Social change on the boil

Updated: 2013-04-26 08:37

By Cecily Liu (China Daily)

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 Social change on the boil

William McGrath, chief executive of Aga Rangemaster, says his company's kitchenware will soon enter the Chinese market. Cecily Liu / China Daily

British-Chinese partnership aims to change kitchen habits

Too many cooks may spoil the broth, but a British stove maker and a Chinese kitchen appliance maker are putting their heads together in a deal that they reckon will produce better food.

British company Aga Rangemaster, which is behind the famous range of cookers, will soon enter the Chinese market with the help of Chinese Zhongshan Vatti Gas Appliance Stock Co.

Aga Rangemaster has picked a selection of cast-iron cookers, sheet metal gas cookers and induction cookers for the Chinese market, and adjusted them to suit the Chinese style of cooking.

"We want to tell our Chinese customers that they do not have to change what they eat today," says the company's chief executive, William McGrath.

"We want to show the Chinese market, whatever they want to cook, our products can do that."

Similar to Aga's classic cookers for the European market, these cookers typically have hotplates and ovens built into one entity.

"But then the Chinese customers could say, 'Why do I need an oven? But we felt that we could offer them more possibilities in cooking, as Western food, like toast, pizza and cakes, is becoming increasingly popular in China," McGrath says.

That quality will distinguish Aga from China's domestic kitchen equipment brands, he says. For example, one cooker selected for the Chinese market is Aga's Total Control model, a recently launched product allowing ovens and hotplates to turn on and off independently with a touch screen on the cooker, or remotely on an iPhone.

The cooker contains three separate ovens, for baking, roasting, and simmering specifically, so the cook does not need to set the temperature manually.

But one key adjustment made for the Chinese market is two hotplates on each cooker instead of four for the European market, as Chinese woks are often wider and require more space. One of the hotplates is designed to quickly bring food to the boil, and the second for simmering.

On the sheet iron gas cookers, Aga has added a brass insert to the burners, so that the flame region can withstand a temperature of at least 700 C to comply with Chinese regulations.

Aga buys these high-temperature burners from Sabaf, an Italian manufacturer that supplies many Chinese kitchenware brands.

Aga was invented by the Swedish Nobel Prize-winning scientist Gustaf Dalen in 1922 to help his wife. He had lost his sight in an acetylene explosion 10 years earlier. Manufacturing of the cooker later moved to Britain and merged with the British brand Rangemaster to create the present group.

The company has been thinking about expanding into China since 2010. "Vatti did its homework about companies around the world who might offer new products for China, and they identified us as being interesting," McGrath says.

"Until that point, we had thought there would be too big a leap for us to prioritize moving into the Chinese market, given the different ways of cooking. But the more we investigated, the more interesting the proposition looked."

Since then, Aga and Vatti have frequently visited each other's factories, and a reciprocal distribution agreement was announced last year during the Olympics in London, perhaps appropriately as Vatti was the manufacturer of Beijing's 2008 Olympic torches.

It is not hard to see why Aga is seeking new markets. Positioned as a premium product, sales were badly affected by the financial crisis. Profits were 14.4 million pounds ($22 million; 17 million euros) in 2008, but fell 97 percent to less than 500,000 pounds the following year.

But Aga's prospects could all change with China's growing middle-class consumers. Aga's traditional cast-iron cookers retail for between 4,000 and 12,000 pounds.

McGrath says the products are now being assessed by China Quality Certification Center in Beijing, and he expects licenses to be granted in August.

The company's goal is to introduce 500 displays of Aga cookers in Vatti's new dealer concept stores over the next two years, he says.

McGrath's vision for Aga in China is not just to make a profit, but also to influence Chinese household kitchen floor plans.

This may sound ambitious for a company with just 245 million pounds of revenue last year, but perhaps justifiable given its success over the years in transforming the secluded British kitchen into a cosy spot for family and friends.

"In the 1930s, British society was undergoing massive changes, and the housewife started doing a lot more cooking, instead of the maid, and Aga absolutely seized its moment," McGrath says.

Over the years, Aga has invested heavily in major campaigns, including television programs with celebrity chefs using its cookers, posters and paintings of modern-looking kitchens centered on Aga cookers, and fashionable in-store demonstrations teaching customers about the benefits of its products.

Its efforts paid off, and Aga's name became synonymous with upper-class British rusticity. Its popularity even led to the coining of the term AGA saga in the 1990s, a fiction genre reflecting stereotypical upper-middle class society.

Today, as in 1930s Britain, the floor plans in newly built properties in China are changing. Traditionally, the Chinese kitchen was separated in a small room because cooking Chinese food spreads a lot of oil particles into the air.

But more recently, many larger homes are starting to include two kitchens, one for Western-style cooking and one for traditional Chinese cooking, perhaps driven by demands from an increasing number of Chinese who have lived in the West.

McGrath says Aga should make the most of its strength to accelerate such a social change in China. The company will train people to host demonstration sessions for Chinese consumers of how the Aga cooker works, he says.

His team will also work with Vatti's team to build a relationship with property developers, informing them of the possibility of installing Aga cookers in new apartments and houses.

Aga has also appointed British celebrity chef James McIntosh to be its brand ambassador in China.

McIntosh is perhaps best known in China for the 2008 TV program Food Adventures on the Silk Road, in which he travelled with a Muslim cook and a Chinese cook along the world's original trade route to cook authentic food of each location along the road.

The program was broadcast on China Food TV, a channel in Qingdao, Shandong province, and was later turned into a book, published in Chinese and English.

Aga already has one user in China. McGrath's flatmate from university, who majored in Mandarin and now lives in Shandong, asked McGrath to ship him an Aga cooker.

"He has found it very useful, and now uses it to cook all sorts of Chinese food," McGrath says.

McGrath's team is also working with Vatti to bring its ovens to Europe. Vatti's built-in cookers, which are built into the kitchen cabinet, unlike Aga's stand-alone ovens, can be incorporated into Aga's product range, he says.

But his team is now helping Vatti to upgrade its ovens' quality. One improvement is a more even heat flow inside the oven, so the entire surface of the food receives the same amount of heat.

Vatti is also developing a double-cavity oven that allows two sets of food to be cooked separately, an idea more consistent with Aga's current range of products, which often have several separate oven compartments.

"We are keen to make sure that Vatti's ovens are not just another product in the European market," McGrath says. "They have to be unique." Aga's engineers will often visit Vatti's research and development team in China to give them advice, he says.

"It's a fast learning process for them, but I imagine the final product they develop would be quite useful in China too."

(China Daily 04/26/2013 page19)