Why 5-star hotels in China must innovate their F&B for new millennial tastes

In first-tier cities around China, a weekend brunch has long been a staple of high-end living. Few cities around the world do brunch quite like Shanghai. It’s not just the quantity and quality of options, but something to do with the ‘sin city’ nature of the place: indulgence, gorging, excess. A big night out boozing followed by lashings of eggs, Champers, dim sum, tea, bloody mary, burgers and the Joey Tribbiani favourite; ‘fried stuff with cheese’.

Lifestyle-wise, it’s true that fitness and exercise is growing in Shanghai, and yoga – or at least taking a photo in a yoga class – is popular come the weekend. Some hop on a plane and post pics of ‘here are my legs by a pool’ on WeChat and so forth. Yet for those remaining in the smog for the weekend, a full-on brunch with a bounty of benedict and bubbles is a staple of lux life in China’s high-achieving hub.

During the era 2005-2015, brunch buffets were under the sole purview of the city’s 5 star hotels. But since then, Shanghai’s dining scene has upgraded dramatically from the dark days of when we had but one Wagas, had to chase the one Blue Frog around as it closed and opened in different locations, and got excited at Element Fresh opening a second location.

While lots of things have changed since then, some of the big hotel names are guilty of still living in the past, seemingly unable or unwilling to adapt to the new desires of China’s affluent brunching crowd. Where are they going wrong? Where do we start…

The food: too ‘buffet’

The buffet concept itself is so 2005. Today’s new generations of diners don’t want to queue for trays of food that’s slowly cooling to room temperature – who does – but more specifically, they want something specially created and personally plated for themselves. They want something that pops on social media. They want something with the latest trendy ingredients from kombucha to gojuchang.

The alleged excitement of a ‘live cooking station’ isn’t enough; they don’t want to get up and wander round like a lost soul. They want the menu experience: being taken through a soulful series of tempting choices that are described in wording that’s as quirky and cool as they are, and visual design that gets them in the mood. What mood? Excited for what’s about to arrive, for what they are about to taste and are about to be able to share on WeChat and Instagram.

One venue that somehow manages to combine a huge choice with recognised and favourite signature dishes is Mr & Mrs Bund. Chef and Creator of Mr & Mrs Bund, Paul Pairet, told us that “when I opened Mr & Mrs Bund, the original idea was ‘why not doing a western restaurant in the same pattern as a Chinese restaurant’. That is to say opening up a la carte in a venue which is not much larger than any normal restaurant, but allows us to do 350 recipes on the first menu of Mr & Ms Bund.”

When diners visit Mr & Mrs Bund, there’s a very good chance they will opt for the classics such as teriyaki short rib, the shrimp in a jar and the lemon-lemon dessert. Yet they also have a wide range of further secondary choices that will keep them coming back, time and time again.

The environment: too big

Changing the menu and concept are massive mental adjustments for a hotel to achieve, but they are perhaps more easily doable than a change of environment – yet both are needed to update the venue to the new upgraded expectations of Chinese customers.

The definition of a buffet environment means large spaces where other diners wander around, getting in your way. It means never being able to find waitstaff. It means queueing (or fighting). Why would anyone enjoy – or choose – such aspects when the price is the same to get decent restaurant service?

The branding: too 1999

‘Hey kids, let’s go and indulge in exquisite delicacies freshly prepared by talented chefs with authentic expertise!’ – said no one ever. Food simply being ‘imported’ might have wowed the 2005 crowd, but Shanghai has since moved on. These days, the big hotel names still pay more attention to their standardised press release than they do social media. You know, social media, that thing which has been recognised as changing the very fabric of society and marketing? When have you heard anyone say ‘the press release – that’s the real game-changer of our times.’ Perhaps if you were alive in 1910, but otherwise pumping out 300 words about ‘fine imported cuisine’ in Shanghai Daily is a redundant task.

Instead, what are you doing visually on social media? How does the copywriting snap and catch the attention? If your excuse is that ‘we are a corporate business hotel’, then that might be good if your F&B revenue is at absolute maximum already. Is it?

One brand that nails it in this respect is W Hotel – their Social Retox Brunch purposefully uses the hashtag #thisisnotsundaybrunch. (image credit above, by Kollektiv) It started in 2018 with a choice labelled as Keep It Fun (food, no booze); Soak It In (food plus unlimited cocktails, wine and beer) and Live It Up (food plus unlimited Veuve Clicquot Champagne).

Their Resident DJ, Simon Adams, explained that “the W brunch quickly grew into an institution for the city’s party people that wanted something equally as fun on Sunday as they’d had on Saturday night. It’s an extension of the weekend and elevates Sunday into another chance to hang with a like-minded crowd in a coll venue.”

The time to renew and renovate is now

Without completely refreshing and upgrading, you’re chasing your tail. What results can be expected by trying to improve an ailing F&B business by doing exactly the same thing? It’s high time for more than high tea and it’s time to bring more than ‘a hotel buffet’ to the young brunch crowd that have countless other choices citywide – and don’t read press releases about exquisitely indulgent authentic signature cuisine.