No matter what your age, who can resist a tasty, low-priced meal?

Yang Jian
Community cafeterias originally set up for the elderly are expanding their appeal to embrace a younger generation. The concept is gaining popularity.
Yang Jian
No matter what your age, who can resist a tasty, low-priced meal?
Ti Gong

Young office workers dine alongside senior citizens at the Shanghai Memory Café in Hongkou's Quyang Road Subdistrict.

Community cafeterias, once the domain of the elderly, are now emerging as a popular dining option for a diverse range of people Shanghai, including white-collar workers and students.

At noon, the Tongxin Cafeteria near the Jing'an Temple downtown has a queue that exemplifies its multi-generational popularity.

The menu, with over 60 dishes rotated daily, caters to a spectrum of tastes – from scallion oil chicken to crispy pork, sizzling eel with shredded ginger to bitter melon stir-fried with pork slices.

"Compared with food ordered for lunch online, this place is much better," said Chen Luo, an accountant from a nearby office building.

Chen, who lives alone, formerly depended heavily on delivered meals ordered online until her parents raised concerns about the nutritional value and what they called "stale ingredients."

Cooking for herself is too time-consuming, she said.

"I used to spend two hours cooking and washing dishes, only to eat for 10 minutes," Chen said.

The nearby community canteen is a perfect solution. A quick healthy meal that she eats while having a quick scroll through social media.

No matter what your age, who can resist a tasty, low-priced meal?
Yang Jian / SHINE

The cafeteria at 66 Wutong Yard hosts patrons of all ages.

These cafeterias, once known as "senior canteens," were originally established to provide healthy meals at affordable prices to older folks who might not be getting enough nutrition at home. From 2019 to 2021, the Shanghai government set a goal of building 200 new community canteens, bringing the total at the end of last year to 1,608.

A basic meal with one meat dish and two vegetables costs less than 20 yuan (US$2.70), far cheaper than prices in mainstream downtown restaurants. And all meals are prepared on site with fresh ingredients.

The government supports these cafeterias – sometimes with rent-free space; sometimes with reduced water and electricity charges.

The Hongqiao AI Community Cafeteria receives rent-free space from local authorities. Similarly, the Tongxin Cafeteria in Jing'an operates on property owned by the local subdistrict.

No matter what your age, who can resist a tasty, low-priced meal?

An office worker has plenty to choose from at the Xuhui West Bund Citizen's Canteen.

Li Jiajun, the manager of a local community canteen, said the prices of the dishes are 20 percent lower than prevailing market rates because of the government assistance.

His canteen prioritizes elderly diners from 10:30-11:30am and 4:30-5:30pm. Apart from those hours, people of all ages are welcome.

Li said cafeteria managers are required to maintain detailed records, including 48-hour food samples and daily uploads to food safety platforms. This approach ensures the traceability of all ingredients.

Some community cafeterias have become so popular that they appear on WeChat and other lifestyle sharing platforms.

The Shanghai Memory Café, a community canteen of Hongkou's Quyang Road Subdistrict that opened last year, has become known for its nostalgic décor harking back to the 1960s and 70s, including old photos of the city.

The décor is a way to pass on the memories and historical heritage of Shanghai from the older generation to younger generations, according to its operator.

The nearby Hui 51 cafeteria and center at 51 Huihe Road, which opened to the public recently, combines a community canteen with spaces for young entrepreneurs to study, socialize, work, dine and relax.

No matter what your age, who can resist a tasty, low-priced meal?

Some young customers enjoy eating al fresco at the Xuhui canteen along the Huangpu River.

The 66 Wutong Yard community opened as part of a historical complex on Wulumuqi Road S. in Xuhui. The main building of the yard was designed by renowned architect Laszlo Hudec and built in 1932. The compound also serves as a community service center.

On weekends, people can eat a large meat bun and a warm bowl of porridge as they watch passers-by. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the cafeteria hosts pingtan folk art storytelling performances, a favorite with seniors sipping afternoon tea.

At the community canteen in the Youyi Road Subdistrict in Baoshan, diners can use their smartphones to choose dishes and pay their bills. The cost is based on the weight of the food to avoid waste.

In the Community AI Canteen in the Hongqiao Subdistrict, Shanghai's first staff-free community canteen uses robots to cook and serve meals, while an artificial intelligence system offers diet advice. The site serves about 300 customers a day.

No matter what your age, who can resist a tasty, low-priced meal?

A robotic arm cooks noodles for customers at the Hongqiao AI canteen.

The West Bund community canteen, located in a core area on the west bank of the Huangpu River, serves over 1,000 people daily, with weekends reaching up to 3,000 customers.

Perched amid the riverside scenery, the site opened in July. Patrons include local residents, tourists, joggers and delivery staff, said the director Xia Rui.

On the message board, patrons can leave messages. One reads: "I'm a student studying in Shanghai and I really love the atmosphere here. I hope to stay in Shanghai in the future and contribute to helping build this city."

Li, a delivery rider who frequently dines at the community cafeteria, volunteers to deliver meals to vulnerable people in the community.

"I've always enjoyed the public services provided by the community, so I thought I would show my gratitude and give something back," Li said.

It's not always easy to operate a community canteen. Those located in areas of less public convenience suffer from too few customers and rely heavily on government subsidies. That can mean a poorer quality meal sometimes.

"Without a loving heart, no one could stick to a business that involves a lot of work and very little profit," said Zhuang Yunhai, operator of Yangpu community canteen Yinfu Kitchen.

Zhuang said his two predecessors didn't last even a year in the business.

No matter what your age, who can resist a tasty, low-priced meal?
Ti Gong

An old school bike and public telephone are part of the nostalgia display at the Shanghai Memory Café canteen in the Quyang Road Subdistrict of Hongkou.

The success of community canteens depends on striking a balance between government support and market-driven forces, requiring planning and solid management, according to Song Yu, a research assistant at the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Given the narrow profit margins in community canteens, precision in management is important, Song said, citing the instance of a community canteen in Xuhui where the rice served at 10:30am is softer and stickier than the batch cooked at noon to please the tastes of the ages of people who eat at those hours.

"We are pleased to have younger people dining here," said a 90-year-old patron surnamed Qu. "They give an 'elderly canteen' a feeling of youthful vigor."

No matter what your age, who can resist a tasty, low-priced meal?
Yang Jian / SHINE

A long line of young customers waits outside the 66 Wutong Yard community canteen in Xuhui.

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