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Lao Gan Ma: The Story of China’s Most Spicy Godmother Tao Huabi

China’s ‘Old Godmother’ Tao Huabi, creator of Lao Gan Ma, is China’s hottest businesswoman.

Manya Koetse

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She is China’s ‘Old Godmother’: Tao Huabi (陶华碧) is the creator of one of China’s most famous chili sauces and is the embodiment of the ‘Chinese dream.’ By following her own path and relying on her business instinct, Tao rose from poverty and became a multi-billionaire. China’s spiciest businesswomen has now quietly retired.

‘Old Godmother’ (Lao Gan Ma) is a household name in China. Anyone who frequents Chinese restaurants or supermarkets is familiar with the brand of chili sauces that is made in China since the 1990s – known for the little portrait of a Chinese woman on its label.

That woman is Tao Huabi (陶华碧), who did not only develop the famous chili sauce, but also became the founder and CEO of the privately owned ‘Lao Gan Ma Foodstuff Company’ (老干妈风味食品有限责任公司). The company was established in south-central China’s Guiyang, Guizhou Province, in 1997.

On February 14 2017, Tao Huabi hit the top trending lists on Chinese social media with the hashtag “The Spiciest [Feistiest] Woman of China” (#曾经中国最火辣的女人), when several Chinese media reported that Tao Huabi had already quietly retired from her company in 2014 and that she is no longer a stockholder of the Lao Gan Ma brand.

 

ROUGH START IN LIFE

“The noodle shop business soon flourished – but not because of her noodles.”

 

With her journey from extreme poverty to ultimate wealth (she is even included in the Forbes list of China’s richest), Tao Huabi’s story reads like a novel.

Tao was born in 1947 in a remote mountain village in Zun’yi, Guizhou province. Since her family was too poor to send her to school, Tao was not taught how to read and write. When Tao was 20 years old, she married a local geologist and had two sons.

When her husband fell ill, Tao Huabi unexpectedly became widowed within a few years after she got married. She was forced to work outside the village to provide for her family; Tao worked around the clock to make rice tofu at night, which she sold at schools during the day.

In 1989, Tao set up a small noodle shop in the Nanming District of Guiyang. Although she just served simple noodles, she mixed them with her own spicy hot sauce with soybeans (豆豉麻辣酱). Tao was beloved in the neighborhood, where she became a ‘godmother’ to poor students which she would always give discount and some extra food.

With many local students and patrons visiting her little diner, the noodle shop business soon flourished – but not because of her noodles.

Tao Huabi discovered the popularity of her condiment when customers came in to purchase the sauce without the noodles. One day, when her sauce had sold out, she found that customers would not even eat her noodles without her special sauce.

When Tao learned that other noodle shops in the neighborhood were all doing good business by using her home-made sauce in their noodles, she realized the potential of her product.

 

FROM NOODLE SHOP TO CHILI SAUCE FACTORY

“At the age of 49, Tao took the plunge and set up her own sauce factory called ‘Old Godmother.'”

 

By the early 1990s, more truck drivers passed by Tao’s shop due to the construction of a new highway in the area. Tao took this as a chance to promote her condiments outside the realm of her own neighborhood and started giving out her sauces for free for the truckers to take home.

This form of word-of-mouth marketing soon paid off when people from outside the city district came to visit Tao’s shop to buy her chili sauces and other condiments.

By 1994, she had stopped selling noodles and had turned her little restaurant into a sauce shop. Two years later, at the age of 49, Tao took the plunge to rent a house in Guiyang, recruited 40 workers, and set up her own sauce factory called ‘Old Godmother’: ‘Lao Gan Ma‘ (老干妈). In 1997, the company was officially listed and open for business.

Although the Lao Gan Ma brand became successful almost immediately, Tao Huabi still struggled for years as a handful of competitors launched fake Lao Gan Ma sauces with similar packaging, and nearly ruined her business.

In 2001, when Tao Huabi was 54, the high court in Beijing finally ruled that other similar products could not use the “Lao Gan Ma” name nor imitate her packages. She received 400,000 RMB in compensation (±60,000$). Twelve years later, her company had an annual sales volume of 540 million US$ (3.7 billion RMB).

 

“THE MIRACLE OF GUIZHOU”

“Tao was included in the Forbes list richest families in China with an estimated worth of $1.05 billion.”

 

By now, Tao’s ‘chili empire’ has gone international, as her condiments are sold from the USA to Africa. She is known as the “Miracle of Guizhou.” Despite the many offers she had throughout her career to set up her business elsewhere, she always stayed true to her home-province – much to the delight of local government officials who have continuously shown their support for Tao.

The businesswoman is a true blessing for the province; not just because her brand has become known as a unique ‘product of Guizhou’, but mainly because she offers employment to 4100 people, and directly and indirectly generates income for ten-thousands of farmers.

Lao Gan Ma is by far the largest chili brand of China, with over 20 differently-flavored condiments.

In 2015, Tao was included in the Forbes list of richest families in China with an estimated worth of $1.05 billion.

Besides that Tao, now 70 years old, allegedly loves driving cars (she owns two Rolls-Royces, a Mercedez-Benz and a BMW), she is also politically active and has become a committee member of the People’s Congress at the provincial level.

According to the latest Chinese media reports, Tao Huabi has quietly retired in 2014, which was unknown to the public. She and her youngest son Li Hui (李辉) are no longer on the list of shareholders. Her oldest son Li Guishan (李贵山), however, is still a company shareholder.

“Somehow this makes me a bit emotional,” some Weibo commenters said.

“I just hope the quality will remain as good as ever,” some netizens responded on Weibo. “As a kid I always thought there was drugs in this sauce because it was so addictive.”

Others praised her life story, saying: “Old Godmother is an example that you can still make it in life without any education.”

“We actually have a lot of women here in Guizhou who can make their own delicious chili sauce,” another netizen wrote: “But of course, Old Godmother’s hot sauce is delicious and has its own characteristics. And in the era of Old Godmother, there were very few people who would rely on chili sauce to make a living. She has persisted and kept her prices low.”

A bottle of Lao Gan Ma is generally sold at around 8-10 RMB (±1-1,5US$). Overseas, prices vary from 8$ to 15$.

“Every great business person has to retire one day,” one commenter writes: “That does not diminish her legendary successful career!”

Others are surprised to find such a life story behind the Lan Gao Ma product: “Who knew our Old Godmother was such a fascinating person?”

– By Manya Koetse
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Sources and Further Reading

Baidu Page Tao Huabi (in Chinese): http://baike.baidu.com/view/117848.htm#reference-[1]-117848-wrap.

Phoenix News (in Chinese) http://finance.ifeng.com/a/20151202/14103739_0.shtml

Sina News (in Chinese) https://zx.sina.cn/n/2017-02-14/zx-ifyamkzq1302308.d.html

Sina Video (in Chinese) http://video.sina.com.cn/p/news/o/doc/2017-02-13/112965694793.html?wm=3049_0022&from=qudao

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©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

China Food & Drinks

Coca Cola Introduces “Ocean Plastic Bottles” to Combat Marine Waste Problem

Coca Cola’s innovative ocean plastic bottles have become top trending on Weibo.

Manya Koetse

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As Coca Cola introduced the world’s first bottles made from recycled ocean plastic waste this week, the topic has risen to the top trending on China’s Sina Weibo.

As reported by Business Insider, Coca Cola has released 300 sample bottles showing the potential of its new technology that is able to transform lower-grade recycables into high-quality food packages.

The Coca Cola bottles were produced using 25% recycled marine waste, collected by volunteers and fishermen during 84 beach cleanups in Spain and Portugal, the report says, with the company’s long-term goal being to have all its plastic bottles be made from 50% recycled plastics by 2030.

Coca Cola will start to use more recycled plastic for its bottles from 2020 on.

With the topic now having reached 140 million views on Weibo, many people are discussing the issue. The majority of commenters applaud the environment-friendly initiative, but there are also some who say they fear the bottles would somehow contain “more pollutants” or start to “taste like the ocean.”

Others write they do not necessarily want to drink Coca Cola, but would like to obtain one of their ‘ocean plastic’ bottles as a collector’s item.

The Chinese news reports about the new Coca Cola initiative raise awareness on the problems of how plastic waste in oceans jeopardizes marine life.

“Environmental problems require immediate action,” one Weibo users writes: “A good company will take on the responsibility to do something.”

Some 200 billion plastic bottles are sold in China every year – many of them are already being recycled. Coca Cola, however, will reportedly be the world’s first company to use ocean plastic waste for its bottles.

Coca Cola is an important player in the Chinese beverage market; the company has introduced more than 60 products under 20 brands within mainland China.

Also read:

McDonald’s China Introduces Cola Chicken on Its Menu

Coca Cola in China: “Not a Single Bottle of Coke Should Be Sold to Chinese”

Ginger Coca-Cola Comes to China with Some Smart Yin Yang Marketing

 

By Manya Koetse

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©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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China Food & Drinks

This Is the BBQ Restaurant Jack Ma Visited in Zhengzhou

Jack Ma’s late-night snack means overnight success for this Zhengzhou skewer place.

Manya Koetse

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Whatever Jack Ma does or says makes headlines in China. The superstar Alibaba founder has especially been a topic of discussion over the past week since his meeting with Tesla’s Elon Musk at the World AI Conference in Shanghai, where the two billionaires had a discussion about the risks and rewards of AI development.

But on social media platform Weibo, Chinese netizens have not just been discussing what Jack Ma has been saying over the past few days – what he has been eating has also become a topic that has attracted thousands of views and comments this week.

A BBQ skewer restaurant in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, gained overnight fame after a visit from the business magnate and his group. The Alibaba delegation visited Zhengzhou for a meeting concerning a strategic partnership between Alibaba and the local government.

Jack Ma visited the barbecue skewer restaurant around one o’clock in the morning, and was photographed and filmed by many people standing around.

Ma visited Dehua Pedestrian Street and Zhengdong New Area before arriving at the Zheng Xiwang restaurant. Ma was with a small group of people and spent a total of 700 yuan (around 100 US dollars).

Grilled skewers are popular all across China, but especially in the Zhengzhou region, which is also nicknamed the “holy land of skewers.”

Image via Dianping.com.

The Zheng Xiwang restaurant visited by Ma was founded in 1991 – although it was just a street stall at the time – and has been thriving ever since.

Besides skewers, Jack Ma allegedly ordered stir-fried Hunan prawns and spicy clams.

As Ma’s visit to Zhengzhou and the restaurant has gone viral, some social media users write that they have also visited the restaurant immediately after, sharing photos and their receipts as proof.

Weibo user Jia Chengjun (@贾成军) from Henan shared photos of people lining up to get a table at the popular restaurant.

According to various reports on Weibo, the restaurant’s owner initially offered Jack Ma the dinner for free, but the billionaire refused and paid anyway. His payment method will not come as a surprise; he paid with Alibaba’s online payment platform Alipay.

“Why would you offer him a free meal anyway?” some netizens wondered: “He surely has more money than you!”

Curious to try the same food as Ma? Zheng Xi Wang is located at the intersection of Fuyuan Street and Yingxie Street in Zhengzhou (福元路与英协路交叉口向西160米路北(银基王朝南门)).

By Manya Koetse

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©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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