Sat, July 13

From Dreams to Reality: The Turbulent Chinese Culinary Sector

Introduction: The Simple Pleasures of a Chicken Cutlet

Do you ever crave that perfect bite of crispy chicken cutlet? When I first graduated, chicken cutlets were my go-to treat. There’s something about that crispy golden skin, bursting with flavour, that just brings a smile to your face. Back then, my girlfriend dreamt of opening her own chicken cutlet shop. I used to tease her about aiming higher after all our years of study, but little did I know how profound her simple dream was in the grand tapestry of the Chinese culinary sector.

From Dream to Reality: The Popularity of Chicken Cutlets

Zhengxin Chicken Cutlet

Zhengxin Chicken Cutlet

In the early days, the sight of a new chicken cutlet shop popping up was as common as finding a convenience store. One such brand, Zhengxin Chicken Cutlet (正新鸡排, a renowned fast-food franchise in China known for its signature large, flavorful chicken cutlets), quickly became a household name, sitting proudly next to every Mixue Ice Cream & Tea (蜜雪冰城, a popular Chinese franchise known for its budget-friendly ice cream and tea). At its peak, Zhengxin boasted over 25,000 outlets—tripling the number of KFCs and leaving McDonald’s sevenfold in its wake. But as the years rolled by, the tides turned sharply. From a staggering 25,000 to just over 11,000, the decline was as rapid as it was unexpected. Just like the innocent dreams of many young entrepreneurs, including myself, these shops faced the harsh realities of a changing industry.

The Tumultuous Seas of the Restaurant Business

It’s often joked that if you hold a grudge against someone, advise them to enter the restaurant business; the challenges are that daunting. Post-pandemic, the Chinese culinary sector anticipated a boom. Instead, it stumbled into a fierce price war. As franchises popped up everywhere, leveraging family savings and dreams, over 10,000 chicken cutlet shops closed down, unable to sustain amid stiff competition and changing consumer tastes.

Changing Tastes and Tough Competitions

The food stalls and beer gardens exploded in popularity this year. My local snack street buzzed with energy, offering everything from fried squid to charcoal pot fish. Yet, despite the burgeoning variety, the throngs of university students and casual diners seemed insufficient to support the swelling number of vendors. The result? A rapid and intense price war that no one seemed to win. Group buying became the norm. Dining out wasn’t just about finding a place to eat; it was about finding the best deal. Social media influencers hyped up old restaurants jumping on the group buying bandwagon, with discounts so steep they seemed too good to be true.

Navigating Through Ethical Waters

As I observed these trends, the challenges became apparent. Low-priced group purchases drew crowds but squeezed margins. Stories circulated of unethical practices—like recycling expired meats or masquerading cheaper cuts as premium offerings. Regulatory crackdowns followed, highlighting the tightrope that food businesses walk between profitability and integrity. In one memorable incident, a barbecue outing that should have been a simple joy became a lesson in economics. The restaurant, a local favorite, offered a deal so good it undercut its competition but at what cost to its future?

Reflections and Looking Forward

As I reflect on the industry today, the future seems uncertain. The market is more competitive than ever, with technological advancements and evolving consumer habits driving change at a breakneck pace. Yet, amid these challenges, the resilience and innovation of those in the Chinese culinary sector continue to inspire. Perhaps, like my girlfriend’s simple dream of a chicken cutlet shop, the key to survival lies not in grand ambitions but in adapting to the tastes and needs of today’s China.