Coffee's success in China owes more to status

By Michael Knapp
0 CommentsPrint E-mail Global Times, November 17, 2010
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Twelve years ago when I was living in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, I started thinking about opening a coffee shop. I'd already spent a number of weekends in Beijing where Starbucks was always packed with paying customers eager to enjoy real brewed coffee.

I had seen the success of cafes in Japan and Korea, but I only knew of one so-called cafe in Hohhot. The instant coffee, obnoxious music and dark bar environment was evidence the town was ripe for a change.

But, as an English teacher I knew nothing about doing business in China, not to mention that I'd need permission from the foreign affairs department of the college to perform any kind of work outside the school.

The first person I approached enthusiastically saw a money-making opportunity. She suggested they invest and make it a partnership. Since I didn't have any investment capital, and I would need their permission to proceed, I had little choice but to agree.

But my dream ended with a crushing response to my announcement that I'd charge 5 yuan per cup. "No one in China will ever pay 5 yuan ($0.75) for a cup of coffee! That's way too expensive!" After a few days of thinking it over, "Permission denied."

Now that I have a wife and two kids, I'm happy to leave the headache of running a business to others. But, in today's coffee shop saturated culture, I can't help but think about how successful my café would have been.

Before I moved to China, Starbucks and other coffee shops weren't dominant in the Midwestern culture I was from. Now, even my little hometown has a charming down-town coffee shop. Starbucks and other coffee shops dot the cities. McDonalds actually started making their coffee taste real. The coffee culture I'd grown to enjoy in China was now part of my homeland.

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