In Beijing, a city known for nurturing big-time entrepreneurs, there’s a fast-food brand named “Hometown Meat Pie.”(老家肉饼) The soul of Hometown is Tian Jie(田杰). Once, he was a Chinese language teacher at the Shijingshan District Adult College, a columnist for a magazine, and the editor of the “Encyclopedia of Intelligence Tests and Training”… In essence, he was a man of letters. Now, he’s the founder and executive director of Beijing Hometown Fast Food Co., Ltd., with over 70 branches. Ultimately, he’s a businessman.

The Meat Pie That Fell from the Sky

After graduating from the Capital Normal University, Tian Jie taught modern and foreign literature at the Shijingshan District University for Continuing Education. He spent his spare time writing and publishing books, which is why even today, people still affectionately call him “Teacher Tian.” His foray into the food and beverage industry, and ultimately the establishment of Hometown Fast Food, seemed like a fortuitous twist of fate.

Post-graduation, Tian and his classmates often got together. After each gathering, they’d need to find a place to eat. Frequent visits to a classmate’s home felt intrusive, and dining out regularly was too costly. To solve this dilemma, they considered opening a restaurant.

Tian Jie

At the time, the most valuable assets in the restaurant were two essential refrigerators for storing food and a disinfection cabinet mandated by the Health Bureau. The rest was just tables, chairs, and cooking utensils. Obtaining the business license was a challenging endeavor for Tian Jie. Nearly 17 different departments, each requiring their own stamp on the application, oversaw restaurant operations. However, Tian frequented the industry office the most. They required him to submit a “cost card,” detailing the menu items, cooking methods, ingredients, costs, and profit margins. Tian, with no culinary experience, copied several recipes from a cookbook from the Beijing Hotel for the cost card. This “shortcut” approach, however, didn’t pass muster. After several revisions and adjustments, he finally secured the license.

In June 1992, “Er You Restaurant” opened its doors. Soon after, Tian Jie and his friends realized the reality was far from what they had imagined. Although the competition in the catering industry wasn’t fierce, there were six or seven competitors nearby. “Er You Restaurant,” lacking any distinctive features and with erratic operating hours, struggled to compete. Within a month, the restaurant was on shaky ground. Tian was worried. The rent was unpaid, the borrowed money seemed wasted, and with his monthly salary of 133 yuan, it seemed impossible to repay the debt. Another concern was his lack of culinary skills, making the restaurant’s operations heavily dependent on the chef. Although he had been careful in hiring a chef, who seemed skilled and had a good taste, the chef’s performance was inconsistent and often emotionally driven, sometimes even neglecting the kitchen altogether. A month later, Tian tasted the bitterness of the catering business. With the chef gone and no suitable replacement, the assistant cook had to step in, often resulting in burnt, overly salty, or bland dishes. Daily earnings of two to three hundred yuan were insufficient even for wages and rent.

In the first month, they lost over 6,000 yuan. In the second month, “Er You Restaurant” continued to struggle, incurring further losses. They had to reconvene to discuss strategies. Faced with this grim situation, they quickly identified two options: either cut their losses and cease operations or find a way to adjust their strategy and recoup the losses.

Encouraged by friends, Tian Jie, a food lover with no culinary skills, took the lead. With 3,000 yuan pooled together by friends, he opened a small restaurant named “Er You Restaurant,” which was the precursor to Hometown Fast Food. Their initial concept for the restaurant was simple: it would not operate during their gatherings, where the chef would cook exclusively for them; it would be open to the public at other times to sustain the business. With others busy and not very invested in the idea, Tian Jie took charge. He rented a storefront near the Shijingshan Ancient City Park. A quick whitewash of the walls and a kitchen without tiles marked the humble beginnings of the establishment.

Eventually, there was a consensus among the group. Despite feeling like they had “accidentally fallen into a trap,” they believed they should try to use the restaurant to earn enough money to cover their losses. So, the friends set out to explore Beijing, seeking a food item suitable for their small restaurant – it had to be cost-effective, not reliant on sophisticated culinary skills, and most importantly, profitable.

Tian Jie took to his bicycle. Those days, he scoured every dining spot in Beijing. One day, at Xinjiekou, he stumbled upon a small eatery with just six or seven tables, bustling with business, serving Jingdong meat pies. The simplicity of the food supporting the entire business was exactly what he was looking for – a project not constrained by culinary skills.

He learned that these meat pies originated from Sanhe in Hebei, where almost every household was involved in making them. Eager to learn the authentic recipe, Tian Jie didn’t hesitate and took a train straight to Sanhe, which had recently been upgraded from a county to a city. Upon inquiry, he was told that the most authentic meat pies were made by Zhang Jie, the head chef at the Sanhe City Committee Guesthouse and a judge in the Sanhe Meat Pie Skill Competition.

Tian Jie approached the guesthouse director, hoping to borrow Chef Zhang for a few days, but the request was initially denied. Undeterred, Tian Jie stayed at the guesthouse, continuously seeking opportunities to win over the director. After a night of drinking and sincere conversation, the director was touched by Tian Jie’s earnestness and agreed to let Chef Zhang come to Beijing to train his staff. A week later, under Chef Zhang’s guidance, Tian Jie and his two employees introduced meat pies as a new item.

Unlike traditional meat pies which emphasized thick crusts, they devised their own standard for a quick meal: each pie would use 0.6 kilograms of dough matched with 0.6 kilograms of meat filling, and each pie would be cut into 12 pieces, making each serving 50 grams of dough and 50 grams of filling.

At that time, Tian Jie’s sole focus was to turn losses into profits and repay his debts as soon as possible. Little did he know that this decision would forever bind his fate with meat pies.

Two or three months later, the business was booming. The restaurant started to see repeat customers, and some even came specifically to try their now-famous meat pies.

The Brand Forged by Necessity

In 1993, “Er You Restaurant” officially made the Jingdong meat pie its signature dish. Within months, the restaurant’s popularity peaked. During meal times, the small space was so packed that customers ended up sitting on the roadside to eat their meat pies.

Hometown Meat Pie

Observing the success of the meat pies, numerous Jingdong meat pie vendors sprang up overnight around the area, with some even attempting to poach chefs from Er You. The vicinity turned into a Jingdong meat pie hub, with five or six competitors within just a 500-meter radius. To preserve the hard-earned success, Tian Jie added the word “Authentic” to the restaurant’s sign. However, within a few days, he noticed that the surrounding establishments had also started branding themselves as “Authentic.” It was at this point that Tian Jie realized the necessity of having a unique name for the restaurant.

At that time, Tian Jie’s classmate, now a well-known poet named Ajian, suggested the name “Hometown Meat Pie.” “Hometown,” translated from the English word “Root,” signifies origin, destination, and home. Everyone liked the sound of it, and thus the name “Hometown Meat Pie” was chosen. Until then, Tian Jie and his friends hadn’t considered trademark registration, let alone company registration.

It was not until two years later that a chief from the Shijingshan District Industrial and Commercial Bureau advised Tian Jie: “Hometown Meat Pie now has seven or eight chain stores and is quite famous in West Beijing. Why not register the trademark and company name? If someone else registers it first, you’ll have to change your name.”

Realizing the severity of the situation, in February 1996, they registered the “Hometown” trademark and logo, and in October, “Beijing Hometown Fast Food Co., Ltd.” was officially registered.

Over time, Hometown Fast Food developed its menu into four major categories: grilling, steaming, boiling, and frying, with a rich variety of offerings. In May 1998, a series of breakfast items popular in Northern China, including steamed buns, fried dough sticks, soy milk, and tofu pudding, were officially introduced at Hometown Fast Food. The transition to serving three meals a day significantly enhanced its profitability.

Unexpectedly, just as Tian Jie was brimming with confidence, his previously treated renal tuberculosis relapsed, severely affecting his health. During this period, he also faced personal challenges – he went through a divorce. These life upheavals led to a neglect in company management, resulting in a stagnation in the company’s growth over the next few years. Determined to turn things around, Tian Jie began shuttling between China and the United States, studying the fast-food industry in the U.S. and Canada. In the first half of 1998, during a trip to Los Angeles, he had an unexpected encounter with his future wife, a Peking University Chinese literature graduate studying in the U.S. Her fluency in English made his research smoother. Together, they visited several fast-food enterprises, gaining deeper insights into advanced fast-food business models. This experience gradually lifted Tian Jie’s spirits. He firmly realized that “development is the absolute principle.” No matter his personal circumstances, the company’s progress could not halt.

Tian Jie drew inspiration from Konosuke Matsushita, who once said, “I succeeded because I was sick.” While healthy individuals might prefer hands-on involvement, Matsushita’s illness compelled him to focus on organizing and managing others – what we call ‘management’ today. Matsushita’s success story greatly encouraged Tian Jie. Upon returning to China, he established three key standards for Hometown Fast Food: quality, hygiene, and service. Under these standardized management practices, the company began to recover. By the end of the year, the number of restaurants approached 30.

In 1999, Hometown Fast Food entered a phase of rapid development. Tian Jie resigned from his public school position to devote all his energy to the company. At the beginning of the year, the first franchise store was approved. Mid-year, the company expanded beyond Beijing, opening a branch in Dingzhou, Hebei. By year-end, a new initiative was launched, offering internal employee loans to open stores.

In the second half of 2000, Tian Jie recruited Zhang Kai, a person with rich management experience.

In November 2000, Hometown Technology Development Co., Ltd. was established, with Tian Jie as the executive director and Zhang Kai as the general manager. The new company had more than 30 shareholders, with the highest individual shareholding capped at 8% to avoid a controlling stake. This structure aimed to prevent centralization of power in decision-making and to manage the company with the collective wisdom of all, laying the foundation for democratic management.

The Establishment of “Teacher Tian’s Braised Pork”

A persistent concern for Tian Jie was that Hometown had never managed to hire specialized research and development talent. To this day, Tian Jie still doubles as the head chef, responsible for the trial production and promotion of the fast-food products. He believed that the main challenge of this role was finding someone who was not only a skilled chef but also deeply understood the demands of fast-food and could achieve the industrialization of Chinese cuisine.

It was another chance encounter that sparked an idea. A friend remarked to Tian Jie, “From south to north, there’s no Chinese who doesn’t love braised pork, yet there isn’t a single braised pork brand. Isn’t this an opportunity especially reserved for Hometown?” This comment struck a chord with Tian Jie, and he embarked on a year-long experimental journey. The production of this braised pork differed from traditional cooking methods; it required developing an industrial production process to discover the secret technique and the perfect recipe ratio.

Consequently, Tian Jie cooked braised pork at home every two to three days, leading his family to consume it over a hundred times within a year. The end result? His family became almost phobic of braised pork, while Tian Jie emerged with a fast-food preparation plan for it.

In the autumn of 2003, Hometown officially registered the “Teacher Tian’s Braised Pork Over Rice” company and opened the first store in the Shijingshan Huilian Department Store. The business, focused on rice bowl meals, was an immediate hit upon its launch. After nearly a year of adjustments, Tian Jie developed a successful method for managing the rice bowl meals.

By 2005, “Teacher Tian’s Braised Pork” fast-food restaurants began to rapidly expand, reaching nearly 40 stores by early 2010. The extremely high turnover rate of 15 times a day led to an ever-growing customer base and increasingly thriving business.

During the first decade of its development, Teacher Tian’s Braised Pork weathered a prolonged three-year economic crisis starting in 2008. Remarkably, this crisis didn’t disrupt the impressive fifteen turnovers per day at the restaurant. In fact, the development of Teacher Tian’s Braised Pork arguably benefited from the economic downturn.

Why is this? Those who have dined at Teacher Tian’s likely share a similar impression: the business is booming, the place is crowded, and there are long queues. But the most astonishing aspect is the incredibly low prices. Just how affordable was it? In early 2007, Longce Consulting surveyed the Beijing Chinese fast-food market and recorded Teacher Tian’s prices: a bowl of minced pork with sour beans for 3.5 yuan, braised pork over rice for 5 yuan, side dishes for 1 yuan, and soup for 1 yuan. A meal of one dish and soup cost less than 5 yuan. Despite several price increases, the current menu offers dishes like Mapo Tofu for 8 yuan, Curry Chicken for 10 yuan, Braised Pork for 14 yuan, Fish-Flavored Shredded Pork for 9 yuan, and Beef Over Rice for 10 yuan.

Indeed, from the outset, Teacher Tian targeted the middle to low-income demographic with a low-price strategy – aiming to comfort every lonely and hungry soul 24/7, 365 days a year, much like the mission or essence of braised pork itself. Simple, heartwarming, and a haven for those awake in the city at 2 AM.

“Braised pork over rice is the most popular item on our menu,” says Teacher Tian. “When you’re homesick, Teacher Tian’s Braised Pork can soothe your soul, reminding you of your mother’s cooking.”

In the culinary memory of the Chinese people, the taste of braised pork is synonymous with the taste of a mother’s cooking. Even with such low prices, Teacher Tian does not compromise on ingredients, using only high-quality, acid-drained pork belly. It’s the patience and time devoted to the cooking process that gives their secret braised pork its deep brown-red color and rich texture.

Today’s Teacher Tian’s Braised Pork restaurants are mostly elegantly decorated, constantly updating their menu with new items, and have even launched a popular premium takeaway service.

Creating a Distinctively Chinese Dining Brand

After 19 years of development, Hometown has not only established the “Hometown Meat Pie” fast-food brand but has also grown into one of the most renowned fast-food chain enterprises in China, consistently ranking among the top 100 national restaurant brands for several years. The company has developed a strategy encompassing high, middle, and low-end market segments. Currently, “Hometown Meat Pie” boasts over 170 branches, expanding its market presence in Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Liaoning, Henan, Shanxi, and other provinces, ranking among the top three in the national industry. “Teacher Tian’s Braised Pork” has become the leading brand in Beijing’s mid-to-low-end fast-food rice bowl market.

Due to the unique shareholding structure of Hometown, most of the “old-timers” at Hometown have become shareholders. This shareholder group, numbering over 70, continues to expand as the company accommodates new investors.

Hometown Fast Food is currently exploring two challenging areas. The first is the franchise model. Determining how to establish a unified and mutually beneficial franchise system for faster and healthier growth is a key focus. The second area is production and distribution methods. Chains like McDonald’s and KFC have extremely high standards for production and distribution. Adapting these standards would mean incurring high costs for Hometown, which would conflict with its current pricing strategy. Balancing standardized production while maintaining lower costs is another critical issue Hometown is addressing. A breakthrough in this area could lead to unprecedented growth for the company.

Tian Jie, the unassuming, enigmatic head chef who admittedly isn’t skilled in cooking, is quietly steering Hometown’s rapid growth.