Adapt, or be delisted - China’s Time-Honored Brands feel the age

Being a "China Time-Honored Brand" is not an everlasting honor. It’s a question proving worthy of the honor every day.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By LI Ye


Lao Ban Zhai, a restaurant in Shanghai that opened in 1905, is set to lose the designation Time-Honored Brand from its signage. Operations are not what they were, and today’s dumplings, wholesome and hearty as they are, have not stood the test of time. 

According to the Ministry of Commerce, along with Lao Ban Zhai, 54 other brands from all over China, including some household names like Dao Xiang Cun and Guan Sheng Yuan, are set to lose their honors. Another 73 brands have been identified as poorly managed and given six months to clean up their acts.

This delisting has underlined that being a "China Time-Honored Brand" is not an everlasting honor. It’s a question of being worthy of the honor every day. The evaluation is directly tied to the brand's performance. Poorly managed brands are at risk of losing their title at any time.

Nothing to post about

Take Lao Ban Zhai, once rightly famed throughout the land for its anchovy dumplings and noodles. Today, in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai, anchovy dumplings have become a rather common dish. A search on Dianping (a popular Chinese review platform) for anchovy dumplings reveals that almost all Huaiyang cuisine restaurants in Shanghai offer this dish, and Lao Ban Zhai doesn't stand out in terms of taste. Relying solely on a historical legacy is not enough to gain a competitive edge.

Huaiyang cuisine has delivered many innovative brands, from Michelin-starred restaurants like Luyuan to chain restaurants like Shilu. But when it comes to Lao Ban Zhai, reviews indicate poor service, small portions, poor hygiene and mediocre food. It’s down to bad management, and, according to Shanghai Bureau of Commerce, extremely irregular practices.

What sets Time-Honored Brands apart is, unsurprisingly, their historical and cultural heritage. However, times change and products lose their appeal. It’s a whole new market out there. Brands can be struck off at any time for inadequate reporting, breaking the law or regulations, bad management, bad debts, and numerous other reasons. The title can be temporarily suspended or canceled, with public disclosure.

Behind the curve

Dalian's hundred-year-old seafood restaurant, Qun Ying Lou is also in decline. Specialties like chicken with sea cucumber, orange-flavored prawns, and red-banded seabream have been recognized as national dishes. The restaurant branched out into frozen food, marketing China’s first frozen dumplings.

In 1994, Qun Ying Lou was granted the Time-Honored title, but due to urban renewal in Dalian, the original Qun Ying Lou location was demolished and rebuilt, taking several years. From 2011, business deteriorated, and production halted in 2012.

By the time Qun Ying Lou stared anew, the Chinese frozen food market had taken a quantum leap, growing from 500 million in 2008 to 11.1 billion in 2021. Brands like Wanchai Ferry and Sanquan Dumplings seized the market and Qun Ying Lou failed to make any impression in the new era.

Into the Marvelverse

In the first three quarters of this year, the revenue of Time-Honored Brands exceeded the entire year of 2022, despite, or because of, some enterprises exiting the market. Those that still have a presence in the market, need to be innovative in terms of business models, products, channels and marketing.

Peking roast duck restaurant Quanjude, once faced a tired old business model, single-product constraints, and heavy reliance on tourism. Quanjude's solution was to develop ready meals based on its core product of freshly roasted Peking duck and it continues to develop popular items from its menu.

Zongzi (sticky rice dumplings) specialist Wufangzhai has expanded into cakes in cooperation with the likes of Disney and Marvel.

As the Chinese consumer market continually reinvents itself, both consumers and the products themselves change a long with it. Time-Honored brands are not in any danger of extinction, with new enterprises joining the ranks every day.