Main Points of This Article:

  • The Chinese burger revolution is a culinary innovation wave that has emerged in China in recent years, offering a perfect blend of traditional Chinese flavors wrapped in a modern, fast-food experience.
  • The Tasty Chinese Burger and Jia Guolong Air Bun are two of the trailblazers of this movement, taking the market by storm over the past three years.
  • The Tasty Chinese Burger has grown substantially, now boasting over 1300 outlets spread across 17 provinces in China.
  • Jia Guolong Air Bun represents a new venture by Xi Bei Catering, aimed at exploring the fast-food arena.
  • These Chinese burger brands signify a burgeoning competition to international fast-food giants like McDonald’s and KFC.
  • The local brands are not just serving burgers; they are serving a slice of Chinese tradition, reimagined for the modern fast-food consumer.
  • The Chinese fast-food landscape began to burgeon in the early 2000s, with a slew of domestic fast-food chains emerging, offering a modern twist to traditional Chinese-style fast food.

Over the last few years, the fast-food landscape in China has been evolving with a unique blend of innovation and tradition, giving birth to what’s now popularly known as the Chinese burger revolution. This culinary innovation wave emerged amidst the bustling urban life of China, offering a perfect blend of traditional Chinese flavors wrapped in a modern, fast-food experience. Among the trailblazers of this movement are the “Tasty Chinese Burger” (塔斯汀中国汉堡) and Jia Guolong Air Bun (贾国龙空气馍), which have taken the market by storm over the past three years.

The Tasty Chinese Burger, a brand that hails from Fuzhou, took advantage of the rising wave of national pride, gradually establishing its footing in China. It stands out with its unwavering quality and consistent product philosophy even amidst the dominating presence of Western-style burgers. The brand has grown substantially, now boasting over 1300 outlets spread across 17 provinces in China. Their success story includes a notable marketing campaign for a new product called the “Black Pineapple Chinese Burger,” leveraging a clever pun and the Qixi Festival (Chinese Valentine’s Day) to drive a surge in sales and brand visibility, a move that was dubbed a textbook marketing case in the restaurant industry​1​​2​​3​.

On the other hand, Jia Guolong Air Bun represents a new venture by Xi Bei Catering, aimed at exploring the fast-food arena. The project kickstarted with an ambitious plan to open around a hundred outlets in Beijing, gradually expanding nationwide. This venture follows a partnership model, where Xi Bei invests in a significant portion of the initial outlets, sharing profits with small stakeholders. The new brand differentiates itself from a previous Xi Bei’s venture by offering a fresh take on the traditional Chinese burger​4​.

These Chinese burger brands, among others, are not just a culinary innovation; they signify a burgeoning competition to international fast-food giants like McDonald’s and KFC. The competition is heating up, with local brands like Tastien (the company behind Tasty Chinese Burger) gaining traction and challenging the longstanding dominance of international fast-food chains. The local brands are not just serving burgers; they are serving a slice of Chinese tradition, reimagined for the modern fast-food consumer. This trend is part of a broader movement where Chinese fast-food firms are cooking up a challenge with their healthy, home-grown fare, tempting the cost-conscious diners and offering a local alternative to the international fast-food scene​5​​6​​7​​8​.

The Journey of Tasty Chinese Burger(塔斯汀中国汉堡)

The journey of Tasty Chinese Burger (塔斯汀中国汉堡) is a testament to how local brands in China are leveraging traditional culinary roots, melding them with modern fast-food practices to create a unique offering that resonates with the masses. From a modest beginning, Tasty Chinese Burger has burgeoned into a recognized brand with a network of over 4000 franchised outlets across 22 provinces and 331 cities as of October 2023​9​. This remarkable expansion has been underpinned by a slew of strategic and marketing maneuvers that have set the brand apart in a crowded fast-food landscape.

A cornerstone of Tasty Chinese Burger’s strategy has been its relentless focus on product differentiation, which is steeped in Chinese culinary tradition yet tailored for the modern palate. Unlike the commonplace, quick-fix approach to burger preparation, Tasty Chinese Burger has chosen a path less trodden – the meticulous handcrafting of each bun, a practice that not only underscores the brand’s commitment to quality but also serves as a conduit for the conveyance of a heartfelt, authentic dining experience​10​. This emphasis on handcrafting is a deliberate divergence from the prevailing fast-food culture, underpinned by a desire to create a distinctive brand identity that’s aligned with Chinese culinary aesthetics.

Additionally, the brand’s foray into digital transformation has been a key driver of its growth. Tasty Chinese Burger has embraced a digital-first ethos, leveraging technologies such as big data analytics, intelligent management platforms, and a full-media matrix for online operations to bolster its market presence and operational efficiency​11​. This digital pivot has enabled the brand to keep a finger on the pulse of market trends and consumer preferences, fostering a data-driven culture that’s geared towards continual improvement and innovation.

Moreover, Tasty Chinese Burger’s marketing acumen has played a pivotal role in its ascent. The brand has demonstrated an adeptness at harnessing the power of marketing to fuel its growth, evidenced by its successful campaigns like the Black Pineapple Chinese Burger campaign that intertwined clever puns with cultural motifs, thereby creating a buzz and driving sales​12​.

Furthermore, in a bold nod to its Chinese roots, the brand launched an array of innovative products like the Beijing Roast Duck Burger and Mapo Tofu Burger, which are emblematic of its commitment to infusing traditional Chinese flavors into modern fast-food offerings. These new products, steeped in Chinese culture and flavors, not only satiate the local palate but also evoke a sense of national pride and cultural connection, which has been a major draw for the Chinese youth​13​.

Jia Guolong and The Air Bun

The narrative of Jia Guolong and his culinary innovations, especially the Air Bun, is a tale of tradition meeting modernity. The Air Bun, or 空气馍, isn’t just a whimsical name—it’s a reflection of a traditional Chinese snack called 酒酿馒头 from Zhejiang’s Tonglu area, which is known for its airy, fluffy texture obtained by fermenting dough with sweet rice wine instead of yeast​14​. This innovative take on a traditional snack came to fruition when Jia Guolong decided to venture into a new culinary domain, opening the first “贾国龙空气馍” (Jia Guolong Air Bun) store in Beijing’s Haidian District, further diversifying his gastronomic portfolio​15​.

Jia Guolong’s journey into the food realm began much earlier, with an ambitious project of creating a snack city during his entrepreneurial days in Shenzhen. Despite facing financial constraints, his unyielding determination led him to mobilize all resources, which eventually paid off when his “food city” idea blossomed, marking a significant upturn in his career​16​.

His innovation didn’t stop there. He made a foray into the light food market, opening a yogurt dining restaurant under the brand Xibei Youmian (西北莜面) in Beijing’s central business district. This move was aimed at appealing to the younger demographic, including the burgeoning middle class of white-collar workers​17​.

Jia Guolong’s journey is a testament to his ability to intertwine traditional Chinese culinary art with modern-day consumer preferences. His ventures, notably the Air Bun, resonate with the heartbeats of traditional Chinese culinary arts while responding to the modern fast-food culture, portraying a sense of novelty yet familiarity to the Chinese masses. Through Air Bun, he creatively wraps traditional Chinese delicacies like red braised pork and Shaoxing stinky tofu in the soft, sweet buns, offering a unique, modern twist to traditional Chinese flavors​18​.

His slogan for Air Bun, “中国馍夹中国菜” (Chinese buns hold Chinese dishes), not only emphasizes the authenticity and traditional essence of his offerings but also subtly challenges the likes of McDonald’s and KFC with a uniquely Chinese fast-food alternative. By extending the traditional Chinese snack to a modern fast-food setting, Jia Guolong has indeed presented a Chinese narrative to the global fast-food storyline, emboldening the essence of Chinese culinary culture in the contemporary food market scenario.

The Chinese Fast-Food Grail: Becoming the Next McDonald’s or KFC

The aspiration to become the “McDonald’s” or “KFC” of China is not just a fleeting ambition among local fast-food entrepreneurs; it’s emblematic of a broader narrative of blending global fast-food models with traditional Chinese culinary ethos. As the Chinese fast-food landscape began to burgeon in the early 2000s, a slew of domestic fast-food chains emerged, offering a modern twist to traditional Chinese-style fast food​19​. The rapid growth of Chinese fast-food businesses, albeit still having a smaller market share compared to Western giants like McDonald’s and KFC, is an expression of this aspiration​20​.

However, the road to emulating the global success of McDonald’s or KFC is strewn with the complex challenge of standardizing Chinese cuisine—a culinary tradition renowned for its regional diversities and complex preparation methods. Unlike the relatively standardized preparation methods of burgers and fried chicken, Chinese cuisine embodies a wide array of cooking techniques, ingredients, and regional variations. The idea of encapsulating this rich culinary diversity into a standardized fast-food model is indeed a Herculean task.

Efforts towards standardization have been observed, with ventures like Hong Gao Liang, the first Chinese fast-food chain in the country, attempting to challenge the high name recognition of McDonald’s with unique slogans and marketing tactics​21​. Moreover, Chinese fast-food firms are concocting a challenge to global brands by bearing unique offerings like rice burgers and lotus roots, aimed at tempting cost-conscious diners with healthy, homegrown fare​22​.

The challenge of standardization not only lies in the culinary domain but extends to the operational and supply chain domains. Standardizing supply chains to ensure consistent quality and taste across outlets, akin to what McDonald’s and KFC have achieved, is a significant hurdle. Moreover, the cultural predilection towards freshly prepared food in China adds an extra layer of complexity to the standardization endeavor.

This aspiration of becoming the next McDonald’s or KFC also encapsulates a broader narrative of global-local dynamics. It’s about reimagining global fast-food models through the prism of local culinary tradition, aiming to create a unique brand proposition that resonates with domestic consumers while having the potential to transcend borders. The journey of Chinese fast-food brands towards this aspiration is a fascinating interplay of tradition, modernity, and global-local dynamics, unfolding against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving Chinese food market landscape.

Rou Jia Mo: An Ancient Delicacy for the Modern Palate

Rou Jia Mo, often dubbed the Chinese hamburger, is a delicious street food staple originating from Shaanxi Province, now relished all across China and even making its way into the hearts of foodies in the United States​1​. This ancient delicacy has found itself at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, as various food entrepreneurs in China see the potential of standardizing Rou Jia Mo for the modern fast-food market. A notable trailblazer in this endeavor is the brand 西少爷 (Xi Shao Ye), which embarked on a journey to not only standardize Rou Jia Mo but also give it a modern, internet-era twist.

Founded in 2014, 西少爷 swiftly garnered widespread attention and became synonymous with Rou Jia Mo, especially among the young and tech-savvy demographic​23​. The brand introduced a degree of standardization to Rou Jia Mo while maintaining its traditional essence. This initiative was not only a nod to Chinese culinary heritage but also a savvy business move to carve a niche in the fiercely competitive fast-food market. Their endeavors reached a point where 西少爷 became almost synonymous with Rou Jia Mo, with an international brand name “Bingz” to cater to overseas markets​24​​25​.

These strides by 西少爷 and others in the Chinese fast-food scene reflect a broader trend of infusing traditional Chinese delicacies with modern fast-food operational efficiency. The attempt to standardize Rou Jia Mo is emblematic of this trend, aiming to make this ancient delicacy a staple in the fast-food market. However, the journey of 西少爷 also highlights the challenges inherent in such an endeavor. Standardizing a dish with such regional roots and varied preparation methods is no small feat.

The quest to standardize Rou Jia Mo and make it a poster child of Chinese fast food is more than a marketing gimmick—it’s a concerted effort to modernize traditional Chinese cuisine while retaining its essence. Yet, the sustainability of this trend is still up for debate. It beckons a continuous observation to gauge whether the Chinese burger concept is a fleeting marketing trend or a sustainable shift in the industry. This initiative’s success or failure could provide invaluable lessons for the broader Chinese fast-food market, shedding light on the interplay between tradition, modernity, and market sustainability in the world of fast food.

The chronicle of the Chinese fast-food narrative, as explored through the lens of the burgeoning Chinese burger phenomenon, unveils a rich tapestry of tradition, innovation, and modern market dynamics. We traversed through the journey of Tasty Chinese Burger and Jia Guolong’s Air Bun, which embody the spirit of blending traditional Chinese culinary artistry with modern fast-food operational models. The aspiration among local entrepreneurs to emulate the global success of giants like McDonald’s and KFC, while nurturing a distinctive Chinese brand identity, showcases a vibrant innovative spirit permeating the Chinese fast-food industry.

A salient highlight of this narrative is the attempt to standardize traditional Chinese delicacies like Rou Jia Mo, epitomized by the ventures of 西少爷. The challenges and lessons gleaned from such endeavors underscore the complex, yet rewarding endeavor of bridging tradition with modernity for a global audience. Yet, the path towards standardization and global recognition is laden with challenges, primarily stemming from the rich diversity and complex preparation methods intrinsic to Chinese cuisine.

Reflecting upon this, the innovative vigor within the Chinese fast-food industry doesn’t merely represent a marketing trend or business aspiration. It’s a nuanced dialogue between tradition and modernity, between local flavors and global palates. The endeavors of local Chinese fast-food brands could potentially ripple out, influencing global food culture by offering unique, authentic culinary experiences. Moreover, it underscores a broader narrative of global-local dynamics in the fast-food industry, portraying how indigenous culinary traditions can morph into modern, market-ready offerings while retaining their cultural essence.

This narrative nudges us to continuously observe and appreciate the fluidity and adaptability inherent in food culture, and its capacity to foster intercultural dialogues and experiences. The Chinese fast-food saga is a flavorful chapter in a long, ongoing narrative of culinary evolution and cultural exchange in our globalized world.