By staff reporter VERENA MENZEL
By staff reporter VERENA MENZEL
SANLITUN Taikuli is one of Beijing’s hippest shopping malls. Here you will find everything you could possibly need to kill time on an ordinary Saturday afternoon: trendy boutiques and well-stocked bookstores, hip cafés and fancy cupcake bakeries, cinemas, and karaoke bars – in brief: shopping and entertainment for body and soul.
But today, between the glossy facades, I discover a crowd of people in a line that looks more like a scene in front of a popular nightclub or the launch of the latest iPhone.
At the HEYTEA shop, baristas are busy mixing a wide array of beverages.
Here, only a few meters away from Beijing’s flagship Apple store, an estimated 50 people have neatly queued up. The operators of the mall seem to have been expecting the crowd. An employee of the in-house security was specially assigned to direct those waiting in a controlled manner.
My Chinese companion enlightens me: the youngsters are not waiting for the latest technical gadget, but for takeaway tea!
More than an hour’s wait for tea served in a plastic cup? My Chinese friend, seemingly unimpressed, shrugs her shoulders. After all, it is not just any tea shop, but the famous HEYTEA, (喜茶) an online celebrity among China’s beverage stands, she explains.
Wait a minute: I was well aware that the Internet produces its own stars and starlets, but to witness snack bars serving tea as “Internet famous” is something unheard of to me.
Minute 0 – Into the Queue
What is so special about a restaurant like HEYTEA, for which people here are willing to sacrifice a large part of their free Saturday afternoon? My curiosity is aroused, and I’m unable to resist the primal pull of human curiosity; I cave in and get in line for tea, for research purposes of course.
HEYTEA is just one of the restaurants currently leading to similar scenes in Chinese shopping centers around the country. In recent years, a number of such trendy shops have flourished in China. Their success is closely linked to the Internet and new media. The hype surrounding them impressively proves how social media and the World Wide Web are rapidly changing China’s gastronomy business as well as advertising models.
Minute 10– The First Meters Are Done
The queue only moves slowly forward, but my Chinese comrades-in-arms are patient and pass the time playing with their smartphones. I start to browse the web for more information about the other online stars in China’s gastronomic field, and I’m learning that there’s even a new term for the phenomenon: wanghongdian (网红店).
Spicy, stuffed pancakes of the brand Yangwang-Baojiaobu (仰望包角布) and Ada scallion pancakes(阿大葱油饼), both from Shanghai, Beijing’s Master Bao’s Pastry (鲍师傅糕点) or tea drinks from the Guangdong-based company HEYTEA – the list of creative Chinese snack suppliers, who are opening branches in more and more cities and enjoying huge popularity among customers, is getting quite long.
And there are also many trendy new restaurants in China’s big metropolises beyond such chains, where you sometimes have to wait in line for hours to get a table.
What all these shops have in common is that they owe their success not to classic advertising or customer loyalty built up over many years, but to creative experiments with food products which they skillfully market using new possibilities afforded by the Internet.
Minute 30– First Signs of Fatigue
After half an hour of standing in queue, I finally take the first curve along the outer facade of the Sanlitun HEYTEA store. The order counter is already in sight now and a friendly waitress hands me the list of beverages to allow me to make my choice in advance.
Their so-called “cheese tea” is praised as a bestseller. Tea and cheese – can this blend work? I have my doubts.
Besides, the first signs of fatigue seem to be become clearly visible, as I find myself repeatedly approached by several “tea scalpers.” For an extra RMB 30 per cup, as per their generous offer, I could do without further queuing and immediately hold one of the cult teas that the resourceful businessmen had bought in advance in my hands.
My throat is parched yet I refuse. After all, I am not only looking for chilled refreshment, but also for an authentic experience. A feeling of group solidarity sets in.
Minute 45 – First Indications of a Brewing Existential Crisis
Time stretches like chewing gum and I wonder what secret entrepreneurial ingredients are behind a genuine online restaurant hit. Is it just much ado about nothing or is the experience really worth the queuing? I keep on searching for clues online.
First of all, what is certain is that a basic requirement is a creative product with recognition and enough novelty value to make a restaurant or a snack provider an online star. With old-fashioned steamed rolls, Gongbao chicken, or sweet spit-roasted sausage, you won’t win the attention of young Chinese people in these days.
Master Bao’s Pastry bakery chain from Beijing, for example, has a sinful sponge cake infused calorie bomb to thank for its high profile among Chinese foodies. The experimental food creation is filled with plenty of cream and is covered with a lush layer of spicy dried beef meat wool. The makers call this creation “beef treasures” (牛肉小贝).
Alternatively, the addition of dried seaweed turns the snack into “nori treasures” (海苔小贝). These gourmet pieces are really unique and are bestsellers in many cities.
Meanwhile, Shanghai snack supplier Yangwang-Baojiaobu has creatively primped up a classic among China’s street snacks, Jianbing – thin crêpe-like pancakes that are usually prepared with eggs, sausage, crisp fritter, fresh coriander, and aromatic sauce.
Pictures of the alternative Jianbing creations from Yangwang-Baojiaobu with crab filling or crispy chicken schnitzel inside quickly went viral and made the online community’s mouths salivate.
And what does HEYTEA have to offer? Fortunately, the “cheese tea” of the Guangdong-based company, which was founded in 2012, is not a wild taste experiment with green tea and camembert, as it turns out. The cheese layer is in fact a mass of cream, milk, sugar, and a little bit of salt, all whipped until it is creamy. It is more reminiscent of the taste of cheesecake rather than Gauda or Emmentaler. The mass is given as topping on chilled tea of different varieties, which creates a completely new tea experience.
However, innovative delicacies alone are not enough to make it to the Olympus of online celebrities among China’s restaurants. As we well know, food now is not just caloric intake, but also a social event.
This is particularly true in times of new media and the mobile Internet, where the number of people who can participate in this experience has vastly increased. Today, there are not only family members and a few friends sitting at the table, but in many cases our whole online social network.
As a result, in the 21st century, food should not only taste good, but also be social-media-compatible.
No matter how juicy a fish fillet can be, if it doesn’t look tasty in the mobile phone screen or if you don’t have to wait in line for it for hours, you won’t collect any likes in the online world and it is therefore not good for nourishing your social media ego.
The new generation of Chinese caterers knows how to make the most out of these psychological connections. China’s young founders in the gastronomy scene no longer rely on classic advertising for their success, but on the creation of social media hype.
And this is best triggered when your own product is woven with a touch of something special, a food experience that is not available at every corner, but requires a certain amount of effort to get to.
Instead of relying on high prices as a filter, as in the past, the new chains rely on a mixture of supply shortages and word-of-mouth propaganda via social networks. And this mixture ultimately leads to what can currently be observed in Sanlitun: waiting in line.
Minute 55– Cheese Tea in Sight
My throat is dry, the legs are tired, but anticipation is rising. After about an hour of standing in line I actually walk my way up to the checkout and finally ordered a matcha cheese tea (芝士静冈抹茶).
With my collection coupon in hand, I wait for my number being called, so that my cheese tea premiere might begin. Meanwhile, I look over the barista’s shoulders behind the counter, while they are mixing the beverages.
At HEYTEA, every order is freshly prepared. And although several staff members are whirling behind the counter, this still takes a certain amount of time for each cup. This might limit the daily sales volume per store, but when it comes to advertising effect, the operators of the tea chain certainly benefit from this. Because every customer who queues up like me ultimately keeps the line outside the door alive.
In addition, HEYTEA has limited the number of cups served per customer to a maximum of two to three, depending on the store. If you want more, you have to queue up again. And there are also only two branches of the chain in the megacity Beijing, despite enormous demand.
Master Bao’s creamy “beef treasures” are also freshly prepared by the confectioners after ordering. In addition, the purchasable amount per customer has been limited to four pounds.
In this way, the cake chain also creates one of the basic ingredients for hype – long and clearly visible queues in highly frequented shopping arcades.
Minute 65– Finally at the Finish
After 65 long minutes I finally hold my first Chinese “cheese tea” in my hands. But before I start the first, desperately awaited sip, I can’t help but take a snapshot of this trendy layered drink in green and white in its stylishly designed, transparent plastic cup, in order to display my prize later in WeChat moments, something similar to Facebook’s timeline.
After all, 65 minutes of standing in line should not have been in vain. A little positive feedback on the online community is exactly the validation that my tired, consumption consumed soul needs.
And with this behavior I unconsciously fulfill everything the young tea chain ultimately speculates and counts on.
Not only have I patiently stood in line, I’ve also spent my hard earned money on their product, and given them some free yet valuable online advertising for their brand and product.
It is exactly this digital word-of-mouth propaganda that makes HEYTEA a cult destination for Chinese foodies.
The happy ending comes when I finally enjoy the first sips. Thanks to the different density of the ingredients, the layer of tea and cheese topping remain separated in the cup during drinking and only mix in the mouth. This creates many differently nuanced tastes depending on the composition of the respective sip.
How much of my resultant bliss is linked to the actual taste of the tea and not the excruciating wait and a parched throat is up for discussion. But one thing is certain: I am happy. And that feeling is real, no matter how it finally comes about.