Chengdu — Great City, but Where Are the Great Food Companies?

Ge dish from China First Capital blog post

Among major cities in China, Chengdu takes the prize as most pleasant, livable,  comfortably affluent, relaxed and charming. I arrived back here today. I’m reminded immediately there’s much to like about Chengdu, and one thing to love: the food.

Chengdu is famed for its “小吃”, (“xiaochi”) literally “small eats”. To translate 小吃 as “snack”, as most dictionaries do, doesn’t even remotely begin to do it justice. A 小吃  is a often one-bowl wonder of intense, jarring flavors. They not only take the place of a full meal with rice, they make the Chinese staple seem almost superfluous, a waste of precious space in the stomach.

There are about a dozen小吃 that can stop me in mid-stride, any time of day. These include several varieties of cold noodles, including the bean jelly ones called 凉粉, literally “cold powder”,as well as dandan noodles served dazzlingly hot, in both senses of the word.

My favorite 小吃 , by a wide margin, is 抄手 , literally, “to fold one’s arms”. It’s an odd name, since the last thing I’d ever do when I see a bowl of抄手 in Chengdu is fold my arms. They are always thrust outward, in anticipation.  抄手 is a bowl of wontons steeped in a fire-engine red soupy sauce, optimally with enough Sichuan pepper corn to numb the tongue all the way down the gullet. This frees up the nose to do the real work of decoding all the subtle flavors.

Offiically, Chengdu has a per capital income of around $5,200, about half Shanghai’s. But, I’d prefer living and working in Chengdu any day. So would many Chinese I know. The economy is doing well, despite some geographic disadvantages. Chengdu is the most westerly of China’s large cities, and so isolated from the most developed regions of China. It’s over 1,000 miles to Shanghai, Beijing, and almost as far to Shenzhen.

Chengdu is doing well economically – though you don’t always have a sense this ranks as high on the list of civic priorities as drinking tea and playing mahjong. The electronics and telecom industries are both doing well. Quite a few companies have received PE investment.

The one industry, however, that is still relatively undeveloped is the food business. This is odd. By logic, Chengdu should be a center of China’s food processing and restaurant industry. Not only is it a great food town, situated in a very region valley producing some of China’s best fruits and vegetables, but it is also capital of Sichuan Province.

Sichuan food is almost certainly the most popular “non native” cuisine across China. Within a mile of where I live in Shenzhen, there are probably over 50 Sichuan restaurants. It’s the same in Beijing, Shanghai and most other major cities.

There’s an innate association in Chinese minds between Sichuan and good food. In this, Sichuan reminds me a lot like Italy. Italian food is prized across all of the Western world, and as a result, some of the Western world’s biggest and most successful food companies are based in Italy. Among the larger ones are Barilla, Bertolli, Buitoni, Parmalat, Ferrero. These, and thousands of smaller ones making wine, cheese, salami, all benefit from the widespread popularity of Italian food, and the high market value of associating a food brand with Italy.

Chengdu and Sichuan should be no different. It should be the capital of China’s food processing industry. But, as far as I can tell, there are as of yet no great food companies or food brands based there.  If you shop around in Chengdu, the food products being marketed as “authentic Sichuan food ” are mainly an assortment of beef jerky, along with sweet and savory biscuits made from beans and peanuts.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these products, but there isn’t a big brand national brand among them. The mass market is going unserved.

Let’s look at two of the biggest food product categories where Sichuan brands should predominate: chili sauce and instant noodles. Each of these product areas have sales of billions of dollars a year in China. Yet, the leading brands come from outside Sichuan. In the case of instant noodles, the leaders are mainly Taiwanese and Japanese.

In chili sauce, the biggest brands all seem to come from Guizhou province. This, particularly, should cause a collective loss of face across Sichuan. Their spicy food  “owns” the palettes of hundreds of millions of people and yet the main brands of chili sauce in supermarkets come from the poorer province to its south.

The companies selling bottled pre-made Sichuan sauces (for popular dishes like Gongbao Jiding, Mapo Toufu and Yuxing Rousi) mainly come from Taiwan, Shanghai, even Hong Kong. It’s as if the most popular brands of spaghetti sauce were made in Brazil. Chinese food companies all over are eating Sichuan’s lunch.

This situation is unnatural and, I’d hope, unsustainable. Sichuan companies should by rights eventually dominate the market for many food products in China, much as Italian food companies are among the largest in Europe.

Some lucky PE investors should someday make a lot of money backing Sichuan food companies. Me and my company would love to play our part in this. Ambitious food entrepreneurs in Chengdu, call us anytime — 0755 33222093. If ever there were a billion-dollar unfilled market opportunity in China, this would be it.


“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous” – Albert Einstein

Longquan vase from China First Capital blog post

Just about everyone has experienced a miraculous coincidence at least once in their lifetime, a chance encounter with a friend at a place and time where neither side would ever have expected to meet. I’ve had a few in my life. The most memorable was running into Giovanna, an old girlfriend of mine from when I was a graduate student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I literally bumped into her, eight years after losing touch (this was in the pre-email era) one morning at the bustlingly gorgeous Campo de’ Fiori vegetable market in the center of Rome.

We quickly got reacquainted, and she juggled me and her then-current boyfriend for awhile. I was a foreign correspondent for Forbes based in London. She was living in Rome, close to the market, one of my favorite spots in one of my favorite and most-visited cities in the world.

There was a high degree of improbability about that meeting in Rome. But, it wasn’t completely unfathomable, since she was an Italian, and even when I knew her, interested in film-making. Rome is the center of that industry in Italy. Giovanna had studied in China, spoke good Chinese and had landed a small job helping Bernardo Bertolucci shoot scenes in China for “The Last Emperor”.  She parlayed that into a friendship with the director and the producer of Last Emperor, and then found other work in the film business.

In Chengdu recently, I had an even more remarkable coincidental meeting than that one in Campo de’ Fiori. At a large and fancy restaurant there, a friend of mine from work, Nick Shao, who is a Managing Director of PE firm Carlyle in Shanghai, came up and greeted me as I sat down at a table with two people I only just met.

My brain circuitry is not what it used to be. It probably took me two to three seconds to actually figure out who Nick was and how I knew him. Then it clicked, of course, and I started burbling in my bad Chinese about how remarkable the whole thing was – why was he there? Doing what? Was the food any good?

Running into Nick was remarkable for a lot of reasons, including the fact I know a comparatively small number of people in China, had not been in Chengdu in 28 years, and was in a restaurant that seats at least 800 people. To end up at a table nearby to someone I knew, in a city of 11 million that neither of us have any connection to, in a country with the largest population in the world, that’s a level of unlikelihood that I can’t even begin to quantify. I’d be hard-pressed to find one of my own family members in that restaurant, it’s that large and crowded.

As I found out, Nick was in Chengdu for an EMBA course he’s taking. This also left me a little nonplussed, since I knew Nick already had an MBA from Columbia. Why would anyone need two? Why was his Shanghai university convening its class at a not-especially famous restaurant in Chengdu? I still don’t have solid answers to either of these questions, even after exchanging emails with Nick later that day.

For my part, I was in Chengdu to participate in a PE conference organized by the Sichuan government. I skipped the official lunch to meet some friends-of-friends. It would not be stretching things to say the last place I’d expect to meet someone I know would be that restaurant, in that city, in that country, at that date and time.

I had a great three days in Chengdu,  eating, chatting and walking around China’s most relaxed, pleasant and livable major city. Meeting Nick made it very much more memorable, just as I continue to remember, when I think of Rome, that meeting, over 20 years ago, in Campo de’ Fiori.

For me, at least, this coincidental meeting spurred a lot of what little I can muster in terms of philosophical reflection. It’s all hackneyed stuff, of course, but our lives really are created by the miracle of birth, and punctuated thereafter by occasional miracles, large and small. The world is, in its most benign state, the motive force for the coming true of every sort of wonderful, unexpected but thoroughly delightful possibility. Dreams come true. Happy coincidences occur.