Shared kitchens, emerging and evolving

By Li Cuihua
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Today, February 25, 2021
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China is witnessing a booming sharing economy and vigorous innovation. Chengdu, the capital of southwest China's Sichuan Province, is home to about 300 of the Fortune Global 500 companies. In 2018, Chengdu proposed to build itself into a leading city of sharing economy by 2020. Over the past years, Chengdu has witnessed a boom in the sharing economy. The sharing concept particularly spawns possibilities in the catering sector, where businesses share not only kitchen space, but also knowledge, skills, and logistics resources.

Streamlining takeout

Businesses, by sharing kitchen space and cooking equipment, reduce their operational costs and become more responsive in providing customized services. China's shared kitchen platforms are mainly located in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Chengdu. There are four in Chengdu, among which Cloud Kitchen Piglet is the largest. At present, it has seven shared kitchens in operation, and it is expected that another batch will become operational this year.

In a Cloud Kitchen Piglet shared kitchen on Tianfu Second Street in Chengdu's Hi-tech Zone, several food outlets offering takeout beef rice and rice noodles are lined up alongside three other restaurants that you could dine in. These kitchens share warehouses, food preparation rooms, as well as management and food business licenses. The shared kitchen is staffed by store managers and supervisors, who regularly provide entry-level training as well as guidance on food safety and fire safety to takeout owners. There is also a set of management systems to regulate the use of shared space including warehouses and food preparation rooms.

Compared with those in first-tier cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, Chengdu's shared kitchen platforms do not have a rent advantage for restaurants. Why then are they popular? According to Lin Xun, founder of "Cloud Kitchen Piglet," the reason lies in the services his platform can provide, which integrate catering resources to better support takeout business operation.

Xiang Yong, an entrepreneur in his 30s, quickly earned a share of the takeout market with an exclusive recipe for beef rice noodles with chili peppers. His rice noodle shop deals with more than 10,000 takeout orders on average per month, and up to 600 or 700 orders a day. However, the high demand for takeout orders has led to a shortage of after-sales services, resulting in a lot of negative reviews. Xiang then joined the Cloud Kitchen Piglet platform. Since then, the platform's team has been helping him handle after-sales and customer service so that he could concentrate on the cooking. The help was fruitful. Xiang saw his business model expand to 13 franchise outlets. But half of them failed later because cooks of franchise stores were not able to produce toppings of the same quality. The platform came to help again by inviting supply chain companies to standardize the production of toppings. Xiang now has up to 50 franchise stores.

The Report of China's Takeout Industry in 2019 and the First Half of 2020, released by Meituan Research Institute in June 2020, showed that by the end of 2019, there were about 460 million takeout consumers in China, accounting for about half of the country's permanent urban population. The large-scale food delivery industry has prompted some restaurant chains that originally focused on offline stores to shift to the takeout business.

Compared with physical stores, takeout businesses require relatively less investment in capital and manpower. A new business can be started even from a kitchen. Therefore, some big brands made use of the takeout service to expand their business scale. When a chain beef noodle catering company in Hangzhou planned to enter the Chengdu market, it found that it would take three to five months to finish market research, site selection, and decoration before opening. However, by partnering with a shared kitchen platform, it could open a shop in a week.

After several years of rapid development, a complete delivery logistics system has taken shape in China.

Lin Xun said China's food delivery industry will enter a new phase when the focus becomes catering to consumers' demands for higher-quality goods and services. According to the Meituan Research Institute, about 65.7 percent of consumers prefer takeout food provided by trusted brands for food quality and safety reasons. The shared kitchen platform, boasting more efficient management and quality ingredient supplies, can solve these concerns to some extent.

Taste of home

A shared kitchen is not only a place for business, but also a place offering people a taste of home. At 9 a.m., while most young people are on their way to work and the elderly are visiting parks, Xu Bixiu, in her 70s, was at a community sharing kitchen. In this well-equipped kitchen, she and a dozen neighbors worked together, preparing for a hearty lunch. Around 11 a.m., the main course of Chinese winter melon soup with meatballs was served. Xu and her neighbors sat around the table and shared the fruits of their labor, laughing and enjoying good conversation.

Xu is a volunteer leader in a residential community in Chengdu, and also the pillar member of the local art performance team of the elderly. In 2018, the community Xu lives in converted a meeting room into a shared kitchen, where retirees like Xu gather together for community activities. They prepare free food for empty nesters in the community. A neighbor held regular baking classes on weekends, which became popular with the children. The shared kitchen provides a place for people to hold family gatherings during festivals, offering a dining room experience for families and friends. It can also be used to hold activities on special occasions, producing specific "hometown" cuisines for those who come from regions outside Chengdu.

Sharing culinary culture

For foreigners visiting Chengdu, the best way to get a deeper understanding of the city's culture is to visit family kitchens and cook a meal with the locals. At the food market of Workers' Village in Jinniu District, a group of foreigners were choosing the ingredients they needed from Sichuan seasoning condiments, such as Sichuan pepper, chili peppers, and bean curd, Then, they headed to the Chili Cool House, where they would cook classic Sichuan dishes, such as Mapo Tofu, Twice-cooked Pork, and Kung Pao Chicken under the guidance of chefs specializing in Sichuan dishes. This is the typical culinary culture experience provided by the Chili Cool House.

Founded in 2018 by Zhou Hang in his 20s and his two friends, the Chili Cool House aims to provide foreigners with a cultural experience of Sichuan cuisine. After the culinary culture experience package was released, it received rave reviews on the world's leading travel website TripAdvisor and was rated the 2019 Travelers' Choice TripAdvisor Experience. According to Zhou, visitors to his kitchen come from all over the world, most of whom have some knowledge of Sichuan cuisine and are interested in further exploring the cuisine's culture. Among the visitors, a Chinese restaurant owner from Sweden specially came to the kitchen to experience Chengdu cuisine. Before leaving, the visitor bought 100 kilograms of Sichuan pepper to take back to Sweden. Many Japanese visit for Mapo Tofu, a firm favorite. It is a great thrill for Japanese visitors to cook the dish themselves in the city where it originates.

Chengdu's shared kitchen concept is a combination of providing management and culinary skills, along with being a place of togetherness and warmth. 

Li Cuihua is a reporter with the Chengdu Culture magazine.

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