Love of food never changes, only tastes do
An old Chinese saying goes: Food is heaven. That was true in ancient times and still holds true today.
Just listen to people around you. They are always discussing what they had to eat or making plans where to eat next.
The pleasure of eating may remain constant, but food service has changed dramatically in the last 40 years as tastes become more diverse and adventurous.
Take the 73-year-old Shanghai dim sum shop Wangjiasha, a time-honored local eatery that has been popular for decades.
In its early years, it offered only xiaolongbao, or steamed buns, and wonton dishes. Gradually it added qingtuan, the traditional green glutinous rice balls popular during the Qingming Festival season.
In 2016, the canteen began using salted egg yolks and pork floss as stuffing for the rice balls, deviating from the traditional sweet bean paste. The change was a big hit with a public wary about the high sugar content of sweet bean paste. Demand was so robust that the shop had to limit the number customers could buy.
Shanghai local Crystal Wu said she remembers queuing for qingtuan for two hours during last year’s Qingming Festival. Qingming is an important festival honoring ancestors.
“It didn’t occur to me that such a trendy, fresh flavor would come from an old dim sum shop like Wangjiasha,” she said. “It certainly has moved time-honored brands closer to public tastes.”
The shop later experimented with other new ingredients, such as hawthorn, to provide an even wider choice for diners.
In peak season, as many as 180,000 rice dumplings are sold every day at Wangjiasha’s flagship store on Nanjing Road W. — 30,000 of them with salted egg yolk filling, according to General Manager Liu Chongliang.
It’s not just food that has changed in the last 40 years but also its delivery. The digital age has ushered in online platforms that allow people to order the food they want, pay for it with smartphones and expect prompt delivery.
Shanghai-based Gourmet Noodle House started to equip more than 90 percent of its outlets with self-ordering digital menus that allow customers to place orders from smartphones without leaving their seats.
The system has helped cut labor costs by up to 8 percent and creates a more efficient food service during peak meal times.
In 2013, Gourmet Noodle also began offering delivery service through Internet platforms such as ele.me and Meituan Dianping. Three years later, it began developing its own membership system.
The noodle house, which offers a quick lunch for office workers, said the delivery business now comprises about 20 percent of sales. Among the most popular orders are yellow croaker noodles and wonton.
“In terms of brand image, we want to be seen as a vendor that keeps up with the latest technologies instead of one lagging behind,” said General Manager Xu Weigang. “Building a digital infrastructure is crucial.”
Online platforms are also fresh channels to attract and retain consumers, which are more efficient than mass media advertising such as television, he added. By building its own membership system, the noodle house can more easily leverage loyalty programs.
“There has been a huge demand for dining out in the past 40 years, and the number of caterers has surged,” Xu said. “We need to be more focused on details and customer service if shops like ours are to survive.” It’s a recipe for success not lost on a multinational like Starbucks.
The Seattle-based coffee chain opened its first Chinese outlet in Beijing in 1999. Today, China is the company’s second-biggest market. Starbucks this month unveiled a virtual store that allows consumers access to the coffee chain’s digital offerings, such as gift cards and merchandise.
By visiting Alibaba’s online retail platform, Taobao, and paying via the Alipay app, consumers can check Starbucks merchandise available in multiple mobile apps and view membership offers through one unified channel.
Apart from adding local menu items, such as tea drinks, it’s also leveraging Alibaba’s delivery arm ele.me in 30 cities to target consumers who can’t be bothered to show up in an outlet.
There has been a huge demand for dining out in the past 40 years, and the number of caterers has surged. We need to be more focused on details and customer service if shops like ours are to survive.Xu Weigang, Gerneral manager of Gourmet Noodle House