Chinese cuisine defies easy characterization. It encompasses a wide range of regional sub-cuisines, each defined by local tastes, techniques, and ingredients. Even staple dishes like fried tomatoes and eggs or twice-cooked pork can look and taste radically different depending on the chef’s background. More complex dishes rarely have a standard recipe and require a highly refined skillset and years of practice to master.

Perhaps that’s one reason why Chinese have been slow to embrace the consistency of chain restaurants. According to a 2021 industry report, chains accounted for just 15% of all food service businesses in China in 2020, compared to 61% in the United States and 53% in Japan.

That gap is closing quickly, however. In recent years, Chinese malls have been flooded by an eclectic range of mid- to high-end franchise dining options, led by brands like Haidilao, Home Original Chicken, and Xibei Youmiancun. The largest of these, hot pot giant Haidilao, has 935 outlets and has begun expanding overseas, though it still accounts for just 5% of China’s hot pot market.

Chains are not a new concept in China. For years, low-cost fast-food brands like Shaxian Delicacies, Lanzhou Beef Noodles, and Braised Chicken With Rice have battled for market share. But their management model, wherein stores are operated by independent franchisees with little oversight, results in a far lower degree of standardization and consistency than Western fast-food chains like McDonalds.

Their success is another sign that the traditional relationship between food and the land is breaking down.

What sets the new generation of Chinese chain restaurants apart from earlier Chinese chains is their use of “central kitchens.” These facilities are essentially factories where ingredients purchased by the chain’s headquarters are prepared, either partially or completely, according to a standardized procedure before being sent to restaurants.

Take the Chinese Sauerkraut Fish chain, for example. Most ingredients used in the chain’s South China region stores are processed at three central kitchens. These kitchens gut and cut the fish, package it with seasonings, and chop up vegetables. Once these pre-processed ingredients arrive at the chain’s outlets, all chefs have to do is boil the soup, blanch the fish meat, and drizzle oil on top — basic tasks that can be completed within 15 minutes of a customer placing their order.

Central kitchens may run counter to Chinese culinary tradition, which emphasizes local, seasonal ingredients, but they free chains from the hassle of local supply chains. According to a department head at Jiumaojiu Group, which operates restaurants specializing in Northwest Chinese cuisine, the company purchases ingredients in bulk quantities from suppliers throughout the country. The company directly oversees the production of some key ingredients, such as pork, to ensure quality and consistency. Chain restaurants are products of industrialized agriculture — and their success is another sign that the traditional relationship between food and the land is breaking down.

The central kitchen model also has little use for chefs. A good chef used to be the guarantor of a decent meal, with many patrons basing their decision to visit a certain restaurant purely on its chef’s reputation. By contrast, central kitchens operate on an assembly line model: All manner of specialized industrial machines, such as vegetable dicers and bone saws, are involved in the processing of ingredients. The culinary experience no longer lies in the hands of chefs, meaning they aren’t required to be masters of their craft; their prior experience is irrelevant; and they’re easy to replace.

As for menus, central kitchen-based chains often adopt a “less is more” approach. As anyone who has handled a Chinese menu can attest, traditional Chinese restaurants typically offer a wide range of dishes, and better establishments continually update their menus to create new options for regular patrons.

That is not the case at many newer chain restaurants. The shorter their menus are, the simpler quality control becomes. The goal is efficiency, achieved by minimizing the time it takes to produce each dish. Chinese Sauerkraut Fish takes this minimalist approach to the extreme, offering diners just one flavor, one type of fish, and one level of spice.

The financial advantages of this model are obvious. Central kitchens allow Chinese chain restaurants to save on raw materials, labor, and rent. (Because the vast majority of ingredients have already been prepared elsewhere, outlets don’t need large kitchen spaces.) Carefully designed assembly lines and standardized outputs make expansion a matter of copy-and-pasting.

For some chains, central kitchens have even become a key business in their own right. Haidilao subsidiary Shuhai Supply Chain Solutions uses the chain’s central kitchen model to supply ingredients to over 2,000 outlets of more than 300 restaurant brands. As of the end of 2019, Shuhai’s overall sales had surpassed 6 billion yuan ($942 million) — more than that of many of Haidilao’s leading competitors.

The pandemic has reinforced chains’ competitive edge. Rising labor costs and rents, combined with overworked urban consumers’ growing desire for solitary and fast dining experiences, have put chain restaurants with central kitchens at a significant advantage. At the same time, more and more households have begun to purchase pre-prepared meals — that is, ingredients that have already been thoroughly processed and which the buyer can simply throw into a pan and heat up after coming home from a hard day of work. Even our dinner tables are being integrated into the chain system.

Many Chinese chains invest tremendous resources in social media marketing, hoping to become the next must-visit destination for young influencers.

But does the rise of chain restaurants really signal the end of traditional Chinese cuisine? Perhaps I’m an optimist, but I’m not so sure. Chain restaurants still represent a niche market, heavily concentrated in large cities and catered to young people who value efficiency. Competition in these oversaturated markets is cutthroat: Many Chinese chains invest tremendous resources in social media marketing, hoping to become the next must-visit destination for young influencers. This tempers the chains’ appeal to other consumers, including families and high-end luxury diners.

It’s also worth noting that central kitchen-reliant chains are concentrated in a handful of cuisines, such as hot pot. The heady spice of the mala flavor profile is not particularly demanding in terms of ingredients or culinary techniques, and it helps mask some of the deficiencies of the central kitchen model. Demand for spicy food has grown in recent years, but there are still plenty of diners who have little tolerance for peppers, and who prefer independent restaurants with a more diverse flavor profile.

China is not immune from the “McDonaldization” of society. Chains promise investors a high degree of control and efficiency while producing steady, predictable results. They’ll probably continue to grow in the coming years. But it’s unlikely they’ll overturn traditional Chinese culinary culture. If anything, there’s an argument to be made that many of today’s independent restaurant operators will outlast the current crop of chains. After all, when a business relies on machine-like processes to expand, all it takes is a competitor with a slightly better machine to leave them in the dust.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: A view of the kitchen of a Chinese Sauerkraut Fish restaurant in Beijing, July 2021. VCG)