Rise and fall of city's most popular diners

From the big queues at People's Square to the closing of several high-profile restaurants, the food and beverage industry in Shanghai has experienced some ups and downs in 2017.

From the big queues at People’s Square to the closing of several high-profile restaurants, the food and beverage industry in Shanghai has experienced some ups and downs in 2017.

Before we all embrace the New Year celebrations, here is a retrospect of the city’s food scene in 2017. Let us investigate what has happened and changed.

The teas, queues and hypes

Shanghai locals are willing to stand in queues, at the Guang Ming Cun Restaurant, for up to 6 hours to buy a box of handcrafted mooncakes before the Mid-Autumn Festival because it’s part of the holiday tradition.

This year, the tea beverage franchise Heytea has brought the spirit of queuing to another level. Opened in February in Raffles City, the first Heytea store attracted large crowds, of which saw some wait more than seven hours to buy a cup of their signature tea with cheesy milk foam.

Rise and fall of city's most popular diners

Heytea attracted large crowds who were willing to wait seven hours for a cup of tea.

Chinese tea culture has long valued the quality of tea leaves, water and craftsmanship, and these modern tea beverages with milk foam on top come nowhere near close. Tea franchises have spent years trying to revolutionize the once cheap bubble tea, by catering to a modern lifestyle by changing the recipes and retail concept.

Freshly brewed, high-quality tea leaves and imported dairy products are some of the key words often used by new tea shops, where barrels of different teas and jars of tea leaves stand in line on shelves. They have evolved into a business of its own, providing tasty and ever-changing beverages in a fast food style that’s in contrast with the time-consuming tea-drinking traditions.

Ten months have passed and Heytea still remains one of the hottest beverage brands in town. Having opened eight shops in busy shopping malls across the city, you can queue between 30 minutes to an hour for one of their brews. In addition, Heytea’s huge success has lured people to open counterfeit shops that look similar to the original one but trade under a different name.

During Heytea’s most glorious days, the city’s trend seekers were spending 100 yuan (US$15) to buy a cup of tea worth 25 yuan from hired queuers, who will stand in line for you for a price. If money can save you the trouble of standing in a brutal six-hour-long line, it appears to be a good deal.

Right across the street from the first Heytea shop, Beijing-based bakery Bao Shi Fu (Master Bao), also saw long lines for a couple of months, queuers for hire and scalpers in spring and summer.

Specializing in a soft sponge cake with mayonnaise filling, which is then coated with even more mayonnaise and lots of meat floss, the lines were as long as four hours and lots of dealers were selling bags of the cake in the area for a higher price.

As the lines were so long, a lot of Shanghai customers reached out to friends and family in Beijing, who can buy and mail the cakes. Now, Bao Shi Fu has opened a few more shops and the waiting time is usually less than 30 minutes.

Rise and fall of city's most popular diners

Bao Shi Fu is among the most popular wanghong stores this year.

Because the queuing effect can boost sales and expand influence, a lot of food and beverage business owners started to look for ways to launch products with the descriptions such as wanghong (Internet celebrity/online sensation) to draw in curious crowds. Shanghai FDA interviewed four popular franchises — Heytea, A Little Tea, Gelaoguan (hotpot) and Loushang (hotpot) on food safety and marketing hype this Tuesday, saying that a list of wanghong food and beverage establishments is being a composed to enhance inspection on all aspects from food safety to operation and management. The list now includes more than 1,000 shops of 100 brands in the city.

During the Labor Day holiday in May, NetEase News and Ele.me opened a pop-up named Orz Tea to tease the phenomenal lines created by Heytea, which means happy tea in Chinese. It has a very sad menu that reads, “cheer up, you are the fattest” or “my ex-boyfriend lives a better life than me,” which corresponds to the negative attitudes young people experience in real life.

Orz Tea was opened for only four days, and it attracted the same attention received by Heytea, as curious customers lined up to get their share of sadness.

The second Michelin Guide

The Michelin Guide Shanghai 2018 awarded 30 restaurants with a coveted star and recognized 27 restaurants on the Bib Gourmand.

The list, however, didn’t change much.

Paul Pairet’s Ultraviolet has finally received three stars and his win was celebrated by the Shanghai food community.

T’ang Court, the Cantonese restaurant of The Langham, Shanghai, Xintiandi, and sister restaurant of the T’ang Court at The Langham, Hong Kong, has kept the three stars for consistent performance.

Tai’an Table, which was forced to shut down just one day after receiving a Michelin star in 2016, has reopened at a new location with qualified licenses and obtained a star once again in the 2018 guide.

Four new restaurants have received one star: Bo Shanghai, Jean-Georges, Yong Fu and Wujie (The Bund), and we talked to two of them about winning the Michelin honor.

Leslie Lin, restaurant general manager, Wujie Shanghai The Bund

Three of the four restaurants operated by Shanghai Wujie Restaurant Management Company Ltd were awarded the Bib Gourmand in the first Michelin Guide last year.

As their plant-based cuisine, with light touches of Western influences, received recognition from the Michelin Guide, the company decided to upgrade the outlet on the Bund and make a sprint for the star.

“We wanted to have a precise position of the Bund restaurant because this location attracts mainly fine dining clientele, so we made changes in the menu and interior design, while changing the Chinese name to distinguish from the other three restaurants,” said Lin.

Wujie Shanghai The Bund’s upgraded dining experience provides four to five set menus of different prices every season, in addition to an a la carte as well as a new wine list.

Because Wujie Shanghai The Bund serves Chinese cuisine in Western dining experience, their service staff are trained in both Chinese and Western culinary culture.

“We expect more meticulous service from the service staff, who not only need to have in-depth knowledge of Chinese food in the aspects of ingredients and cooking methods, but also the ability to serve the guests with proper Western dining etiquettes,” she said.

Rise and fall of city's most popular diners
Ti Gong

Black garlic cream and black garlic cheese mousse with black garlic cocoa crisp at Wujie Shanghai the Bund.

Since Wujie Shanghai The Bund was awarded the star, Lin has seen a lot of new guests, especially young people, who come to the restaurant for its reputation. The venue also hosted more banquets and events for fashion brands as its innovative vegetarian cuisine was able to win a star.

“What we do at Wujie is different from other vegetarian restaurants in Shanghai. We are not targeting vegetarians but everyone who has tries our plant-based cuisine, 99 percent of them are not vegetarians, they come back because the food is good,” explained Lin.

The restaurant has created more than 20 vegetarian sauces to complement fresh produces, constantly changing the menu in accordance with the season.

“It’s a very big challenge and learning opportunity for our chefs as they have to learn and improve ceaselessly in order to create interesting cuisine. We also have a lot of exchanges with renowned chefs at home and abroad,” said Lin.

Winning the Michelin star also invites pressure on the team.

“Customers will have stricter requirements for our service team, which is a good thing because it motivates us to do better and better,” said Lin. “Our team of chefs also face greater challenges to create delicious food that exceeds the expectations.”

Jean-Georges Vongerichten, founding chef of Jean-Georges Shanghai

In 2004, Vongerichten opened a Jean-Georges restaurant in Shanghai at Three on the Bund. Since then, it has been a respected fine dining restaurant in the city.

And when the first Michelin Guide Shanghai was published in 2016, many people were surprised to find that Jean-Georges Shanghai didn’t win the Michelin star. A year later, the restaurant was awarded one star.

“It’s fine we got it this year, hopefully now we can try and get a second one if we can,” explained Vongerichten when he was in Shanghai last month. “It’s more important for the staff, who are working so hard every day.”

Jean-Georges Shanghai neither made any specific changes in order to win a star, nor did they set a goal before the second guide was published. For the last 13 years, having loyal customers who keep coming back to the restaurant counts the most, said Vongerichten.

“Sometimes you get rewarded, sometimes you don’t,” he said. “This year we are happy to get the star.”

Running an empire of Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide is no easy job. Vongerichten visits around three times a year, four to five days each time, to make changes and correct things.

As one of the culinary and fine dining pioneers who settled in the city, Vongerichten has witnessed the changes in the food and beverage industry. With so many chefs in town with different concepts, Shanghai has become not only a very important food city in the world, but also one of the trendiest.

“In Shanghai, everything is possible,” he said. “When we opened 13 years ago, 80 percent of the clientele were expats, today 94 percent are Chinese who are eager to try new things.”

In late 2015, Jean-Georges Shanghai underwent a complete renovation, changing the classic decor into a bright and chic new design that features a bar lounge and a show kitchen.

“People wanna transparency today, they want to see the chefs cooking,” said the chef, “though it’s more pressure for the kitchen because they have to be more meticulous.”

The FDA’s crackdowns

The closing of French restauranteur Franck Pecol’s businesses in Shanghai was perhaps the most scandalous event in the Shanghai food scene in 2017.

The whistle-blower who revealed the expired flour scandal at the popular French bakery on Weibo was one of the bakery’s staff in the Minhang factory, and shot videos of the expired flour before tipping off the city’s food watchdog.

On March 23, Farine was suspended by local authority for allegedly using expired flour in their factory. The bakery’s four outlets in Xuhui and Huangpu districts and the Pudong New Area were shut down.

Pecol, the person who is also behind the famous ice cream stand WIYF, cafe Grains and restaurants Franck Bistrot, Le Petit Franck and Rachel’s, fled China a day after being questioned.

Rise and fall of city's most popular diners

French bakery Farine was closed in March due to a food safety scandal.

Though most of his businesses closed due to the scandal, Franck Bistrot has quietly reopened this summer.

The whistle-blower, who would receive a reward for tipping off the officials about food safety problems, spent four months trying to find a job in Shanghai and failed, he returned to his hometown in Liaoning Province but said he didn’t have any regrets for blowing the whistle.

In 2017, the authorities handled 784 cases of food safety tip-offs with 273,600 yuan issued in rewards.

The Farine scandal was a wake-up call for fellow food and beverage establishments, that a higher price tag may not always cash in on quality and food safety.

The authorities have also tightened up on food safety inspections. Following the closings, the Shanghai Food and Drug Administration set up a special task force to crack down on celebrity food and beverage businesses. They inspected more than 2,000 shops and filed over 300 cases.

The crackdown revealed yet another big problem, the private kitchens. The FDA found 1,154 private kitchens, 672 of which were operating without licenses, according to a radio interview with Yan Zuqiang, director of Shanghai FDA on April 17.

The celebrity food businesses weren’t the only ones to fall as the city’s food watchdog enhances supervision. Shen Da Cheng, a well-known, time-honored dim sum shop, temporarily closed its doors in April after a video uploaded online revealed rats in the kitchen.

Yilong Xiaoquexing, a chic dim sum franchise that operated nine restaurants and a central kitchen, was suspended in July after customers who dined at four restaurants filed complaints of food poisoning. Almost half a year later, the franchise resumed business and opened a new shop in Joy City, but the business isn’t as popular as it was in the past.

The decline of celebrity restaurants

In 2017, TV host Zhao Ruohong’s restaurant franchise Miss Zhao Doesn’t Wait answered a curtain call.

Opened in 2013 on Changle Road, Miss Zhao Doesn’t Wait was among the earliest wanghong restaurants in town. The small bistro with limited tables served Shanghainese dishes and seafood, and the young diners were willing to wait for two hours.

Zhao soon expanded the business into a successful franchise. The food wasn’t cheap but people still came to dine.

Over time, the hype subsided due to inconsistent quality and the rise of new celebrity restaurants. People began to complain about the quality and high price of the diner’s food.

Famous writer Han Han’s restaurant franchise Nice Meeting You started a craze when it first opened in 2014.

Han’s culinary empire also includes five other sub brands specializing in desserts, dim sum, burgers and Western cuisine.

With a fusion style menu and creatively named dishes, the restaurant was hugely popular, not only among fans of Han’s books, but the general public. The franchise expanded quickly from Shanghai to 20 other cities, and problems started to surface.

To name a few, in January 2015, a Nice Meeting You branch in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province was fined 280,000 yuan for operating without license. In 2016, a store in Wuhan, Hubei Province was suspended due to a rat problem and no license. In March 2017, a shop in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province was closed after a debt problem.

Now, there are three Nice Meeting You restaurants in Shanghai but they are no longer the celebrity in the business.

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