From coal town to culinary phenomenon – the ascent of Zibo

Internet-famous barbecue has made a sleepy little town a tourist phenomenon. The question is how long it will last.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By GAO Jia


When LI Xiang finally made it to Zibo after a tedious drive down an almost featureless highway, it was well past midnight. Restaurants on both sides of the road were still ablaze with lights and full of leftover customers. Like Li Xiang, the foodies have come to the nondescript little town in east China's province of Shandong for one thing and one thing only – Zibo barbecue, which has become one of the more unusual of China’s every-changing array of internet sensations in the past two months. 

Cook it yourself

Whatever was going on in Zibo before celebrity took its hold on the town is of little interest. Now, the meat feast never stops. Li is up at 7am to get to Badaju market, one of the many newly-anointed must-dos according to newly-written online guides. 

Stalls are opening up and lines of slavering customers are already forming. In less than an hour, the market is full of carnivores. “They won’t let you in unless someone leaves. The lines are really crazy,” Li Xiang said, from the inside.

Most visitors would not have been able to find Zibo on the map two months ago. Roughly halfway between the provincial capital Jinan and Weifang, a city famed for its annual kite festival, Zibo has no industry to speak of, its glorious days date back to more than 2,000 years ago when the city was the capital of the ancient state Qi. 

There is no doubt that the locals love their barbecue. The meat is served part-cooked, and customers finish it themselves at their tables on individual grills. It’s eaten with green onions and flatbread –and was previously very nice, but unremarkable, even to people in Shandong. 

There is little to differentiate the skewers served in Zibo from those served anywhere else in the province, or pretty much on any street in the north and east of China. 

In February, a food influencer posted a video about Zibo, “Barbecue with my Dad.” Then, in early March, a group of students took a high-speed train to the city to eat some barbecue and the video they made started a craze that has spread across the post-industrial landscape.

Eat for the weekend

Zibo invited students from Tsinghua and Peking universities to visit their city on a kind of all-you-can-eat challenge. Students only needed to pay for the train ticket and the local government would take care of everything else.

The video clocked more than 5 million views on Douyin. Two days later, in an entirely unrelated incident, the city government announced a barbecue festival during the upcoming May Day holiday.

A taxi driver recalled that the next weekend, his phone beeped like crazy with requests from the train station. Everyone he picked up that day was a college student from nearby cities taking the train to Zibo after class to spend the weekend eating barbecue. More students came the next week. 

“I saw a video about Zibo one day and immediately bought a ticket,” said a student from Shandong Normal University. “I went directly after my morning class. The train ride took only 45 minutes. I ate. And I went back the same day.”

Seize the opportunity

“School ends early on Friday. I arrive in Zibo at 6, spend four and a half hours there, and make it back to the dorm before lights out. You ask me how I like it. Well, the food is indeed very cheap and tasty,” another student said. 

For almost all these students, who spent much of the past three years taking online classes and coping with lockdowns, these commando-style trips are their first taste of real college life. 

“I read a lot about what college was like pre-pandemic. After I bought the ticket to Zibo, I was so happy. And a little anxious too, because I had never traveled during college,” said LIN Xiaojing, a junior at Shandong Women’s University. Since then, she has gone on a day trip to Tai Mountain with her classmates and has plans for farther destinations. 

“When we saw college students coming, we decided we must seize the opportunity,” Chen Qiang, a government official, told reporters recently. The city acted quickly. In the first week of March, Zibo added 21 shuttle bus lines and offered discounts for hostel stays. 

Later that month, a fast train connected Zibo to Jinan. SONG Aixiang, head of the Zibo tourist office, rode the train and handed out gifts to passengers. She was crisp, witty, and down-to-earth and the video caused another small sensation. 

Victim of success

More videos were posted, both by tourists and government accounts with stories of volunteers offering tourists umbrellas and power banks, locals helping tourists get back lost wallets, and tourists and locals becoming friends after a minor traffic accident, all hashtagged “Zibo hospitality.”

In April, when Zibo was already trending, another influencer visited. He often posts about how vendors overcharge tourists but Zibo struck him as honest and easygoing. The video got 2.2 million likes and was reposted by the People’s Daily and Zibo tourism truly exploded. 

Train tickets from Beijing to Zibo for May Day sold out as soon as sales opened. Hotels are booked out for weeks on end. Three college students told Jiemian News that when they visited Zibo in the last week of April, the only room they could find was 40 kilometers from the city center. 

Local taxi drivers have become clearinghouses of intelligence. “If it is a guy on his own I would just tell him to spend the night in a local bathhouse,” a taxi driver said. Couples are trickier. A passenger told him that she and her boyfriend had to spend a night at a 24-hour hotpot restaurant after the hotel canceled their reservation at the last minute. “At least they got a refund of three times the nightly rate!”

No peace in the valley

At Shepherd Village, one of the most popular restaurants in town thanks to a social media mention by a pop singer, hundreds of eaters wait in three zones – the hopefully-soon (the first hundred or so), the still-some-time-to-gos (another hundred or so), and the better-go-somewhere-elses. The staff keeps telling the ever-swelling crowd that other restaurants are just as good. 

Shepherd Village closed for three days before the holiday peak so that the staff could take a break. The shop owner’s wife was so exhausted that she checked herself into hospital. She has not slept for more than four hours a day since March. 

Like almost everywhere inland in Shandong Province, Zibo was once a mining town. Like many deindustrialized cities, its economy has evaporated as factories closed and people moved out. The barbecue boom has jolted the dying town back to life. 

Over 170 barbecue-related businesses have opened in the past two months. The number is higher if all food businesses are counted. Butchers are now making influencer-recommended pastries. Even barbershops have started selling kitchen appliances. But locals are already wondering what happens when tourists move on to the next big thing. 

Part-time Servers Needed

“I’d be happy if the craze lasts until October,” a restaurant owner said. For now, they have more urgent things to worry about. Hours are long – many restaurants are open from morning till midnight – and staff are burned out. 

“The last order comes in at 11 at night. We clean up until 2, or 3 in the morning. At 8, I’m back up again to prepare for lunch,” said SUN Wei, who owns the 40-table restaurant Old Sun Barbecue. He serves only 20 tables for lunch to make his mornings less hectic. Even so, there was so much work that he lost four kilograms in less than a month. 

“There are tourists lining up at the door at 7 in the morning,” said Sun Weiqiang, whose restaurant is right outside the Badaju Market. He hired four additional workers just to skewer the meat, each working from 5 am to 5 pm.

And, everywhere, workers are hard to find. “I used to be able to hire an experienced cook for 6,000 yuan a month. Now even 10,000 yuan is not enough. Servers who once made 3,000 yuan now ask for 4,500 yuan,” said Sun Weiqing. A “Part-time Servers Needed” notice is forever on the door. “It’s ok if more people show up than needed. I’d rather have more than fewer.” 

Culinary heritage

“We are being grilled,” another local restaurant owner said. Barbecue ingredients are expensive and in short supply. Bad reviews and complaints are punishing and out of the restaurants’ control. 

Once, a squabble broke out outside Shepherd Village because a tourist was unhappy about the long wait. Sun Wei received a reprimand from the government after a customer complained about being charged 9 yuan for nothing. It turned out to be the cover charge. 

An estimated 120,000 people descended on Zibo for the May Day holiday. Posts about being overwhelmed by the crowd and underwhelmed by the meat have become a genre of their own. But travelers are undeterred. Even natives who have left are intrigued and going back, scarcely recognizing their local culinary heritage.