’s Ronghua Chicken (a KFC com­peti­tor, later re­placed with Lanzhou lamian) as the “Big Three” of Chi­nese-style fast food.

Helped by th­ese in­flu­en­tial “time­honored brands,” the min­istry hoped to see do­mes­tic kuaican take 30 per­cent of the mar­ket by 2010, ful­fill­ing Premier Li Peng’s di­rec­tive of “fast food with na­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics [and] sci­en­tific-scale man­age­ment.” It didn’t work. Aside ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ences in aes­thet­ics, cook­ing meth­ods, and man­age­ment styles com­pared to West­ern up­starts, Yi points out that “time-hon­ored” foods, by def­i­ni­tion, mar­ket them­selves on lo­cal his­tory, mem­o­ries, and taste—the an­tithe­sis of a brand try­ing to go global.

“Amer­i­can food cul­ture is gen­er­ally uni­fied—ham­burg­ers, pizza—so Mcdon­alds can open tens of thousands of stores, whereas Chi­nese kuaican are ex­am­ples of what’s most au­then­tic, grass­roots, and pop­u­lar in a re­gion,” he writes. “The South likes rice, the North likes noo­dles; the East likes sweet, and the West likes sa­vory.”

There’s also lit­tle stan­dard­iza­tion among Chi­nese brands. Ac­cord­ing to Gu Zhenyu, au­thor of a 2002 study on the growth of kuaican, Chi­nese cui­sine has his­tor­i­cally re­lied on the skill and rep­u­ta­tion of in­di­vid­ual chefs, with per­sonal recipes and lo­cal tastes be­ing the ar­biters of ex­cel­lence. An ad­di­tional prob­lem is that restau­rants are un­will­ing to spend money on em­ployee train­ing, and even the big­gest brands still rely on tra­di­tional “man­ual prepa­ra­tion” over more con­sis­tent ma­chines and as­sem­bly lines. “It’s al­ready well known that Chi­nese-style kuaican has in­con­sis­tent qual­ity,” Gu’s re­port noted, sug­gest­ing that this also leads to “per­cep­tion of lack of care to­ward san­i­ta­tion and nu­tri­tion.”

“When a [Chi­nese kuaican] prod­uct tries to ‘go out into the world,’” Yi con­cludes, “it meets with pain ev­ery­where.”

The govern­ment’s de­ci­sion to push time-hon­ored brands hasn’t stopped new kuaican up­starts from try­ing to adapt the West­ern mod­els and please ev­ery re­gional palate. Mr. Lee’s chief ri­val, Real Kung Fu, started un­der an­other name in 1990. By 1997, it was pro­mot­ing a so-called “com­puter pro­grammed steam­ing process” for its rice dishes and en­trees, which promised to de­liver from kitchen to counter in 80 sec­onds or less.

Real Kung Fu re­fused TWOC’S re­quest for de­tails on their process— “th­ese are our trade se­crets,” said the man­ager of one lo­ca­tion—but pe­ri­odic “Open Kitchen Days,” typ­i­cally held at dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions na­tion­wide on March 15, China’s Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Day, re­veal that the food is sim­ply pre-pre­pared and pack­aged in in­di­vid­ual serv­ings at a cen­tral kitchen prior to de­liv­ery. With each or­der, kitchen staff sim­ply pops the item into its des­ig­nated “steam cab­i­net” pro­grammed with a tem­per­a­ture and timer. The forced steam re­heats the item in record time, and the meal is then taken out and as­sem­bled on the tray.

This “dig­i­tal­iza­tion” ex­tends to clean-up, as one lo­ca­tion man­ager pro­claimed to jour­nal­ists at a me­dia ses­sion: “All cut­lery is soaked for at least three min­utes; rub­ber cut­lery

“WHEN A CHI­NESE PROD­UCT TRIES TO GO OUT INTO THE WORLD, IT MEETS WITH PAIN EV­ERY­WHERE”

at 40 to 50 de­grees Cel­sius, stain­less steel at 50 to 60 de­grees.” A reper­toire of “hash-house” lingo is also cru­cial for the ap­pear­ance of ef­fi­ciency and suc­cess; Real Kung Fu servers have the habit of shout­ing dabai (大白, “big white”) for ev­ery bowl of rice the cus­tomer or­ders. At Dr. Tian, a bar­gain-base­ment com­peti­tor in the steamed-rice-combo trade, the cashiers’ cry of a dish’s pri­mary char­ac­ter­is­tic—“spicy!”—“meat!”—is taken up by the kitchen staff, in a sort of sup­ply chain call-and-re­sponse, be­fore the meal is served with xi­aobai (小白, “small white”), their slang for rice.

Mr. Lee, though, may have per­fected stan­dard­iza­tion. “I can’t talk about our process,” says lo­ca­tion man­ager Su Li—seem­ingly the stan­dard re­sponse—but, “It’s be­cause I can’t ex­plain it. Ev­ery­thing just ar­rives the way it is, and we are just the ‘front line’ staff. When the cus­tomer or­ders, we’re re­spon­si­ble for serv­ing it. It’s that sim­ple.” Be­hind her, a TV screen loops a video of Mr. Lee’s en­tre­pre­neur­ial story, end­ing with footage of a fac­tory in sub­ur­ban Beijing where “beef is sliced into two cen­time­ter-wide cubes” and mixed in large vats with “broth from 18-month-old hens” and uni­formly cut noo­dles. “Mod­ern, nu­tri­tious, the taste of qual­ity,” the nar­ra­tor in­tones.

For some cus­tomers, how­ever, the near-com­plete mech­a­niza­tion of kuaican is a step too far. On Zhihu, the ques­tion “Why is Chi­nese- style kuaican uni­ver­sally said to be ex­pen­sive and ter­ri­ble-tast­ing?” has been viewed over 15,000 times. One users claims that “mech­a­niza­tion leads nec­es­sar­ily to bad fla­vor, com­pared to the hand­made,” whether it’s West­ern or Chi­nese kuaican; how­ever, West­ern brands have better ads and “psy­cho­log­i­cal in­flu­ence” on the con­sumer. Sim­i­lar threads on Baidu, Guokr, and Douban had users chim­ing in, “ev­ery Chi­nese chain tastes the same” and “you can’t even call [the dishes] real Chi­nese cook­ing.”

What would make a Chi­nese diner go for kuaican in a na­tion full of in­de­pen­dent eater­ies with even cheaper prices, longer hours, and better (or at least more var­ied) fare, any­way? For now, it ap­pears that Chi­nese fast food joints mostly com­pete on per­cep­tions of san­i­ta­tion, and lo­ca­tion, how­ever pre­car­i­ous th­ese could be. Chain restau­rants, Yi notes, have the re­sources to open in malls and com­mer­cial ar­ter­ies, while small busi­nesses con­verge around res­i­den­tial ar­eas; il­le­gally con­verted store­fronts, mean­while, are at the mercy of of­fi­cials and de­vel­op­ers.

“I’m sur­rounded by small restau­rants where I live…rice noo­dles, beef ball noo­dles, Hakka noo­dles, con­gee stands…but I’m afraid to eat there too of­ten, due to all the ad­di­tives,” Li Han, an oc­ca­sional fast food diner from Guangzhou, tells TWOC. As one Guokr com­menter puts it, even bland kuaican is “better than gut­ter oil.”

Yet in both qual­ity and lo­ca­tion, writes Yi, Chi­nese kuaican is beaten by West­ern chains with even deeper pock­ets and a brand loy­alty de­vel­oped over decades. In any com­mer­cial area of a first-tier city to­day, one can eas­ily

A REPER­TOIRE OF “HASH-HOUSE” LINGO IS ALSO CRU­CIAL FOR THE AP­PEAR­ANCE OF EF­FI­CIENCY AND SUC­CESS

find a Mr. Lee’s, KFC, Real Kung Fu, and Mcdon­alds clus­tered to­gether, shar­ing the same chrome-topped ta­bles that once awed first-time kuaican cus­tomers over 30 years, their walls all cov­ered with fad­dish faux­chalk writ­ing. The Chi­nese chains also have their own mas­cots—the epony­mous Mr. Lee, and a yel­low­clad mar­tial artist that Real Kung Fu (du­bi­ously) in­sists is not mod­eled on Bruce Lee.

When TWOC vis­its one such Beijing strip at 3 p.m., the lull be­tween lunch and din­ner, the Chi­nese lo­ca­tions were all but empty, while their West­ern neigh­bors were still stand­ing-room only. Chil­dren were no­tice­ably ab­sent from the do­mes­tic out­lets, while in Mcdon­alds, they were scream­ing en­thu­si­as­ti­cally for their next Happy Meal (with dessert and tie-in mer­chan­dise).

Li says her daugh­ter “will ask to eat [at Mcdon­alds], but doesn’t re­ally know any Chi­nese kuaican brands.” In­stead, when the 12-year-old wants Chi­nese food, “I can just make it at home since I’m a house­wife.” An­other mother of an 11-year-old at KFC, sur­named Li, agrees. “My son will ac­tively ask to eat West­ern food; he likes fries, chicken nuggets, and ice cream. I’ll take him to KFC or Mcdon­alds if his grades have been good or if it’s a hol­i­day.”

Th­ese near-cultish as­so­ci­a­tions of fast food with nov­elty and child­hood rit­ual, cul­ti­vated by West­ern brands over sev­eral decades, are com­pletely out of reach of Chi­nese firms. In the wake of the 2014 food scan­dal, some me­dia looked to Real Kung Fu as a con­tender for a do­mes­tic fast food revo­lu­tion: It had the most rec­og­niz­able (if ar­guably copy­right-in­fring­ing) logo and made a min­i­mum ef­fort at com­mu­nity out­reach, host­ing Open Kitchen Days and hir­ing Bruce Lee looka­likes to put on kung fu shows.

Yet within a year, the com­pany’s listed value had tum­bled to an all-time low as the pri­vate scan­dals of the com­pany’s two founders—who both served as CEO, and were also ex-broth­ers-in­law—be­gan to leak out. In 2006, co­founder Chen Dabiao se­cretly di­vorced his wife, whose brother Pan Yuhai had been Chen’s orig­i­nal busi­ness part­ner. In the en­su­ing strug­gle over con­trol of the busi­ness, Chen had been ahead, un­til news of his affair spread in 2009—and in 2011, it emerged he had not only been cheat­ing on his wife but in­vestors and share­hold­ers, mov­ing cap­i­tal and si­phon­ing funds. Chen was sen­tenced to 14 years in prison, but the chain’s value, to say noth­ing of its rep­u­ta­tion, has never re­cov­ered.

To­day, busi­ness jour­nals cite the saga as a cau­tion­ary tale for the fam­ily-owned en­ter­prise, a model that de­scribes an es­ti­mated 90 per­cent of restau­rant busi­nesses in China big and small. Yi, though, re­mains op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of kuaican in China, point­ing out that it was only in 2008 that the GDP in Guangzhou, where his 72Street com­pany was head­quar­tered, had sur­passed the 1955 US GDP, the year af­ter which Mcdon­alds be­gan its ex­pan­sion.

“The time is yet to come for kuaican to be­come a part of ev­ery­day life,” he de­clared. Diner Yu is more skep­ti­cal. “We go to [Chi­nese chains] too; their taste just still hasn’t caught up,” she says. Not just the taste—on a swel­ter­ing af­ter­noon in mid-june in Beijing, KFC was the only restau­rant on the street where the ther­mome­ter regis­tered be­low 25 de­grees.

Many Chi­nese restau­rants strug­gle to com­bine tra­di­tional cook­ing meth­ods with rapid kitchen-to-counter de­liv­ery styles

A Shenyang Real Kung Fu branch com­bines Chi­nese aes­thet­ics with fa­mil­iar ac­cou­trements of a fast food chain

Jian­bing is one rapidly cooked Chi­nese snack that's see­ing international fran­chis­ing

Chi­nese chains, though, still lack the in­stant recog­ni­tion and renown of West­ern coun­ter­parts

In Chi­nese malls, Real Kung Fu's (du­bi­ously le­gal) logo is of­ten found squeezed be­tween the Golden Arches and the Colonel

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