As political tensions ease and trade ties boom, China is taking on a new challenge — to win over Taiwan with its culinary clout.
A number of China’s leading restaurant brands, notably Peking Quanjude (全聚德), Tianjin Goubuli (狗不理) and Chongqing Cygnet (小天鵝), are aiming to expand their business to the island as early as this year, the companies and reports said. Others might follow, with a delegation from more than 20 restaurant chains scheduled to visit Taiwan next month on a fact-finding trip, the Beijing-based China Cuisine Association said.
The expansion became possible when Taiwan recently lifted a decade-old ban on investment by Chinese firms or individuals — the latest step in rapidly improving ties.
Under the investment measures in effect since June 30, Chinese investors are permitted to buy into 100 categories in the Taiwan’s infrastructure, manufacturing and service sectors, including restaurants.
Over the years, various Chinese cuisines have taken root in Taiwan.
Famous dishes such as Peking duck and Sichuan hot pot are regular favorites. China still claims sovereignty over Taiwan but business and civil exchanges have boomed since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office last year.
The main challenge for Chinese investors is to find the right local partner and serve genuine cuisine despite the lack of original ingredients — the reason hot pot chains Tanyutou (譚魚頭) and Little Sheep (小肥羊)stumbled in Taiwan after managing to invest indirectly through Hong Kong, observers say.
“Tanyutou’s partner wasn’t an industry pro while Little Sheep just can’t pull it off when its key ingredient, the Inner Mongolian sheep, was unavailable,” said food critic Wang Jue-yao.
Quanjude, China’s oldest Peking duck restaurant, is facing similar obstacles because of Taiwan’s ban on Chinese poultry imports over bird flu concerns.
“We want to make authentic Peking roast duck but Peking duck has fatty skin and tender meat while Taiwanese duck is leaner. There is still some gap” in taste, said Quanjude chef Bi Quansheng (畢全盛) at a recent promotion in Taipei.
The stakes are even higher now for the Chinese players looking to conquer Taiwan’s competitive culinary world, critic Wang said.
“Since none had been successful, for companies like Quanjude, which sees itself as China’s No. 1 restaurant brand, it must succeed at the first try. It is a face issue,” Wang said.
“The Taiwan market is very symbolic. It would be a sort of an ideological victory to be the first Chinese company to succeed here,” she said.
Some local restaurateurs, however, are skeptical about their Chinese peers’ plans for expansion.
“It is already very difficult to turn profits in Taiwan’s restaurant business and recent economic downturns make it even harder,” said Chuang Li-yu, who has run a Peking duck restaurant in Taipei for 30 years.
“I think those big-name Chinese restaurants can generate some buzz at first but after the novelty wears off they have to manage to build a loyal clientele,” she said.
Jennifer Shang (尚哈玲), chief of Beijing-based China Cuisine Association’s (中國烹飪協會) international division, is optimistic, saying Tanyutou’s closure in Taiwan was “an individual case” that should not discourage others.
“Members of our delegation are interested in the Taiwan market. They are looking forward to seeing it first hand and exchanging ideas with Taiwanese restaurateurs,” she told reporters.