Food and the Megacity: How Urbanisation and Technology are Changing the Way China Eats
For decades, economists liked to say that when the United States sneezed, the rest of the world caught a cold. Today, the country reaching for a handkerchief first isn’t the US, but China. In the past half-century, it has turned itself into an economic superpower while lifting millions of people out of poverty in the process. And inevitably, China’s increasing economic might has consequences—not least within global food systems. It’s timely, then, to explore emerging food trends in China, especially in its megacities—defined by the UN as cities with at least 10 million residents. A collaboration between SPACE10 and YEAST.—a future-of-food laboratory based in Shanghai—this report identifies 12 of the most interesting food trends in those megacities.
China’s development has been staggering. For instance, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), China accounted for 24 percent of global economic growth between 2003 and 2013—the year it surpassed the US as the world’s largest trading nation. And as the world’s largest trading nation, the decisions China makes about feeding its people have ramifications that go beyond its borders. Consider this: China’s population is about 1.4 billion—20 percent of the planet’s—yet it has just 7 percent of the world’s arable land. Unsurprisingly, it is fast modernising its domestic food industry and developing innovative technologies. It is also looking beyond its borders and buying more food from overseas. In 2016, China imported $19.6 billion worth of comestibles—up from $1.3 billion in 1999. Already home to seven of the world’s 10 largest ports, China is further extending its trade routes with “One Belt, One Road”—a government-led strategy of investing in and developing roads and shipping lanes in Europe, Asia and Africa.
To understand the ramifications of how the world’s second-largest economy manages to feed more than a billion people, consider the soybean. The humble legume is a key ingredient in several Chinese culinary staples—including soy sauce and tofu. It is also used to make soymeal, a protein-rich ingredient in animal feed—and, to cater for China’s growing appetite for meat, imports of soybeans have soared. In fact, China now imports 60 percent of the soybeans traded worldwide. And there’s the rub. Amid its trade war with Washington, China is boycotting soybeans from the US, its main supplier. It’s a development that not only threatens the livelihood of American farmers but also fuels fears that China will run out of soybeans in 2019.
Make no mistake. How China feeds itself has consequences that go well beyond its borders. Which means there is merit in exploring emerging food trends in China, especially in its megacities. This report identifies a dozen of them—all of which are underpinned by the political and economic developments that China’s economic rise has triggered.
The most significant of these developments is China’s rapid urbanisation. In the last 35 years, almost 500 million people have migrated from the countryside to urban areas, creating hundreds of new cities in the process which include some of the world’s largest metropolises. Today, China has six megacities and 124 cities with a population of at least one million. By 2030, China is expected to have eight megacities and 173 cities. Meanwhile, large-scale development plans are underway to create as many as 19 “megaregions”—urban clusters such as the Pearl River Delta (comprising Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau), and the Yangtze River Delta (comprising Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou).
Another consequence of China’s growing financial muscle is its rapid digitisation. As its citizens get richer—by 2022, 75 percent of people in cities will be considered middle-class, earning an annual income of between $9,000 and $34,000—they are keenly adopting new technologies. (And skipping older ones such as personal computers and credit cards.) For instance, the smartphone is now the dominant way that Chinese people get online. As of June 2018, 98.3 percent of the population accessed the internet through mobile technology, with only 34.5 percent accessing it through a laptop.
What’s more, the near-universal adoption of smartphones in China has fuelled the growth of mobile payment systems. In one recent survey, 40 percent of respondents said they carried less than 100 yuan ($14.50) on average, and 74 percent said they could comfortably survive on that sum of cash for at least a month. Moreover, China’s widespread adoption of social networking, livestreaming and user-generated content has created the world’s largest e-commerce market, which reached sales of a trillion dollars in 2017. Boosted by China’s high urban population density, mobile technology has helped create opportunities for food-delivery companies, too. Today, China’s food-delivery market is worth $33 billion dollars, almost double the size of the US market.
China’s growing prosperity isn’t just changing how its citizens eat, but what they’re eating too. The emerging middle-class is increasingly enjoying a Western-style diet—including more meat. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, per capita meat consumption in China has grown by 130 percent since 1990. “Meat has gone from a rare treat to a regular staple for many Chinese people,” the Guardian reported two years ago. “In 1982, the average Chinese person ate just 13 kg of meat a year and beef was nicknamed ‘millionaire’s meat’ due to its scarcity.” No longer. Today, the average Chinese person eats 63 kg of meat a year, the Guardian reported, noting that the country’s health ministry has recommended that people reduce their meat intake by 50 percent. Concerns are also growing that China’s appetite for meat will undermine its efforts to combat climate change.
Moreover, China is now the world’s third-largest producer of beef, the second-biggest producer of poultry, and the world’s leading producer of pork. In fact, in the last half-century, Chinese pork production has grown around 35-fold: from 1.5 million tonnes in 1961 to 54 million tonnes in 2014. Such has been the scale of China’s demand for pork that it has even created a pork reserve to try to maintain and protect the price of pork by buying and selling in world markets. Its appetite for pork also saw it acquire the world’s largest pork producer, a US company.
In short, we believe that these three macroeconomic developments—increasing prosperity, increasing urbanisation and increasing digitisation—are indelibly changing Chinese food culture. As increasing numbers of people rise out of poverty and join China’s middle-class; as more people move from the countryside to the city in search of better jobs; and as growing numbers of city-dwellers go digital and adopt emerging technologies, how they eat, what they eat and where they eat will change forever.
Together and separately, these three macro-trends are the handmaidens of the 12 food trends identified in this report. We have focused on China’s megacities—and how China feeds its growing urban population matters in its own right, of course—but given that many countries are witnessing increasing prosperity, urbanisation and digitisation, we believe that the 12 trends described in this report could have relevance beyond China’s borders, too.
1: Getting Food Delivered is the New Normal
Fast-food in China no longer means a bowl of instant noodles. City dwellers now enjoy affordable, convenient and high-quality meals thanks to a rampant food-delivery scene.
Weaving between traffic on scooters, sprinting through shopping malls or cramming into office elevators, food-delivery workers have fast become a staple of daily life in China’s cities. In their signature outfits, a phone in one hand and a plastic bag in the other, they’re impossible to miss, too.
Food delivery is arguably the most important food trend in China today. It’s changing what people eat, as well as where and when they eat. It’s changing the concept of the restaurant and where to locate them in cities. It’s even changing the flow of people in China’s cities.
According to a report by Meituan-Dianping, an online retailer (with about 310 million active users and 14.7 million daily transactions), $31.9 billion was spent on food delivery in China in 2017. The sector is dominated by two national competitors, Meituan and Ele.me, who together have 95 percent of the market (with the remainder made up by small, regional players). The explosion of food delivery in China is attributed in part to urbanisation, including the density of the urban environment—which is seven times denser than in the US. It is also attributed to the role of digitisation, with leading e-commerce companies plugging food-delivery services into their mature physical (e.g. delivery network) and digital (e.g. mobile payment) infrastructures.
Roy Lin, a researcher at open data-mapping organisation InVisibleCities, has studied the food-delivery phenomenon. “Urban planning and zoning designs have offered a great context for food delivery to flourish,” he says. “Shanghai and other cities were developed in the past 20 years following the US car-centric grid density. However, the cost of using cars in China and the relative difficulty of moving around the city has created favourable conditions for delivery to flourish.”
Price is a critical factor, too. Food delivery in China is a competitive market, in which prices are low and demand is high. It’s hard to beat convenience when the price is right. And while round-the-clock convenience has long been a feature of many cities, in China it means access not just to fast-food but to high-quality restaurant food, too—from weekday lunches to elaborate family-style Sichuan dinner spreads to food from bakeries, cafés and supermarkets.
“Ten years ago, we loved the instant noodle because of its convenience,” said Liu Zhangming, an analyst for TF Securities, in an interview with the South China Morning Post. “But 10 years later, it has faded away from our lives because we can order quick, easy and higher-quality meals online, which are not all that expensive and still very convenient.”
2: The Decline of Street Food
Rapid gentrification is calling time on many long-established, street-food joints.
Office workers waiting for breakfast crepes, or jianbing, during rush hour. Small groups huddled on plastic stools, eating skewers of barbecued meat, or shaokao, late at night. These are the familiar sights of Chinese street-food culture—which has changed dramatically in recent years. Streets known for kerbside cuisine are succumbing to new zoning regulations, breakneck commercial development and increasingly restrictive food-safety measures.
“In just the last four years, we have seen a drastic change of the informal, local and traditional food places that we can show guests,” says Rose Martin, who runs Un-Tour, which provides local food experiences in Shanghai. “People that have been practising their craft on the streets, sometimes for 40 years, like the man known as the God of Scallion Pancakes, have suddenly had to close down their one and only activity. Street food is often seen as backwards.”
This process of urban renewal is not uncommon in cities around the world. But it’s the scale of rapid urbanisation and the pace of change that makes it so interesting in China. Entire streets of businesses are shut overnight, with walls quickly erected to prevent them operating. And this is happening in cities all over China. In some cases, apartments are built to replace former cafés and restaurants, creating more space for residents. In others, the restaurant may carry on behind closed doors and windows, with authorities turning a blind eye—at least for a while.
Imagine, for instance, a street-facing spot long popular for its soup dumplings, or xialongbao, but now walled in. Through a window, passersby can order directly from the kitchen where chefs prepare the famous local delicacy. To eat inside the restaurant, diners must ring the buzzer and enter through a nondescript door adjacent to the window. In other popular street-food eateries, owners get even more creative, using makeshift ladders made of bricks to allow diners to enter through a window, say, or rebuilding fake walls that are actually doors.
Moreover, many designers and architects are inspired by these hacks. Design H(ij)ack is a summer programme in Beijing that explores ways to intervene in the context of fast-changing regulation of public spaces—or, as Lulu Li, one of the course’s mentors explains, to “[learn] from China’s informal design tactics to negotiate spaces facing policies”. In one of the projects, “Sometimes showing, Other times not”, the practice of disguising a restaurant as a home is made systematic. An entire café is designed to look like a Beijing home, or hutong, with window-side ordering, ladders to enter the café, and modular furniture for outdoor seating.
Street food has long appealed to both the palate and the wallet of the city dweller, so it is unclear how street-food culture in China will survive or evolve in its fast-changing cities. Ael Thery, a food anthropologist who has studied Chinese street-food culture for years, says that “people go in the street not only for budget considerations, but also for the lack of spaces at home or work, and often for a way to escape the homogeneity of food habits and options.”
3: The Rise of “Dark Kitchens”
and Delivery Hubs
The number of restaurants that don’t have customers but prepare food for delivery is soaring.
While some restaurants are being forced to shut down or move because of gentrification, others are setting up shop in what would traditionally have been considered undesirable locations. The reason? China’s food-delivery boom.
Digital businesses are reshaping the role of the street and the retail environment, creating new typologies of restaurant and uses of public space. One of the impacts of so-called “dark kitchens”—essentially, restaurants that never take customers but rather produce food for delivery only—is that many streets in Chinese cities are evolving to become informal dispatch centres for food-delivery businesses.
Earlier this year, the Guardian estimated that there were at least 70 “dark kitchens” in the United Kingdom. In megacities such as Shanghai or Shenzhen, while there are no figures available, it is safe to assume there are at least 70 dark kitchens in a single neighbourhood.
Wander the back streets of Shanghai and you will find alleyways filled with tiny “restaurants” that don’t have seats or diners. Instead, you will see clusters of orange, blue and yellow-uniformed employees waiting to collect a new delivery order. Inside the restaurants are boxes of plastic containers and single-use cutlery. There are no waiters, only staff receiving orders on phones and printing off receipts for dishes that must be delivered within 28 minutes.
The customers may never see or set foot inside these licensed restaurants. Features of traditional restaurants, such as service or ambience, are irrelevant. Instead, the key metrics are user reviews and ratings, promotions and discounts, and distance from the customer.
A study by Shanghai’s Tongji University mapped the location of these delivery-focused restaurants and found that they tend to cluster three kilometres from the main commercial streets, filling the in-between spaces of the city, where rent is cheaper and they are closer to dense residential areas. “Streets that are commercially-challenged from the perspective of traditional retail business logic—high foot-traffic areas in close proximity to major public transit stations—actually can become successful as delivery hubs,” says Roy Lin.
The physical presence of digital businesses such as food delivery is changing the cityscape and the function of certain streets. While these “dark kitchens” appear to come and go quite frequently, the streets themselves remain resilient as de-facto food-delivery dispatch centres. Once home to shops, restaurants and local residents, many streets are now temporary physical spaces for the exchange of goods through a digital platform. The consequence is a lack of cultural diversity in the streets: instead of ethnic restaurants or grocery shops, many neighbourhood streets in Chinese megacities are increasingly filled with delivery-oriented dark kitchens, coffee shops and grocery chains, creating a homogeneous look and experience.
4: Old-School Mom-and-Pop Shops Go Digital
Tech giants like Alibaba are helping many small businesses get skin in the e-commerce game.
A subtle but critical change is taking place in the urban food space: the digital transformation of small, independent, family-run businesses (aka mom-and-pop shops). New real-estate projects such as shopping malls and office towers may dominate Main Street today, but mom-and-pop shops remain a steadfast presence on the side streets of China’s cities, giving shoppers a quick and convenient way to purchase fresh produce and packaged food.
Moreover, thanks to internet tech giants in general—and competition in the e-commerce market in particular—these shops are thriving. Chinese tech rivals Alibaba and JD are recruiting these small businesses and providing them with software, supply-chain solutions and new monetisation models. In return, the e-commerce giants get access to physical spaces, which they can add to their network of point-of-sale locations and food-delivery hubs.
At first glance, mom-and-pop shops all look the same on the surface. In fact, they’re being stocked by centralised Alibaba or JD hubs in response to real-time fluctuations in demand, thus minimising cost and waste. These shops may even be equipped with low-cost sensors to track foot traffic. And hyper-local data insights from the neighbourhood can be used by the shop owner to curate a high-exposure snack shelf.
This “digitisation-in-a-box” strategy is making small businesses “artificially intelligent” at a stroke, creating a potential platform for curated and personalised food retail environments, as well as a less wasteful stock and fulfillment process. For consumers, the gap between digital and physical shopping experiences is further collapsed.
5: Shopping Malls as Food-Deliver Centres
Many restaurants in malls now operate as much as delivery dispatch centres as dine-in joints.
The recency of China’s economic rise means there is a huge opportunity to innovate by designing buildings with the latest digital technologies and behaviours in mind, and to rethink building spaces that converge online and offline experiences.
Shopping malls are prevalent across China. According to real-estate firm CBRE, some 4,600 malls exist today and China accounted for over half the world’s malls built since 2015. The recent drive to clean up city streets has further cemented shopping malls as the main hub and attraction in terms of food experiences. And because of the rapid rise of food delivery—which effectively means that every restaurant in a mall is a food-delivery service—malls have unexpectedly become de-facto dispatch centres for food-delivery services.
However, other food retailers are also taking a delivery-oriented approach to business. Grocery startup Hema, which is part of Alibaba’s group of companies, leverages its high-traffic locations to operate as both walk-in stores and delivery dispatch centres. Its many locations in central Shanghai, for example, give it the advantage of coverage and proximity to customers.
Luckin Coffee, the self-proclaimed main competitor to Starbucks in China, operates what appear to be walk-in stores, but are in reality dispatch centres for fulfilling online orders. If you physically visit one of their “stores”, you will be asked to order your coffee using their app.
The experience of these mixed retail/delivery spaces is impressive. Hema is at once an Amazon fulfillment centre and a supermarket, and even operates several restaurants inside its stores. (Diners can select fresh fish from a tank and get it cooked to order at the food court.) These spaces are inhabited by real customers, who wander about tasting products that are algorithmically curated using Alibaba’s local e-commerce data, and by digital customers, as embodied by delivery workers dashing around with smartphones to scan QR codes and filling shopping bags that are placed on an overhead conveyor belt, to be carried to fleets of scooters waiting just outside the mall. Inevitably, too, the stores are cashless.
6: The Popularity of Food and Retail “Experiences”
Chinese urbanites are enjoying a wide range of innovative and experimental retail opportunities.
Consumers in China are of course attracted to new products and competitive pricing in the retail sector—but they’re also seeking out new experiences in both food and retail. Brands and retailers have been only too happy to oblige. In Chinese cities today, consumers can enjoy a plethora of innovative and often experimental retail experiences.
Shanghai is considered ground zero for the launch of experience-based stores by global brands. For example, Nike launched its first House of Innovation in Shanghai, not New York. The Chinese city was also chosen for the launch of Starbucks’ second large experiential store, The Roastery, shortly after it opened the first in its hometown of Seattle.
“China is going to have more impact and grow faster than anything we’ve done in our history,” said Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz at the Shanghai launch. “And what we have seen in Shanghai with The Roastery not only gives us confidence but demonstrates the opportunity to be even larger than we once realised just a year ago.
Several other operators have spotted this opportunity, too, and have set out to redefine the concept of shops, restaurants and food spaces. Some global brands are even experimenting with concepts that may be too risky or off-brand in their home markets. Technology-based stunts often drive this approach—like Pizza Hut’s robot-serviced restaurant, PH+, where robot waiters welcome diners and lead them to touch-screen tables, where they can design their own pizza toppings by dragging and dropping digital slices.
Other global brands have seen China as a testing ground for new concepts—such as KFC’s nutrition-oriented K-Pro stores, which are decked out like greenhouses and offer seasonal salads and juices, not fried chicken. This concept debuted in 2017, and uses cutting-edge technology such as Alipay’s “Smile to Pay” system, which relies on facial recognition.
Leading domestic brands have also emerged in this innovative environment and are looking to put China on the global map of food experiences. Seesaw Coffee, a specialty coffee chain founded in Shanghai, hopes to establish the reputation of Chinese coffee among connoisseurs, and has pioneered the use of beans from the southern province of Yunnan. “The coffee scene in China only really took off five years ago,” says Tom Zhong, founder and CEO of Seesaw Coffee. “It’s humbling to see that Chinese brands are starting to be considered and recognised globally. We are very proud that Seesaw is the first Asian coffee-shop to be invited by La Marzocco to run a pop-up store in Portland.”
Meanwhile, as China’s megacities grow denser and living spaces get smaller, the desire to spend time in “third places” will likely grow. According to IKEA’s 2018 Life at Home report, there has been a big increase in the number of people who say they feel more at home in places other than their residence. In fact, 35 percent of people feel more at home outside the home, and this figure has risen sharply in urban areas. Similarly, a report by Youthology, a Shanghai-based research company focused on Chinese youth culture, indicates that convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Family Mart provide an important “extra space” outside the home, and serve as “private spaces in the public to soothe empty stomachs and souls”.
Families with young children also welcome the extra space offered by food retailers. “In a city like Shanghai, there are few parks and it is not easy to do outdoor activities, but we want our kids to be out of the home too,” says June, a mother of two. “We are always looking for new places to eat, to play, and to do interesting activities for the entire family.”
Shopping malls and shops are rethinking their role in the age of e-commerce and food delivery, which has spawned a new breed of food-space-as-a-service concepts. Entire floors of shopping malls are dedicated to families with young children, where a range of food-oriented retail concepts can be found, from kitchen apparel to children’s cooking classes. For instance, Ant and Grasshopper is a pedagogically-designed playground located in a healthy French-inspired restaurant, while DayDayCook is a “cooking lifestyle” store, where friends can gather to take cooking classes, and eat together afterwards.
7: The Growth of Automated Food Experiences
The humanless retail experience is fast becoming an everyday reality in the food arena.
In early 2017, a Swedish startup named Wheelys launched an unmanned “convenience store on wheels” in Shanghai to demonstrate what humanless retail experiences could look like. Though it garnered plenty of global media coverage, in China the humanless retail experience is fast becoming an everyday reality—especially in the food space.
On the back of widespread use of mobile payments and growing government interest in investing in AI technologies, small and large tech companies alike have launched a plethora of variations on the humanless experience, mediated by robots, cameras and QR codes. Consider, for example, the cashierless and automated shop. At a recent retail hackathon, hosted in Beijing by international confectionary brand Mars Wrigley, over half the participating startups were pitching various technologies and business models for automated retail experiences.
While Amazon Go in the US envisions a premium experience, Chinese companies are experimenting with everything from micro “box” shops selling packaged foods on college campuses to walk-in shops selling fresh produce in shopping malls. China is a fertile place for these types of shops due to its high smartphone penetration, ubiquitous mobile-payment services, high-population density and growing numbers of urban commuters who value convenience and efficiency.
Restaurant chains such as KFC and Pizza Hut are testing and showcasing their versions of these retail concepts, too, using cute robots as customer interfaces to guide people to their tables and take payments using facial-recognition technology. Alibaba has also repurposed its warehouse robots to wait on tables in the dining area of its Hema supermarkets.
However, for restaurants, perhaps the biggest change is the increasing adoption of digital menus and ordering systems. WeChat, China’s ubiquitous all-in-one messenger app, now hosts a number of “mini-programs” that are built into the app. These mini-programs are so user-friendly that many restaurants have replaced their paper menus with them, sticking a QR code on each table which customers scan with their phones, eliminating the need for waiters.
8: Home Cooking is the New Special Occasion
Having friends or colleagues round for dinner is now a lifestyle trend for many young people.
Convenient dining options abound in Chinese cities today are one of the many perks of the dense urbanisation and plethora of digital services like food delivery. Lining up to eat at the latest wanghongdian, slurping noodles in the street and getting one’s favourite meal delivered at home have all become the new normal for city dwellers in China. In fact, in 2017 the sum of money spent eating out in China exceeded Sweden’s entire economic output that year.
However, because of all the convenient options the city offers, the option of cooking at home often seems to be the most impractical one. Yet eating isn’t just a functional activity, but a social one, too. And the desire to gather at the table to unwind and socialise with friends hasn’t wavered. What’s changing is the act of cooking at home.
What a generation ago was a nightly ritual of having dinner at the kitchen table has become a lifestyle trend for younger generations sharing it on social media. People in big cities earning more money eat out more often, and as a result may cook less often at home—but the rare occasions when they do cook are all the more special for it.
“Sharing a meal at home has become a sacred moment in our daily lives. The gathering and ritual of cooking becomes something worth celebrating, worth sharing,” says Pan Xiaoyue, the founder of a meal-kit startup that enables people to cook at home more. She believes “rituals are even more important when you’re busy.” And the feedback she has got from customers is that new recipes and eye-catching plating suggestions are as important as convenience. In other words, the pleasure of cooking and hosting guests at home is the true motivator.
Moreover, the home-meal setting has transcended the intimacy of the family to become a place for entertaining friends and colleagues. “We originally positioned our products for everyday family meals, but soon realised that our users were buying our meal-kits to serve them during dinner parties and business dinners they hosted at home,” says Amy Tang, who left a career in the luxury-goods sector to start Jiaxi, a premium meal-kit startup. “A few years ago if you were a businessman and wanted to impress your clients, you’d invite them to a fancy restaurant, but now the new luxury is to host them in your home,” she adds.
On the other hand, the trend of cooking less at home means that people aren’t buying as much kitchen equipment, which makes it harder to prepare more elaborate meals at home. Of course, in China there are apps for that, too. Take Hao Chushi, which allows you to hire a chef whenever you host a dinner party. Log on via WeChat or Alipay, select your location and view the profiles of chefs in the area. With just a few clicks you can choose a chef based on his or her portfolio, select the cuisine—Shanghainese, say, or Cantonese—and even ask the chef to buy ingredients and bring cooking utensils. Prices are relatively low, starting at 119 RMB, or about $17 dollars, for a three-person dinner (paid using your phone, of course).
9: The Rise of Influencer-Driver Apps and Platforms
Apps and influencers determine what dishes are trendy, not traditional gatekeepers.
In many countries, diners hoping to hear about a hot new restaurant might turn to established food critics writing reviews in newspapers and magazines. Others might rely on high-end authorities such as the Michelin Guide. Diners in China, however, have skipped traditional critics and judges and turned instead to online influencers and user-generated content.
Meituan-Dianping is one of China’s leading food-related internet platforms. It’s an app for discovering and rating food, but also a payment platform, a food-delivery platform and a network of influencers. Indeed, it’s now common to see diners deciding what to eat by looking at their phone, not the menu, and scrolling through dish rankings and recommendations.
Kevin Gentle, a strategy director and expert in digital trends in China, says there are a few reasons why Chinese diners consume or share food-related content. “I would separate it into three categories: trendy food where food is part of a global zeitgeist with a focus on novelty, cultural food where food is part of the content universe of a certain sub-culture like sports or manga (such as fitness influencers who talk about food as part of a fitness lifestyle), and hobbyist food where people are actually interested in recipes and cooking techniques.”
China’s most popular food apps demonstrate these variations. Xiachufang is a platform for browsing recipes and enrolling in digital cooking classes. Xiaohongshu is a “public notebook” app where people can follow the latest trendy foods enjoyed by celebrity influencers. And video platform Douyin is the best place to discover the latest eating trends and food crazes.
The role of influencers shouldn’t be understated. On social channels they’re an important way for people to discover new brands and products. Influencer-centric apps in China are packed with features to help people create, edit and share content. One of China’s fastest-growing apps, with 150 million active users (as of June 2018), Douyin “treats its top influencers almost as its own employees [and] actively helps promote them by subsidising their traffic.”
Still, in 2016, Michelin launched its first Chinese restaurant guide, listing recommended spots in Shanghai and publishing it in both English and Chinese. And 2018 saw Meituan-Dianping launch its own restaurant guide, the Black Pearl Guide. Yet what will become of these more traditional “authorities” in the influencer-driven world is very much an open question.
10: Online Creativity and the Rise of New Food Products
Social media isn’t just launching the careers of culinary celebrities. It’s leading to entirely new flavour combinations and recipes.
In China today, social media isn’t just about sharing content and influencers: it has also sparked food trends that have in turn materialised as new products. Video platform Douyin is at the heart of this craze: it allows ordinary people to create stunt-style videos using food, and in the process create campaigns for brands—sometimes intentionally, sometimes less so.
Predictably, perhaps, the platform has launched the careers of several celebrities. For example, Ms Yeah has won international media coverage for her cooking hacks involving homeware. In a sort of MacGyver-meets-Masterchef fashion, she shows viewers how to use an iron to cook beef, say, or how hot wires and drills can be used to grill fish. Ye Shi Xiao Ge is another internet sensation, who films himself cooking and eating in the wilderness. He has even released his own Douyin Beef Sauce, a nod to the platform that made him famous.
New flavour combinations and recipes emerge from this milieu, too. Entire channels on Douyin are dedicated to unexpected food combinations, like chocolate-fried rice or ice-cream noodles. These sensational ideas sometimes inspire brands to create new products. Haidilao (a hot-pot chain) and Coco (a bubble-tea chain) have introduced items to their menus which were inspired by stunts performed on Douyin. One involved stuffing a raw egg and shrimp paste inside a tofu ball and boiling it. So viral was it that you can now order the “Douyin dish” and waiters will know what to bring you.
11: Livestreaming Bridges the Rural and the Urban
Not only are farmers using livestreams to showcase products to customers in the city, but the technology is also making the food system more trustworthy and transparent.
The lure of better opportunities and wages in cities has seen a mass migration from the Chinese countryside and rural populations plummet. As a result, the government is keen to promote and foster rural development in order to support China’s rural economy and provide economic opportunities for those left behind.
The popularity of short-form videos and livestreaming apps in particular has exploded in the past three years. Livestreaming is now not just a medium for millenials living in cities, but also a new and direct channel for enabling commerce between rural and city dwellers.
Livestreaming is an excellent example of how technology can help maintain a way of life. Not only does it allow farmers in the countryside to engage directly with potential buyers in the city: it also increases transparency and trust in the food supply chain.
Alibaba and JD have both launched livestreaming facilities on their e-commerce platforms, allowing merchants to broadcast directly from their stores and work with influencers to help market their products. The food section of both platforms features farmers and individuals all across China showcasing a particular product or ingredient. Scrolling through the list you can follow bamboo farmers in the south, mushroom hunters in the mountains, and pig breeders in the country’s heartland.
Inevitably, the quality of livestreaming tends to vary. Some streams are rough and shaky, while others employ a professional green-screen. But whether you’re a small business or an individual, livestreaming increases transparency and entices buyers to purchase food with a simple click, without having to leave their broadcast. Many farmers are avid livestreamers, measuring their performance in the number of viewers and comments, and figuring out different ways to make their product and livestream more interesting to potential buyers.
The distinction between e-commerce and entertainment is often blurry. Following the life of a rural pig farmer while you purchase some of his pork belly can be surreal. Often, too, you can chat directly with the farmer, take a tour of his chicken barn, or ask him to slice open some fruit to check its quality. You can even send him digital gifts, like flowers or heart emojis.
Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms have in the last decade launched a series of initiatives to create opportunities for farmers and people in over 16,000 villages across China. Employing slogans such as “Through Taobao, you can escape bitter days. E-commerce runs toward the road of happiness”, these initiatives transform rural areas into digitally enabled commercial hubs, complete with local schools to teach basic knowledge and tools to sell products online, including via livestreaming. Moreover, there are now rural livestreaming professionals, hired by small and large food producers alike, to livestream from farms or production facilities and promote everything from honey to sausages.
12: Factories for Scalable Food Production
Despite the growing appetite for meat, the Chinese diet remains heavily vegetable-based—prompting innovative ways to meet the increasing demand for greens.
Between 1961 and 2013, China’s annual vegetable consumption quadrupled from 80 kg per capita to 348 kg. That’s three times as many greens as Americans eat (114 kg in 2013). To meet the demand for all those veggies, food systems need to scale up, increase productivity, and overcome supply chain challenges posed by megacities.
Today, China largely consists of small parcel farms—90 percent of its farms are smaller than 2.5 acres. This is partly due to the country’s geography and terrain. And smaller farms pose challenges in terms of their scalability and ability to adopt the kind of industrial technologies used in higher-yielding agricultural systems such as those in the US.
Today, however, major efforts are underway to consolidate land and create more scale and productivity efficiency. For example, CP Group China, a Thai-based multinational corporation, has developed models of sustainable and circular production systems, such as a semi-automated chicken farm outside Beijing: organic waste from its three million egg-laying chickens is used in its nearby fruit orchards.
China is also exploring alternative methods and technologies in food production. One example is plant factories (also known as indoor or vertical farms). Their controlled growing environments achieve stabler yields, allow for year-round growth, and require a lot less land and water. Then there’s the potential advantage of being located in or near city centres, which reduces both the time and cost of transporting food, as well as associated carbon emissions.
As of 2017, China was home to more than 80 plant factories. Though it lags behind Japan—the global leader with more than 200—the Chinese market is expected to grow rapidly. In 2016, the world’s largest plant factory, with production capacity equal to 300 farms, was built in Fujian province by Sanan Sino-Science, a Chinese indoor-agriculture tech company. Plenty, a vertical-farming startup whose investors include Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Japan’s Softbank Corp, has also announced its intentions to enter the Chinese market.
China is a country of intriguing contrasts. On the one hand, it has one of the world’s oldest cuisines. On the other hand, it is keenly embracing trends and innovating its food culture. And, thanks to some of the world’s fastest rates of urbanisation, digitisation and wealth creation, China is now a heady mix of past and future, formal and informal, tradition and innovation.
On the face of it, the fast-changing food culture of China’s megacities appears to be particular to those metropolises, if not unique. The scale and pace of change in those cities certainly seems unprecedented.
However, we believe these cities may provide a glimpse of how the food cultures of other fast-growing cities may change. Indeed, SPACE10’s mission is to create a better and more sustainable way of life for the many people. And, as pragmatic idealists, we believe some of the trends in this report could help us meet that challenge.
Consider China’s enthusiastic adoption of emerging technologies. The country’s rapid digitision is inclusive of the many people, its embrace of technology widespread. Cheap smartphones, low technical barriers and QR codes are enabling old-school vendors to use new-fangled payment methods. E-commerce giants are providing mom-and-pop shops with shared sales data and analytic tools, upping the digital game of these small businesses and helping them compete with chain stores. And livestreaming and e-commerce are now as simple as downloading an app, shrinking the literal and figurative distance of rural farmers from the nation’s vibrant e-commerce market.
Some trends are as cautionary as they are captivating, though. Take food delivery—perhaps the most significant food trend in China today. It is changing what people eat, when they eat it and where they eat it. It is changing the concept of what a restaurant is and where it makes sense to situate it in a city. And it is changing the rhythm and flow of people moving around the city. Yet there’s a flipside to the cost and convenience of food delivery: namely, the sustainability challenges presented by the required transport infrastructure; the stress of working in the industry (as well as the question of which demographics the industry employs); the amount of unnecessary packaging and waste produced; and the diminished importance and relevance of cooking and eating at home. So, if food delivery explodes in other global cities, values besides cost and convenience will have to come to the fore and help us create food-delivery systems that are more environmentally and culturally sustainable. In particular, methods of dealing with food and packaging waste, and of encouraging more home cooking, will be essential aspects of future sustainable food experiences.
Finally, the spectre of automation is haunting China’s food culture. The automation of jobs is a particular concern to workers in the service sector, whose roles may one day be substituted by technology. China is moving quickly in this respect, and humanless shops may soon be part of the new normal. To preserve the human factor—which is to preserve our food culture—we should look to technology not just to automate the human experience but to augment it.