The growing popularity of pre-cooked food in China – also known as the ready-meals industry – has made it a capital darling, with investors looking to cash in on the trend prompted by changes in people’s lifestyles amid the pandemic. In the world’s second-largest economy, the market for pre-prepared dishes has been mainly driven by caterers. But a shift from restaurants to family dining tables in the past two years, with so many people staying home in the era of stringent zero-Covid mobility restrictions and lockdowns, has rapidly brought pre-made food to the mass consumer market. Deloitte Asia-Pacific’s consumer goods and retail industry head, Zhang Tianbing, now says China’s pre-prepared food market looks to have a promising future, with the corporate side of the business currently more mature, while the general consumer market is still in the process of penetration. “Pre-prepared dishes meet the preferences of a new generation of consumers for healthier and more distinctive meals … and the epidemic has accelerated the spread of pre-cooked food,” Zhang said. China suspends Taiwanese sweets and treats ahead of Pelosi’s visit Deloitte China, in cooperation with Mumian Capital and Inward Fund – two investment houses focusing on the country’s new economy sector – said in a report on Monday that the pre-made food market is shaping up to be even more lucrative this year than during the first two years of the pandemic. According to the report, China’s pre-prepared dishes market generated about 550 billion yuan (US$81.34 billion) in 2021, with an expected compound annual growth rate of 13 per cent over the next 5 years. As of June, there were more than 66,000 domestic pre-cook-related enterprises, of which more than 1,020 were newly registered this year, with a growth rate of 42.7 per cent from January to June for new enterprise registrations, according to data from Tianyancha, a commercial database of public company records in China. Hong Kong-listed Carrianna Group Holdings, which has operated a Chiu Chow cuisine restaurant under the same name in Wan Chai for more than 40 years, is eyeing the rapidly growing pre-cooked market on the mainland. Carrianna chairman Warren Ma Kai-yum said his company had invested HK$50 million (US$6.37 million) to set up a production facility in Shenzhen to produce pre-cook food to be sold online and in supermarkets. It will introduce a pre-cooked chicken stew in the Chiu Chow style in September. “Young people no longer like to spend a long time cooking at home. Besides delivery services or takeaway, pre-cooked food would be another option for them. Likewise, the elderly who live alone would also like to have pre-cooked food to have a quick meal,” Ma told the Post . “The pre-cooking industry has developed well in the Western and Japanese markets, while China is still in the early stage of development. If China matches the level of the US and Europe, the [Chinese] pre-cooked food market may well grow several times … in a few years. The growth potential will be huge.” Ma said he prefers to invest in facilities in Shenzhen to better tap into the Greater Bay Area. ‘I’m worried about friction’: can Hong Kong integrate into Greater Bay Area? “The Greater Bay Area has a population of more than 80 million, while it has a lot of middle-class residents. They can afford to buy good-quality products at a premium. Healthy and delicious pre-cooked food will have strong demand in the bay area,” he said. In Zhuhai, a bay-area city in Guangdong province, the local government is also preparing to build a prefabricated vegetable industrial park spanning about 1,250 acres. The industrial park, with a total investment of about 7.4 billion yuan, will cover all aspects of the pre-made-food industrial chain, from raw materials and production to processing and sales. As a new capital darling, the pre-cooking industry is attracting cross-sector investment from companies outside the food industry. In mid-July, the founder of a financial technology company called Qudian, Luo Min, ranked atop the e-commerce sales board by selling pre-made dishes on TikTok China , known as Douyin, using his personal account. It generated 252 million yuan worth of sales in a single session. A dish that can be made in five minutes by simply throwing the ingredients into a pan is so convenient Yin Ping, mother Luo and Qudian are known to the public for launching a controversial microloan scheme that encouraged overspending by the university community and resulted in a number of students being unable to repay loans. The day after his popular livestream on the e-commerce platform, Luo said that his company had moved into the pre-prepared food industry, and that the former main business involving financial credit would gradually be marginalised. Yin Ping, the mother of a junior high school student, bought several boxes of pre-prepared dishes online last month and was delighted with the convenience and taste of the products. “A dish that can be made in five minutes by simply throwing the ingredients into a pan is so convenient for me in the summer when I’m racking my brain to make yummy meals for the kids in a hot kitchen,” Yin said. “Although there are still additives in the semi-processed food, at least I processed it myself before it was served, which is more reassuring than takeaway [food].” Liu Lin, a 29-year-old nurse in Tianjin, a city close to Beijing, just bought several boxes of pre-made pickled fish online, as the recurring epidemic made her apprehensive about going to restaurants and ordering takeaway. “The fish tastes very similar to my favourite restaurant, but it’s nearly half the price,” Liu said. However, the quality of pre-made dishes in the market remains uneven, with problems related to the lack of detailed labelling on such products, as well as difficulties in logistics and distribution, according to a survey conducted by the Consumer Rights Protection Commission of Jiangsu Province in February. Consumer rights group calls out live-streamers for violating product rules Additionally, the issue of restaurants using pre-made dishes without telling diners was included among the top complaints in the first half of the year, according to information released by the China Consumers Association (CCA) on Tuesday. The CCA said that, without advance notice, the use of pre-prepared dishes by restaurants to replace those prepared on-site by a chef was detrimental to consumers’ rights to information and choice. With the rapid development of the pre-cooking market, relevant regulations are needed to promote industry standardisation, according to the association.