Fast Food, Street Food: Western Fast Food's Influence on Fast Service Food in China
Hong, Guo Juin
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The phenomenal success of Western fast food brands in China has fascinated researchers and business people alike since its dawn in the late 1980’s. The two largest Western fast food brands in China, McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), have been heavily researched to understand origins of their success. However, a current gap in the research is the impact of these Western brand’s influences on Chinese quick service food culture. In this thesis, I will explore the conditions that allowed the brands to be so successful in China, the brands themselves and the perception that their Chinese clientele have of these brands, but then go on to use that information, in conjunction with existing research about native Chinese quick service dining venues, to propose how these brands may have influenced Chinese quick service dining culture. Before I can even begin to explore these brands’ presence in China, I must first establish their origins and brand identity in the United States. In the introduction of my thesis, I first contrast the developments of McDonald’s and KFC. McDonald’s was the first American fast-service restaurant and their menu centered on the hamburger, a dish that first gained national fame at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. McDonald’s pioneered the American model of quick-service by placing greater emphasis on take-away food, best eaten quickly, and ready to be eaten on the go, rather than fitting the existing dining model of a sit-down restaurant. While McDonald’s was more modern, KFC built its brand on home-style, Southern cooking, made available to weary drivers as a quick rest-stop meal. Fried chicken originated in Southern kitchens as a result of the Western African cooking traditions brought by African slaves in the antebellum period before the Civil War. While McDonald’s sold primarily the hamburger and KFC sold primarily fried chicken, both restaurants’ business models relied on quick, standard, reliable, and convenient service for success, and maintaining those standards consistently across all their restaurant branches. This stands in stark contrast to fast service dining in China. Although China has a long history of fast service food, the first street food market is estimated to have operated during the Song Dynasty in the early 13th century, these street food operations lacked the standardization and commercialization of Western fast food chains. However, while the definition of fast service that China associated with street food did not directly align with the Western fast food model, it may have primed a Chinese market to readily accept a new type of fast service cuisine. In addition to its existing fast-service food culture, a confluence of other major changes in China created the ideal milieu for these fast food companies to flourish. First, shortly following Mao’s death, his vice premier, Deng Xiaoping rose to power and enacted major economic reforms including opening China economically to the West. This meant that Western businesses were finally able to operate in China beginning in 1978, and by 1987 those businesses included KFC, which opened its first store in Tiananmen Square that year. The second effect of these economic policy changes was the rise of the Chinese middle class, which stemmed from the ability of young Chinese people to be entrepreneurial. This new middle class suddenly had an influx of money to spend and an uncertain place in society, and so used their new money to help establish their new, higher social status. Dining at Western fast food restaurants was one way that the new middle class could be “seen;” if their coworkers, friends, or family members saw them dining out at relatively expensive Western fast food venues, it made their wealth apparent. The Western fast food chains remained a universal status-symbol in China, however that status as a luxury was entirely contingent on their perception as a clean, high-quality, and service-oriented venue. Chinese customers had interest in the Western goods KFC and McDonald’s sold, but only because they represented Western culture, not necessarily because they enjoyed the taste of the food. To keep customers coming back, the restaurants adapted in ways reminiscent of their origins: McDonald’s created new foods by hybridizing Western and Eastern flavors, while KFC adopted some of China’s traditional street foods as sold them in their restaurants for a higher cost. The restaurants also adopted restaurant floor plans that better suited their Chinese customers’ dining preferences and service styles that met new needs such a social events or family-style meals. It was the restaurants’ decisions to adapt to the Chinese palette and dining needs that lead to their continued success. The influence that Chinese dining and food culture have had on the Western fast food chains entering China is well-documented, there is little formal research on the reciprocity of that exchange; have these Western fast food chains been able to influence Chinese food culture? In the second chapter, I will begin to examine this question by first trying to understand what the words “fast” and “service” mean in a traditionally Chinese context, and how those meanings may have shifted or fit a Western fast food model. Once the two words are defined and their relation to Western fast food are established, I will look at one case study of Lanzhou Lamian, a traditionally Chinese restaurant franchise. While there are other native Chinese fast food companies that have begun since the entrance of Western fast food companies, I chose to look at Lanzhou lamian because it had differed from Western fast food’s model in all aspects but one until 2010. Lanzhou lamian was a dish created in the 1800’s by a Hui Muslim chef that had become the identifying food of the city of Lanzhou and highly acclaimed across the country. In 2010, the city of Lanzhou created an official brand for “Lanzhou Beef Lamian” and licensed it to a company named Eastern Palace, which caused great uproar from the Hui community who continued to operate the stores that their ancestors first opened, but had their stores’ statuses suddenly delegitimized. While branding in food is not a foreign concept to Western businesses, restaurant brands had not really existed before the entrance of Western fast food brands. There has not been enough research in this area to prove that branding the dish and related store of “Lanzhou Lamian,” stems from a pressure to create an official brand caused by an earlier introduction of the concept branding restaurants that originated with the Western fast food brands, but the Western brands’ potential to have that kind of influence cannot be ignored either. This particular case helps create boundaries for how Western fast food made have inserted itself into the definition of quick service restaurants in China: it could have had as little influence as simply encouraging the creation of a brand, or gone so far as to reinvent service styles and architectural ideas. It exemplifies the impact that an outside influence can have on a tradition that is thousands-of-years old. Other influences may have similarly been introduced then integrated into Chinese food culture and created the complex existing Chinese food culture. By recognizing that the introduction of fast food to China is an opportunity to show how a definition, such as “quick service,” can expand, it provides an opportunity to better understand cultural development and acceptance of novel introductions. In the conclusion of my thesis, I will be looking forward to the next potential frontier for an expansion of our current understandings of food culture through the introduction of technology. In China, because of the continuing rise of the middle class and their increasing ability to spend money dining out, companies and restaurants are developing technologies to make it easier to serve an ever-growing customer-base. Those technologies include phone applications to order a seated meal at a restaurant even before arriving, online delivery services, and online customer review sites, all of which move most of a customer’s interaction with a restaurant, besides the actual dining, online.
DepartmentAsian and Middle Eastern Studies
CitationSteven, Quinn (2018). Fast Food, Street Food: Western Fast Food's Influence on Fast Service Food in China. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/16654.
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Rights for Collection: Undergraduate Honors Theses and Student papers