Robynne Tindall speaks to F&B branding and marketing consultant and food writer Jessie Zhang about how the pandemic has changed China’s restaurant and hospitality industries and what we can learn from the brands that have continued to thrive
Jessie Zhang is the founder of Star Gourmet Communications, an integrated marketing and communications agency that works with some of China’s best-known hospitality and lifestyle brands, including DaDong China World Mall, San Pellegrino and Opera Bombana.
What are the main trends in the hospitality industry in China at the moment? How do you see these trends evolving over the next five years?
The restaurant and hotel industries in mainland China have changed a lot since the pandemic.
For example, fancy restaurants and large-scale business hotels are no longer the first choice for consumers; instead, they are more inclined towards niche boutique hotels or “internet famous” (wanghong) B&Bs. Many travellers will plan trips around “checking in” (daka – to tick off a popular spot) at specific hotels or restaurants, such as the Songtsam Boutique Hotels in Yunnan and Tibet or Bright Qi Hotels & Resort in Zibo, Shandong, which is set into the side of an 800m cliff.
A stay in one of these hotels can set you back as much as RMB 5,000 (£573) per night, and they can be booked up months in advance. The popularity of these independent hotels has forced international chains like IHG and Marriott to launch their own boutique brands to cater to the changing market.
What trends have fallen out of fashion and why?
As I noted above, high-end business travel is losing its popularity. One reason for this is that the pandemic has had a major impact on business budgets, and companies of all sizes are looking to make cuts to their travel and entertaining expenses. The other reason is that young consumers are much more discerning in their choices and actively seek out unique, diverse experiences.
Hospitality was one of the industries most affected by the pandemic. How have venues responded to this challenge?
Hotels and restaurants were proactive in finding ways to protect their businesses during the pandemic. For example, Michelin-starred restaurants started to offer delivery menus – something unprecedented for restaurants of that calibre – and pre-cooked and “semi-finished products” (such as those akin to the recipe boxes with pre-portioned ingredients offered by services like Hello Fresh in the UK).
As you mentioned, China’s food delivery industry expanded massively during the pandemic, and this is likely to continue even now that Covid restrictions have been dropped. How are restaurants – especially fine dining restaurants – ensuring that their delivery/takeaway options maintain a high standard?
The convenience of food delivery has fundamentally changed the way people approach dining in China, especially in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and that is unlikely to change even now the pandemic is over. In fact, the pandemic significantly improved the level of delivery offerings because it forced restaurants to adapt quickly and try new things. Nowadays, many restaurants have a specific team focusing on creating delivery offerings or a central kitchen making dishes to push out on delivery apps.
Many Western chefs working in China are increasingly using local Chinese ingredients on their menus. What has brought about this change? Are there any producers or ingredients that you are particularly excited about right now?
I think this move is in line with trends around the world. In the past, a chef like Umberto Bombana (a three Michelin-starred Italian chef who has restaurants in Hong Kong, Macau, Beijing and Shanghai) would have sourced everything from Italy, even down to the smallest tomato; now, his restaurant in Beijing, Opera Bombana, has its own organic farm in the suburbs.
On the one hand, sourcing ingredients locally obviously reduces ingredient costs. On the other hand, the pandemic made it much more difficult to source some imported ingredients, especially those where freshness is paramount, so chefs had no choice but to go local. Local ingredients also have the advantage of creating storytelling opportunities. For example, Marino D’Antonio, executive chef of Giada Garden Italian restaurant, sources pork for his roast suckling pig from a village in Chengde, a few hours’ drive from Beijing. He can directly communicate with the farmers and ask them to slaughter the pigs according to his requirements while also demonstrating his commitment to “rural revitalisation”, which has been a priority for the Chinese government in recent years.