Chinese fast food for the WeChat generation
Restaurant chain trying to make traditional snacks hip among the young
It may have been a sweltering 35 degrees Celsius outside one recent July day in Beijing, but for the 50 diners piled into one of the capital's trendiest new eateries, the spicy hot pot was the coolest lunch in town.
But apart from the cuisine, there was another draw: when they take pictures of their food and share it on Weibo and WeChat - the mainland's two leading social media platforms - they get discounts from the restaurant.
This is the latest experiment by the start-up Huangtaiji, a Chinese eatery chain, to attract a younger clientele who spend time on social media.
Founded in 2012, Huangtaiji started as a pancake, or jianbing, restaurant, but rather than just selling the traditional Chinese street food, it spun the humble pancake into a cool and hip snack.
"We are not just selling pancakes, we are selling ideas and culture, which make customers loyal to us," said He Chang, the 33-year-old founder and chief executive of Huangtaiji. "It's similar to how Starbucks runs."
In an interview with the business magazine Entrepreneur last year, He estimated his business was worth more than 40 million yuan (HK$50 million).
He, who comes from Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang, was no stranger to the internet or social media, having worked for two of the world's largest search engines, Google and Baidu, on brand design.
He launched his business with funding from about a dozen sources, with Li Xueling among the investors.
Early on He focused on Huangtaiji's social media presence - a move that proved crucial in launching the brand. The restaurant's Weibo account has 110,000 followers, which He concedes is relatively modest, but they are active, posting a constant stream of pictures and opinions. "They comment and tweet about us all the time," He said. "It's like a voting system. Every follower's tweet is a vote for our future so that we can grow bigger."
He believes his target market - especially the post-'90s generations - will not blindly choose fast-food chains. "They are looking for something unique, something that can represent their values," he said. "Why can't Chinese pancakes become international if we do it right?"
In a sign of Huangtaiji's localised tastes, one of the restaurant's latest fans, a 17-year-old pupil, said his favourite dish was tripe at the spicy hot pot restaurant in Beijing.
This was his second visit there after discovering Huangtaiji through the internet. He hopes the restaurant will expand.
"I wish they could open it in New York," he said. "I'm going there for college. I'd love to have jianbing on Fifth Avenue."