The Ugly Chinese Duckling

Quanjude chef carving Beijing roast duck: courtesy of Caixin.com

If you think of China, in particular Beijing, what are some of the things that first come to mind? The Great Wall is probably up there, along with, maybe Tienanmen Square with the Forbidden City and Peking Duck. All iconic and on the must see, must do list of almost every tourists. Both international and local alike. When it comes to Peking Duck, one name stands out; Quanjude. In fact. for most people, Peking Duck is synonymous with Quanjude. But maybe not for much longer.

A little history of Quanjude

The first Quanjude restaurant was build in 1864 in Tienanmen, almost 160 years ago today, 2020. Large enough to accommodate over 1,000 patrons, it has hosted some of the most famous politicians and celebrities including former British Prime Minister Edward Heath.That is a fairly impressive history. Even more so when you consider than the brand is now international, has branches all over the world.

Of course, the dish predates this and then some. Depending on who you listen to, it came to Beijing during the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) when the Mongols ran China. Others point to the fact that a form of roast duck was consumed when China’s Capital and Court were located further south, Nanjing to be precise.(420-589) and was renamed when the capital moved north to Beijing. Jing translates to “Capital City” whilst Nan and Bei mean south and north respectively.

It is probably worth pointing out that Roast Duck is available nation wide, each province with its own variation. The Peking variety is the more oily type- according to local experts we spoke to. As always the question as to which is best depends on the home town of the person you speak to! However, it was generally acknowledged that Nanjing Duck is better than Beijing.

If you have never tried Peking Duck, a quick surf of the web should update you and as we noted above, today there is probably a Quanjude restaurant not too far from you. If you are dining in China, expect to pay around 200rmb – per person. Alcohol not included.

Is it worth the hype?

Well, that depends on who you talk to. Take a look at any of the travel websites such as Trip adviser and you get mixed results, probably leaning to the positive. The Bic dined in the original Qianmen restaurant in the winter of 2002 and was initially excited and keen to try the “famous exotic dish.” His impression was a few small, thin slices of very oil duck – they say a skilled chef can carve one duck into more than 100 pieces – served with about 8cm diameter, thin, bland, almost transparent crepes accompanied by a selection of small side dishes.

As a meal it was so so, but of course one goes for the “experience.” In his opinion, once is probably enough! The Qianmen restaurant is built in the classic style, decor with staff uniforms reminiscent of national Chinese culture of centuries past. From that viewpoint, food is probably over rated and over priced but the environment and atmosphere make up for it.

Is the duck for the chop?

But it seems that not even all that incredible history and fame can compete with time. Or the changing times in China. What was once the darling is now verging on the pariah as customers shun the brand in their droves. After last years profit of some 20 million RMB the Quanjude brand lost over 53 million rmb this year. The company point to the Corona Virus, which is likely partially true. After all, the hospitality industry has been one if the hardest hit. Many restaurants have shuttered. However, a quick surf shows that Quanjude have been losing customers, popularity and money since cira 2016. Various short time half hearted attempts have been made to turn the tide with little effect.

However, the company may be the architect of its own demise in some aspects. Firstly, in its efforts to cling to the traditional theme management has been too slow to accept the digital age and offer mobile orders and home delivery. Secondly for many years, a least 4, we have talked about the still white hot health and fitness craze in China. Exercise and healthy eating is now a priority for many Chinese,. Especially those in the salary and occupation bracket that Quanjude would attract. They would have been well advised to watch KFC who not only moved to position their menu more in line with local tastes but also reflect the changing diet habits of Chinese.

The domino effect

No, nothing to do with pizza. The impact of Quanjude slowly bleeding, trickles down through the industry, to the duck breeders, food and veterinary providers. However as mentioned, this has been happening for a few years and Beijing Duck is not the only variety. In fact, Quanjude maybe the largest and hitherto most popular brand, but not the only Beijing roast duck game in town. Presumably there will be some causalities but the industry will survive.

However this can be seen as a wake up call for other traditional or lackadaisical brands who are still living with centuries old management and thinking. It is also a fantastic lesson for foreign brands, either already in or contemplating China. Although the writing was on the wall for Quanjude for several years, things can change very fast in China. A brand must have its wits about it and keep its ear to the ground. And as we have stated on numerous occasions, watch what is happening in the luxury market. Don’t try to remote mange your China venture, either be here, have someone senior here or visit on a regular basis. Trends or changes there can quickly flow down through other sectors. And if course make friends with your friend China marketing company.

This article is based on our own research, analysis and interpretation. Please check out Caixin for an alternative viewpoint. Image of chef carving duck is also courtesy of Caixin.

Hello, I’m Everlyne Yu, founder and CEO of Uengager and WPBeijing Marketing Studio 2003.

I have a wealth of knowledge and experience in the China market and have been privileged to work with many international clients, such as VW and their release of their Bora and the extremely successful CC as well as a long term, ongoing relationship with Sodexo.

Selected Clients

I am happy to chat and discuss any questions, no matter how small or trivial you may think. Probably someone has already asked the same question- many times!

In China Marketing- there is no such thing as a silly question.

To see how your brand can flourish in China, please talk to Everlyne now, or understand more about me.

Everlyne Yu-
Everlyne Yu

Published by The Bic

Bicyu is a NZ registered, British owned MarTech business based in Beijing providing marketing, tech, education and information services to European, NZ, Australian, UK, African, and Asian firms doing business in China. We work with local ones too. We've been here doing this since 2003. We also incorporate Aim2D and Uengager in our small brand list.

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