China’s industry was long associated with imitation products. Today, the country is at the forefront of innovation in numerous sectors, including foodservice. At the European Foodservice Summit in Zurich, Frank Sieren, a China expert, TV journalist, and author, shared insights into China’s evolving role in the global economy.
From imitator to innovator
“For decades, a minority of the world dictated the rules for the majority. This is undergoing a transformation,” proclaimed Sieren. “The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are poised to assert their leadership. Their economic power is set to surpass that of the old world powers within the next two years.”
China, among these nations, plays a pivotal role in this shift. “In the West, the prevailing belief was: We innovate, China manufactures for us,” recalled Sieren. “Yet, that wasn’t China’s perspective. The country was keenly aware of its former status as a world power.” China aspired not to be just the world’s factory but a global innovator.
According to Sieren, the West failed to recognize this development. “The prevailing notion was that nothing more than imitation would come from China.” The astonishment grew when China unveiled high-quality electric cars at significantly lower prices with much shorter production times. In this sector, the world is now compelled to follow China’s lead due to its sheer size. Sieren emphasizes that China’s influence is not merely about volume. “And China is just warming up. Innovation hubs are yet to be fully established.”
Innovations in the foodservice industry
But how is China pioneering in the foodservice industry? “The transformative wave seen in other industries is undoubtedly happening in the foodservice sector,” noted Sieren. He highlighted three examples that are capturing global attention in the Chinese food industry.
“Firstly, there’s robotics,” said Sieren. People eagerly wait in line at China’s first unmanned robot restaurant, “not just because the robots are a children’s attraction, but because the food is deemed high-quality. This is not fast food; it’s traditional local cuisine.”
The second example is food delivery. Regular ordering is already ingrained in Chinese daily life – even more so than in Europe or the USA – along with delivery by e-scooter. “Recognizing that e-scooters can’t navigate the daily traffic jams in the vast cities, China’s food delivery providers are transitioning to drone delivery. The food is dropped off at distribution points, and customers retrieve their orders using a unique code.”
And the third, perhaps most impactful example: “China is set to lead the meat substitute products segment – and this is driven and supported by the government,” Sieren affirmed. Motivated by the understanding that “China needs more meat. However, if the Chinese consume as much meat per capita as Americans, the world will face challenges.” Consequently, the Beijing government encourages startups and venture capital firms to explore and invest in meat substitute products. “Once this movement gains momentum, it will undoubtedly emanate from the Far East.”
Sieren’s conclusion: “We – in the West – are now in a position where we must adapt.”