Is This The Next Burger to Conquer the China F&B Consumer Market?

Written by Joel Bacall, Senior Client Manager @ The Silk Initiative

Lettuce. Tomato. Onion. Ketchup. Mustard. Cheese. These are the things that go on top of burgers. But now, as the burger competition in China’s F&B market heats up, there is another, less obvious topping to slide between two soft buns: tofu.

That’s right, tofu, and not just any tofu, but a riff on Sichuan dish mapo tofu, or pock-marked grandmother’s tofu, a chili-infused classic from southwestern China. This isn’t a vegetarian special either — it’s the latest in burger localization from a venerated American chain as it enters China.

[ABOVE: White Castle in Shanghai]

When White Castle, an American F&B brand with nearly 100 years of history, entered China’s RMB 3.5 trillion fast-casual dining market, they knew they had to do it with some local flair. “We thought it would a no-brainer to start with a mapo tofu burger”, says Jason Poon, General Manager for White Castle’s joint venture in China. “And we were right.” Though open for only a few months, the chain is selling nearly 100 Spicy Tofu Sliders, as they are known on the menu, every day.

“We were playing with the idea of constructing a whole meal within a slider — it’s small, basically a snack,” Poon says. “And our US CEO said to me, as long as it fits on a classic slider, which is two inches by two inches, then we have free rein to do what we wanted.”

“Our challenge was that a ‘tofu burger’ sounds like it would be vegetarian”, says Poon. “But we were trying to surprise people, instead of substituting tofu for beef, we were using it instead of cheese.“

china f&b consumer market

[ABOVE: White Castle’s Spicy Tofu Slider]

“People have responded really well, says Poon, and a search on Dazhong Dianping, the Chinese Yelp! Proves his point. More than 1/3 of the 700+ reviews mention the Spicy Tofu Slider, most positively, with Chinese consumers calling it creative, “a perfect match” and a surprise.

“Foodwise, that’s been one of the major talking points in the media about us and it’s one of the top two or three sellers.”

But before they got to this point, says Poon, the fast-casual brand conducted thorough market research to identify high-level trends that would apply to them, including nostalgia and indulgence, which they then carried over into the R&D phase — according to Poon, the next round of localized products will hew more closely to these insights. A foie gras slider may or may not be in the works.

TSI McCains Dicos China product innovation workshop

[ABOVE: TSI new product innovation workshop with McCain Foods and Dicos in Shanghai]

This is in line with a recent project The Silk Initiative worked for for McCain Foods and Dicos, a well-known Taiwanese fried chicken chain. During a new product development workshop, we also found nostalgia to come up as a surprising opportunity area to connect with consumer. Through idea innovation techniques, we were able to get our clients to rally around the idea of nostalgia and produce a series of new side dishes in this direction. To see that White Castle identified this as a direction for product development as well is interesting, to say the least.

Back to White Castle. As far as how to handle the challenge of localizing enough but not too much (ie., KFC’s Beijing Chicken Twister, which might have strayed too far from the brand’s core menu and into over-localization), Poon says the brand went to great pains to make sure the core menu was identical to that in the US, and would retain its authenticity, a crucial factor for attracting customers. That said, they have adopted an iterative approach to the 20-30 localized sliders they have developed, and prefer to put them directly into market testing, ie., on a menu, than bother with focus groups. As Poon says, “I envision us localizing more and more in the coming months.”

KFC Beijing Chicken Wrap

[ABOVE: KFC’s Beijing duck-inspired Chicken Wrap]

At TSI we are constantly striving to be at the forefront of what excites Chinese consumers while ensuring our clients stay true to the brand they’ve spent decades building. New product development (and in this case menu design) is by no means an easy feat. While it can be fun to make a splash in the market with an innovative concept, marketing and management teams should stay true to the brand messages that were central to the brand wanting to exist in the China market in the first place. Chinese consumers never wavered from wanting that ‘all American fried chicken’ restaurant experience with KFC. Yet KFC chose over the past few years to load up their menu with anything from wood ear mushroom salad to the Beijing chicken wrap. A quick Google is all it takes to find consumer sentiment was not in their favor. Let’s hope White Castle doesn’t do the same and can learn from some of these restaurant case studies that have made such great reading over the past few years.


Need help striking the right balance in localizing your F&B product brand fit for the China market? Our work decodes the market landscape, drilling down on consumer desires and unmet needs and producing brand solutions or complete new product range offerings that connect with the consumer and fit with our clients’ brands. The Silk Initiative’s Product Blueprint helps do just this for the world’s biggest consumer market: China.