How Shaxian Snacks Went From Local Grub To Global Chain — With A Hand From Xi Jinping
In just three decades, the village of Yubang has become the cradle of one of the most popular food brands in China, under the watch of the local Communist Party and a certain governor named Xi Jinping. It now dreams of conquering the globe.
YUBANG — Surrounded by green mountains, the village of Yubang in the coastal province of Fujian in southeast China was long isolated from the world. Until the 1980s, its few hundred inhabitants barely managed to live off the land. Their livelihood depended on whatever work they could find in the surrounding orchards, tobacco fields, or bamboo plantations.
Three decades on, once-bland Yubang and its people have lived to tell a tasty tale.
The large camphor tree planted on the square at the village entrance now sees thousands of tourists from all over China. They come here drawn by stories they've heard of Yubang's culinary specialties, but there's another compelling curiosity: a modest place President Xi Jinping visited in 2021, as advertised by the pictures of the Chinese leader broadcast in a loop on a giant screen in the main street.
The shiniest showpiece of Yubang's transformation is a food brand that has established itself as one of the most popular in China over the course of the past 30 years. The name 'Shaxian Snacks', a nod to Shaxian district where Yubang is located, is everywhere in this village.
A one-of-a-kind entity in a world of food chains controlled by multinationals, Shaxian Snacks doesn't belong to any one company. Instead, the brand belongs to the entire community.
Accompanying the name is an easily identifiable logo: A greedy Pac-Man. And it is now proudly displayed in global gastronomic hotspots such as Tokyo, Sydney, New York, and even Paris.
“When I was a child, I lived in a wooden house and everyone in the village worked in the fields,” says Cao, 48, on how Yubang's fortunes turned thanks to the blockbuster growth of the region's food scene (and the connection with Xi). “Now most families work in the snack business, and the place has been completely rebuilt.”
An entire museum dedicated to humble snacks
Shaxian snacks are a smorgasbord of small, simple, and cheap dishes: wontons (dumplings), noodle soups, tofu balls, marinated fish or salted duck. While they are common across China, this region – populated by Hakkas, distant descendants of refugees from the country’s central and northern provinces – is known for its unique treatment of these dishes.
One of the hallmarks of this thousand-year history is the use of wheat flour from the north of the country together with rice culture, a staple of southern China. Steamed dumplings are prepared using cassava flour to obtain a thinner and more translucent dough. The filling is made from flat meat, which, if you follow tradition, needs to be beaten 10,000 times with a wooden mallet to get the best flavor. Noodles can be served with peanut butter sauce.
Over 240 specialties are listed in a large museum dedicated to Shaxian snacks.
More than 240 specialties — usually light, with little or no spice — are listed in a large museum dedicated to Shaxian snacks in the city of Sanming near Yubang. Yes, there is an entire museum dedicated to these humble dishes once sold by street vendors. The matter is taken very seriously by local authorities, who have made this cuisine a centerpiece of the region's economic development.
Recipes from migrant farmers
Originating from the street stalls of Yubang, Shaxian's snacks have taken over China in recent decades. Some 88,000 establishments are now listed, generating a cumulative annual turnover of more than 55 billion yuan (about 7.5 billion dollars) according to official figures.
The greedy Pac-Mac is now more visible than all the country’s McDonald's, KFCs, Pizza Huts, and Burger Kings combined. But unlike US fast food franchises, Shaxian Snacks doesn't have a single corporate owner. “Shaxian Snacks is a collective brand, attached to a locality, under which thousands of small family restaurants operate independently but offer similar menus, services and price range,” explains Min Chen, professor at Shanghai’s Thunderbird School of Global Management.
This unique model was driven by local authorities from the early 1990s. At the time, agricultural reforms created a surplus of labor in the countryside and pushed peasants to emigrate to the cities, taking their culinary heritage with them. “That is when we started to see Shaxian snacks sold at street stalls in major cities in the province, such as Fuzhou and Xiamen,” says Chen Xiaolan, deputy director of the Shaxian Snacks industry development committee. “When the first entrepreneurs returned to their native village, they built new houses. This inspired family members or friends to try their luck as well.”
From Guangzhou to Beijing via Shanghai, stalls offering “Shaxian delicacies” are popping up almost everywhere in the megacities where migrant workers flock. Over about 20 years, some 60,000 young residents from Shaxian District (out of a population of 260,000) have set off on adventures to the four corners of China, building on the recipes inherited from their families.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the Shaxian District of Sanming City.
Ju Peng/Xinhua/ZUMA Press
The Xi connection
The Communist Party and the local government encouraged these initiatives and decided to leverage Shaxian Snacks to improve the living conditions of the inhabitants of this poor and isolated region.
In May 1997, local officials came together and decided on an action plan to transform the local cuisine into a real industry. They created a special office responsible for development, strategy, and promotion. A commercial guild was founded to provide training, assistance, and technical advice to restaurant owners.
Budding entrepreneurs discovered the reality of the business world.
Particularly instrumental was the then governor of the Fujian province, who traveled to Shaxian several times and pushed for Shaxian Snacks to become a powerful engine of the local economy. His name? Xi Jinping.
Growth was fast but anarchic. Everyone did their own thing, with no coherence between the various establishments. The farmers of Shaxian who had taken off to the cities encountered unexpected difficulties: lack of hygiene in the kitchens denounced by increasingly demanding city dwellers; increased control by authorities; pressure from landlords, etc. Budding entrepreneurs discovered the reality of the business world.
The struggle to standardize
But the Shaxian authorities continued to support the development of Shaxian Snacks, even launching a police force responsible for protecting small restaurant owners from criminal activities.
In 2008, Shaxian Snacks Group, a state-owned company directly attached to the local government, was established. With its 23 subsidiaries spread across the country, the corporation aims to build a real brand, push restaurants to modernize, harmonize the supply chain and offer various support services, for example for equipment and semi-manufactured food products. The ambition is so high that authorities considered at some point entering the stock market.
The idea is also to boost the quality and level of service by pushing as many establishments as possible to become licensed. Counterfeits and fake red Pac-Mans are proliferating across China, hurting the brand's image.
So far the goal is far from being achieved: only 2,400 establishments were franchised in 2019, says the Shaxian Snacks Group website.
“The local government itself doesn’t know whether consolidation is actually good for the growth of Shaxian Snacks,” notes Professor Min Chen, who adds that the project’s early success is linked to the entrepreneurial spirit of thousands of individuals. Food for thought coming from a small part of China about the place of the private company in a planned communist economy.
On the heights of Sanming, an industrial park houses 24 product manufacturers entirely dedicated to Shaxian specialties. “The site was built in 2018 and we have plans to expand,” a spokesperson says. “Businesses that set up here benefit from a year of free rent and tax breaks.”
On the ground floor of a building, workers are peeling ginger roots which, once chopped, will be put into jars. Next to them, a machine crushes peanuts.
Upstairs, workers take hundreds of packets of fish sauce out of a disinfectant basin before putting them in cardboard boxes. Further away, employees in white overalls knead the dough which will be used to make frozen dumplings. Some products will go to supermarkets, others will serve as a working base for restaurants. From tableware adorned with the Pac-Man logo to kitchen utensils and ingredients, here you'll find everything you need to join the ranks of the Shaxian Snacks Group.
Adapting to the global palate
In recent years, as competition from other local specialty chains increases in China, the custodians of Shaxian Snacks have been striving to expand abroad. Fujian is the home province of many in the Chinese diaspora. In order to maintain the authenticity of the snacks’ flavors, which are part of Fujian's intangible cultural heritage, local authorities have established a training center for Chinese people who wish to open restaurants abroad.
“My boss is sending me to his new establishment in Singapore,” says Jia, who’s originally from Fujian and works at a Shaxian Snacks outlet in Tianjin, not far from Beijing. “So I came to the center for a few days to perfect my skills on a dozen dishes.”
Lin Jianbin also attended the training center before opening his Shaxian Snacks restaurant in Courbevoie, northwest of Paris — the first in France. “There is a wide variety of dishes, so I followed the training during the summer of 2017,” says the restaurant owner, who’s also from Fujian. He now has three establishments, including one on rue de Naples in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. “We did not receive financial aid from local Chinese authorities, but we did get technical assistance,” he adds. Last summer, his wife returned to the kitchens of Shaxian Snacks Group in Sanming to keep up to date with the latest trends.
All restaurant owners have to adapt to the reality of the local market.
Have the French taken a liking to Shaxian Snacks? “The vast majority of our customers in Courbevoie come from the Chinese diaspora, but our restaurant in Paris mostly serves office workers,” Lin Jianbin says. He confesses that he has tweaked some recipes to compensate for the lack of certain ingredients and to adapt to French taste buds, favoring chicken meat or vegetarian dishes. And to reduce costs, dumplings are no longer made by hand but with a machine.
While the success of Shaxian Snacks was partly built on the principle of cheap cuisine, all restaurant owners have to adapt to the reality of the local market. Shaxian Snacks are now sold in some 200 overseas establishments across 66 countries. But in Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai, or New York, there is no way you will find small dishes for 10 yuan ($1.37). For that, you must head to Yubang.
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