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Food sellers bank on pre-cooked cuisine to win table turf war

By HE WEI in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2022-01-18 09:58

Freshippo, the fresh food chain under Alibaba Group, has introduced a horde of meals to celebrate the tradition at home while indulging in expertly-prepared gourmet dishes. [Photo/Chinanews.com]

Prepping a festive feast is hugely symbolic for Chinese to ring in the Lunar New Year.

With the Spring Festival just two weeks away, many young consumers are finding themselves caught between the necessity to make a hearty family banquet and their lack of cooking skills to do so.

The conundrum is propelling them to embrace the idea of purchasing precooked cuisine for the big festival, with food and catering merchants riding to their rescue.

Freshippo, the fresh food chain under Alibaba Group, has introduced a horde of meals to celebrate the tradition at home while indulging in expertly-prepared gourmet dishes.

The portfolio normally includes eight dishes and varies based on geographical preferences. What are common on the menu nationwide include stewed pork with soy sauce, and fish and meat palette-two signature dishes people savor during the most important holiday of the year.

The idea is inspired by a survey conducted by Freshippo late last year, which found that around half of Spring Festival dinners will be led by people aged between 30 and 35. Among them, 82 percent have "some sense of knowledge" about pre-prepared dishes and two-thirds expressed the willingness to give it a go.

"For the younger generation of consumers, putting up a family banquet seems a lot to navigate. We lend a helping hand by offering dishes that require a few minutes of microwave heating," said Zhang Qian, the merchandising director at Freshippo's 3R department, representing the company's motto of providing "Ready to cook, ready to heat, ready to eat" food to customers.

All dishes can be ordered from Freshippo's mobile app as well as its network of physical stores. One 4-to-6-person-portioned set of fotiaoqiang, or Buddha jumps over the wall-an assortment of nutritious delicacies which go on simmer long and slow-is priced at 299 yuan ($47.1). A medium-sized pot of abalone, fish glue and chicken sells for 169 yuan.

Meituan Grocery, the fresh grocery arm of local lifestyle platform Meituan, rolled out similar offerings. The company saw a fourfold jump in sales of pre-prepared dishes in 2021 compared with the previous year.

Merchants are betting big on the sector "on the back of people's pursuit for ease, food safety and cost-effectiveness among those born in the 1980s and 1990s", said a news release from Meituan. The company is busy upping the ante in developing semi-cooked dishes, low-calorie baked goods and braised snacks.

Consumers check out pears at the Freshippo Business Group-X Wholesale Store in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. [Photo/China Daily]

Data from research firm iiMedia showed the market size of China's pre-made cuisine last year reached 345.9 billion yuan. It is projected to rise at a compound annual growth rate of 20 percent to 515.6 billion yuan by 2030.

Apart from internet players, traditional restaurants are going into the pre-made festival feast arena as well, luring notably nuclear families with small-portion combos.

Shanghai Classical Restaurant and Song He Lou, both time-honored catering brands under the Shanghai Yuyuan Group, have launched three to six different semi-cooked banquet packages for the convenience of consumers, the company said.

The traditions include serving fish with some leftovers to represent a surplus in the new year, a whole chicken to represent wholeness and prosperity, and items like spring rolls that resemble gold bars to symbolize wealth.

These menus, which typically include eight to 17 dishes, carry a price tag between 688 yuan and 1,588 yuan. All dishes are available via the two restaurants' official online shops on Tmall, the business-to-customer site of Alibaba.

"The Spring Festival feast needs not only to taste good, but look good," said Zhang of Freshippo. "Our solution is poised to make people's homemade dishes a lot more 'photogenic' and thus a social media darling in the festival vibe."

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