Thursday, March 8, 2012

Donuts China Style

I have commented before on how Western companies, such as McDonald's, KFC, and Dairy Queen, have localized their products for China's market. Writing for Reuters Eveline Danubrata reports about a another food localization:
Pork donuts may not be palatable to Americans or Europeans, but the parent company of Dunkin' Donuts and the Baskin-Robbins ice cream chains is catering to local tastes in China, where it aims to open another 100 stores in the next two to three years...

"Donuts are a very flexible product. You can do savory donuts, you can do donuts with shredded pork -- that's in China," Chief Executive Officer Nigel Travis told Reuters in an interview.

"We also have a range of other savory products that we have been testing and introducing country by country."
Danubrata also notes that pork donuts probably would not work well is Muslim countries due to religious rules forbidding the eating of pork. In that light, I suspect Dunkin' Donuts is not planning to introduce them in Israel as well.

In The Washington Post Keith B. Richburg also commented on donut localizations in his article about the "doughnut wars" in Shanghai:
...Chinese customers seem more interested in the drinks than the sugary doughnuts. And following the lessons of other American retailers, the doughnut shops are finding that some of their best-sellers would be barely recognizable back home, like Dunkin’s dried pork and seaweed doughnut, or the doughnut made with dried Bonito fish...

Dunkin’, like some of the other chains, is discovering that coffee and other drink offerings, including jasmine green tea and lichi green tea, are more popular than doughnuts.

Krispy Kreme, meanwhile, is offering its quarters, with easy chairs and quiet surroundings, as a place to relax, surf the Web and enjoy a huge variety of cream-filled doughnuts at a more leisurely pace.

“People stay a long time,” Lim said. Here in Shanghai, he said, “we position ourselves differently than in the West.”
However, he also questions whether donuts are a good fit for China:
But what isn’t at all clear is whether Chinese consumers particularly like doughnuts.

The average Chinese breakfast might consist of congee, or rice porridge, maybe some soybean milk, sometimes fried noodle, or perhaps a dry roll or bun. The idea of something as sweet as a glazed or cream-filled doughnut in the morning would seem an anathema to many local palates.
Based on my own food explorations I am not as skeptical about the future of donuts in China. Here is one reason why:

Chinese doughnuts / xian jianbing / 咸煎饼 in Guangzhou, China
A pile of deliciousness

These tasty objects are called xián jiānbing (咸煎饼) and roughly equivalent to a large bagel in size. I am not aware of a English translation (and a literal character by character translation does not seem to do the trick) so I will call them Chinese donuts. They go especially well with a tasty bowl of congee (a Chinese rice porridge) but can be happily enjoyed on their own. The Chinese donuts cost less than US 50 cents each, are much denser than typical Western donuts, and are very filling. The ones above are from a simple but wonderful local restaurant -- Wuzhanji (伍湛记). I would list the restaurant as a must visit for foodies (they also have excellent steamed rice-flour rolls) and is perfect for a morning meal. Based on the crowds I regularly saw at Wuzhanji, they certainly have no problem selling plenty of Chinese donuts.

Of particular relevance is that these Chinese donuts are not very sweet and instead fit more in the "savory" category. Based on it and many other similar foods I have had in China, when I read about the localized products at Dunkin' Donuts I was not at all surprised (I have yet to try any of them though). I think the Chinese donuts provides a useful example of how understanding what is available in China can provide some hints to foreign companies about how they can best localize their offerings in China or how some offerings may not require any changes (see here for a similar discussion about mobile phones).

I should point out that you cannot find Wuzhanji and its special Chinese donuts in just any city in China. As far as I know it only exists around Guangzhou -- a city where the density of Western donut shops currently appears to be far less than Shanghai. But I suspect Wuzhanji and its Chinese donuts could fare well in Shanghai. If Wuzhanji opens branches in Shanghai there could be yet another twist in China's donut wars.


  1. I totally agree with you. It is not so much that the Chinese consumer won't LIKE donuts, it is just up to the restaurants to adapt to the local preferences and succeed in bringing convenient, comforting, local favorites in a new form! Great blog! W.C.C.