Online influencers shape food scene

Updated:2018-01-02 08:58:06

Customers sample some of the many flavors at the WIYF ice cream parlor, a wanghong eatery, in November 2016. GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY

  Social media has seen a slew of budget eateries take Shanghai's diners by storm

  With two wanghong food businesses - an ice cream parlor and a dumpling house - under his belt, 38-year-old restaurateur Lu Xiaoxun says he has no idea what makes either an internet sensation, the literal translation of the term.

  Lu also says that having hundreds of people lining up for hours for an ice cream cone or a cup of cheese-foamed tea is not something the food and beverage industry should be happy about.

  "It means people have smaller food budgets, and are becoming less patient. None of the wanghong restaurants we have been talking about this year are fine dining," said Lu, who now runs four restaurant brands in Shanghai, including a food chain offering Shanghai snack food that is recommended by Michelin Bib Gourmand.

  Gloomy as Lu sounds, his ice cream parlor, which offers such creative flavors as salty egg yolk and Chinese rice wine, brought him upward of 400,000 yuan ($60,820) a month this summer, twice the annual income he used to be paid when working as a lifestyle editor for magazines.

  New trend

  In a city that boasts the first Michelin Guide in the Chinese mainland and attracts an increasing number of celebrity chefs and fine dining brands, the trend that defines Shanghai's culinary scene in 2017 is indisputably the rise of wanghong restaurants.

  There is no clear definition of a wanghong restaurant or food, it can be of any type of cuisine in any style. But some key words and phrases are associated with it - novel, tantalizing, popular and, perhaps most importantly, easily shared on social media.

  Some enjoy such popularity that the country's supposedly most sophisticated diners will skip work, wait for up to seven hours, or pay scalpers two or three times the price of the food just for a taste. Two of the most notable names are Heytea, which is known for its cheese-foamed tea and Master Bao, which sells bread topped with meat floss.

The Farine bakery, a sister company of the WIYF ice cream parlor, was shut down after a scandal involving the use of flour that had passed its expiry date in March. Provided to China Daily

  Cafe culture

  A report from, China's largest restaurant listing website with 250 million users and 28 million stores around the country, showed that cafes and dessert shops account for more than half of the food business tagged as wanghong on its website. Western cuisines and Cantonese food came second and third. The website said 74 percent of its users are young people aged between 20 and 35 years old.

  "Like it or not, we have to admit that it's the power of social media. In an age when everyone can take pictures and post them online with their own opinions, the way a restaurant becomes known has completely changed," said Gao Yan, a Shanghai food writer whose independent WeChat account, foodie at heart, is one of the most influential in the city with 300,000 followers.

  She lamented that as diners are increasingly obsessed with taking pictures, many restaurants are focusing on presentation and design.

  Generating clicks

  Lu, who wrote about food and wine for five years before becoming a businessman, believes it also suggests a decline in the use of the Chinese language and the media.

  "Many Chinese food writers today are incapable of producing a decent restaurant review. So when they are deprived of the possibility of using words like 'the best' or 'the most delicious' (because of advertising laws introduced in 2015), saying something is sensational online seems the easiest and most click-inviting solution," Lu said.

  Austin Hu, an Americanborn Chinese chef who has been involved in the city's restaurant business for more than one decade, thinks the wanghong frenzy is just a reflection of growing social media usage and its increasing effect on consumption habits.

  "Ultimately, quality speaks for itself. If a store is wanghong but no good, you quickly see them lose steam after a month or two," said Hu, who now runs two restaurants, Madison Kitchen and Diner, in Shanghai.

  Changing tastes

  Ms Zhao Needs No Reservation, one of the city's earliest wanghong restaurants, which was opened in 2013 by a local celebrity couple, closed in October.

  Offering fusion food and marketed as a wedding anniversary gift from Na Duo, a science fiction writer, to his wife, Zhao Ruohong, a TV host, the restaurant had six outlets at its peak and was an offline meeting place for the couple's millions of followers on Sina Weibo.

  In a Sina Weibo post in December, Zhao said the business closure simply reflected a shift in their lives, as she is preoccupied with a new shoemaking venture while her husband wants to focus on writing.

  "I don't get it. Since when is losing money the only reason to terminate a business?" she said in her post.

  According to a report released by Meituan, China's top group deal site, in 2017, first tier cities like Shanghai and Beijing saw 10 percent of their restaurants close every month.

  "I think the trend of wanghong is dying. Consumers are gradually becoming immune to the word. For 2018, both the media and the restaurant industry need a new term or trend to get consumers excited," Lu said.

  Lu is planning to open a pop-up store of his ice cream parlor in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and a new soup dumpling (xiaolongbao) brand that he thinks will appeal to young people - which means a traditional snack served in a trendy atmosphere with slightly higher pricing.

  The rise of wanghong restaurants

Christopher St Cavish, food writer and author of the Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index

  Q: Why do you think there are so many people going crazy about wanghong restaurants? Is it about food or something else? And why Shanghai and 2017?

  A:It's definitely not about the food. It's about novelty, fun and wanting to try something new and exciting. It's practically the definition of Shanghai - it's really a reflection of the city's unending thirst for new things.

  People's attention spans are getting shorter. From a more nuanced perspective, I'm sure it's related to the fact that the food and beverage industry is getting more competitive and owners' margins are shrinking, so shops do everything they can to stand out.

Austin Hu, chef

  Q: As a chef and restaurateur, which do you prefer, a Michelin star or becoming wanghong?

  A:Between the two of them? Michelin. But at the end of the day I just want a shop that's putting out food that I can be proud of.

  Q: How about as a consumer, what do you usually refer to when you dine out?

  A:For me, wanghong is simply an adjective. I pick my restaurants based on quality and taste. If it's good and wanghong, then sure, I'll go and wait in line like a good boy. I generally go with recommendations from trusted friends. Online reviews are questionable. I will go insane distances for something good. I had no problem when Ada Scallion Pancake was just a tiny stall off Maoming Road. I think my longest wait there was about two hours.

Gao Yan, food writer

  Q: Which do you think is more influential among local consumers, a Michelin star or the wanghong label?

  A:I would like to compare Michelin stars to (astronomic) stars. The Michelin-starred restaurants around the world make up the beautiful Milky Way of the culinary universe. Wanghong restaurants, on the other hand, are more like meteors - shiny, but quick to fall.

  Q: What's the longest time you are willing to wait for food?

  A:Five to 10 minutes, which is the time that a basket of Shanghai soup dumplings needs to be steamed.

  Digital drivers

  A timeline of the major events in Shanghai's food scene in 2017

  February - Master Bao

  Master Bao, which hails from the capital, is embraced with enthusiasm when it arrives in Shanghai with its plain looking palm-sized buns topped with meat floss right after the Spring Festival - a time that usually marks a low point in the food and beverage industry as people are fed up with holiday feasts. Queues extend hundreds of meters starting before sunrise and lasting till midnight at the outlet near People's Square when it first opens. At the peak, people have to wait up to five hours to get a bag of the buns, which sell for between 38 yuan ($5.8) and 58 yuan per kilo, depending on the type of floss. As the brand, which started in a quiet hutong in 2009, expands nationally, the buns are becoming as ubiquitous as McDonald's burgers.

  February - Heytea

  The Guangdong-brand called China's Starbucks by industry watchers arrives in Shanghai and breaks Master Bao's record. People wait up to seven hours for a cup of its cheese-foamed tea, requiring police to keep order and bringing cash to scalpers, who charge twice the price of the 20-yuan-or-so drink to wait in line. Rumor has it that the brand's marketing team is hiring people to wait in line to create a sensation, but its founder, 26-year-old Nie Yunzhen, later describes the long lines as the company's "Achilles' heel".

  March - Farine

  Shanghai's homegrown bakery chain Farine, which means flour in French, is accused of using flour past its expiry date by a former employee. Founded in 2012 by French entrepreneur Franck Pecol, who has had a slew of eponymous restaurants, cafes and ice cream stands, the bakery has for years been the go-to place in Shanghai for authentic croissants for residents, expats and even tourists, as it is recommended by almost every food guide. After the scandal, all locations of the chain close down, the owner flees China to avoid criminal charges and eight employees are detained, although some are later released.

  September - Lady M

  On the third day after opening its first China store in Shanghai, the New York mille crepe shop is shut down for being too popular, due to fears crowds at its location - floor B2 of a 53-story shopping mall - pose a danger. The shop reopens the next day with 10 security guards to keep order, and receives its first customer who has waited outside the store for a slice of its 68-yuan cake since 3 am. Two weeks later, the brand introduces an online reservation lottery system, limiting sales of cakes from the store to winners.