Chinese chains rise to challenge
Updated: 2012-06-15 12:43
By Chen Yingqun and Hu Haiyan (China Daily)
Most of the cooking of HeheGu's food is done in its central kitchen. Provided to China Daily
Adapting cuisine for impatient consumers presents particular problems
It was the ultimate challenge: find a way to adapt a traditional Chinese dish that takes ages to prepare for those who need their food in a flash - customers of fast-food restaurants.
It may well be that because of the difficulty of that challenge, rice topped with Dongpo pork - braised pork belly that needs to be cooked for at least two hours - has remained off the menus of Chinese fast-food chains for so long.
It is necessity, of course, that usually begets invention, and the need to meet consumer demand while turning a profit obviously drove the Chinese fast-food chain HeheGu as it strove to solve the great Dongpo puzzle. But the company also drew heavily on Western fast-food chains' experience of centralized and mass production, and is applying that knowledge widely in its business.
HeheGu, a fast-food chain operator founded in Beijing in 2004, is among many companies that are seeking to expand by making use of centralized production.
The fast-food operator, which focuses on serving gai fan - rice topped with meat, vegetables and other ingredients - has set up a recipe research team with five experts to create new recipes that are suitable for mass production using special equipment.
Making rice topped with Dongpo pork and bamboo shoots is an example. Based on the principle of using a double-burner gas stove in cooking, HeheGu's R&D center has invented a two-layered ladder stove in which dozens of earthen jars can be used to stew Dongpo pork simultaneously. The flames of the burners are fixed to just two levels: strong heat and gentle heat. The cooking is mostly done in the company's central kitchen.
HeheGu came up with its Dongpo pork after the recipe research team visited many restaurants that serve the dish.
Liu Zhi'ang, head of the processing center, says: "In line with the recipe, we put a certain amount of meat, soy sauce, cooking wine, crystal sugar, green onion, chili, garlic and powder into each jar, boil them with strong heat and then braise them with gentle heat for half an hour, then they taste almost the same as that made in traditional restaurants."
The sauces are made separately, sealed and sterilized. The packed Dongpo pork and the sauces are then delivered to HeheGu's stores and offered to customers after mixing and heating.
As most of the cooking procedures are done in the central kitchen, Zhao Shen, general manager of Beijing HeheGu Food Service Management Co Ltd, says customers can get their food within 60 seconds of ordering.
At present eight dishes are offered, including popular dishes such as rice topped with kung pao chicken or mapo tofu.
Li Yanyan, a research team member, says industrial procedures have been adopted covering various elements of recipes, and appropriate equipment has been developed. The processes and equipment need to take into account 30 or so techniques used in preparing and cooking Chinese food, she says, including steaming, stewing, stir-frying, sauteing, boiling and baking.
Zhao says centralized production has helped reduce costs and grow the business. "Of our 1,600 staff (in the stores), none of them is a cook." The company, which now has 60 stores across China, enjoyed profit growth of 45 percent last year, he says.
A set with rice, Dongpo pork and a soup or a beverage costs 16 yuan ($2.50, 2 euros). In a traditional restaurant Dongpo pork alone costs about 50 yuan.
Chinese fast-food chains also enjoy a price advantage over their Western counterparts. HeheGu's sets are priced at between 15 yuan and 20 yuan; sets offered at the chicken restaurant chain KFC, with a hamburger, a drink and a salad, cost between 25 yuan and 30 yuan.
Luo Juan, an analyst on the catering industry with Shenzhen-based research company Forward & Intelligence Co Ltd, says that last year Chinese fast-food companies accounted for 78.9 percent of fast-food sales, whose value was about 700 billion yuan.
The turnover of Chinese fast-food restaurants has risen about 30 percent for each of the past five years, she says, compared with about 10 to 20 percent for their Western counterparts
Like HeheGu, many fast-food companies that are using centralized production have gained strong presence in China. Daniang Dumpling has more than 300 stores across the country, while Kung Fu Fast Food, which provides mainly steamed food, has more than 400 stores. Yonghe King, a fast-food chain serving noodles and rice sets, has about 300 stores.
Chen Jinfa, president of Yonghe King, which was founded 17 years ago, says sales rose about 30 percent last year compared with the previous year, and this year growth of about 40 percent is forecast.
Chen says the prospects for Chinese fast-food companies are bright. "We are likely to see big brands that become as big and as well known as Western brands.
"Our food caters to local customers' taste, which is an innate advantage for Chinese fast-food companies. At the same time we are quickly adapting in many respects, such as with the franchise business model, hygiene and high-quality service."
Yonghe King will expand the number of its stores to 700 by the end of 2015, he says, and 1,000 stores by 2017. After that it plans to try its hand overseas, with stores planned in the United States and Europe.
Lihua Group, which was founded in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, in 1993, is said to be the largest Chinese fast-food company that focuses on take-out set meals.
"For many Chinese, a complete meal includes rice, meat, vegetables and soup, to ensure the balance of nutrition," says Jiang Jianping, founder and president of the company.
Meanwhile, due to the special nature of Chinese cooking, and where human hands are needed in the preparation, some dishes remain beyond mass production, needing a human touch.
Lihua has decided that it has to adapt its procedures to customer needs. So in its 60 branches in 11 cities it still hires many cooks to prepare fresh and hot vegetables.
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(China Daily 06/15/2012 page13)