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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 Digital

Exclusive QR Code-Based Service Under Fire: The 3 Major Downsides to Contactless Ordering

Self-service ordering is the norm in many restaurants across China, but its benefits do not always outweigh the downsides.

Manya Koetse

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QR code-based ordering is the new normal in Chinese restaurants, but contactless ordering also comes with major downsides. In a recent People’s Daily article, consumers’ rights expert Chen Yinjiang argues that contactless ordering can’t be the sole service option offered by businesses.

Along with China’s rapid digitalization, QR code-based ordering has become the norm for many restaurants across the country. Although many see QR code-based self-service – from waiting in line to ordering and paying – as a convenience that also saves the restaurant costs on staff, there are also downsides to these digital developments.

Contactless ordering is not just the new normal in many restaurants, it often also is the only way in which customers can order.

In a recent article published by Chinese state media outlet People’s Daily, the deputy secretary-general of China Consumer Protection Law Society, Chen Yinjiang (陈音江), argues that business owners in China should offer customers the choice, saying: “Consumers have the right to choose whether they want to order by scanning a code or order through a waiter. Businesses can’t just consider the costs without considering the customer experience – especially when they neglect the requirements of elderly consumers.”

Image via http://www.hnntv.cn/

On Chinese social media, the criticism of exclusive QR code-based service in restaurants has become a hot topic of discussion. The hashtag “People’s Daily Discusses QR Code-Based Ordering” (#人民日报谈扫码点餐#) received 280 million views on Weibo on Monday.

Both the People’s Daily article and the online discussions mention the following three major downsides to QR code-based ordering.

 
1. Missing the Communication with the Waiter

One downside to contactless ordering is that customers miss out on the experience of communicating their order directly with the restaurant staff.

One reason why people would prefer to place their order directly with the waiter is that it gives them an opportunity to inquire about the menu, get advice on the best choice to make, and to communicate any special dietary wishes and preferences.

But another reason is simply that talking to restaurant staff is part of the dining out experience, with self-service ordering being a rather bleak substitute for those people who would actually like to have some more human interaction when they go out for food.

“If a restaurant only lets people order through smartphone and don’t offer a menu, the entire sense of ritual [of eating out] is gone,” one person comments, with others agreeing: “Ordering food is part of the dining culture.”

 
2. Leaving the Non-Tech-Savvy Customers Behind

Contactless ordering is also a nuisance to the elderly and non-tech-savvy customers who struggle to scan a QR code and place an order. For them, the process of online ordering is not convenient or fast but actually makes their restaurant experience all the more difficult and complicated.

“We live in an aging society. We really need to have other ways of handling this for the future,” one popular comment on Weibo said.

Other commenters also indicate that even for people who are used to ordering online, the process can be a nuisance. When changing their mind about their order, or accidentally ordering a wrong item, the entire order is gone and the customer needs to start from scratch again. This makes the process far less convenient than ordering with a staff member.

 
3. Privacy and Spam Concerns

There are also those who find that QR-based ordering is an invasion of their privacy. Many restaurants require customers to register or to ‘follow’ them on WeChat or elsewhere before allowing contactless ordering.

This means that customers do not only give away some personal information stored in their app profile, it also means that it is easy for companies to keep on sending promotions and other information to their customers long after they have left their restaurants.

While this might be an efficient marketing strategy for businesses, many people see this as a major disadvantage to QR-based ordering, and this complaint is one of the most-discussed ones on Weibo.

“Contactless ordering is actually a good thing, it is the fact that you need to register or follow the company before you can place an order that’s the problem,” multiple commenters say.

“I just want to order food – why would you need my phone number for that? Why would I need to follow your account for that?”

Many commenters on Weibo indicate that if restaurants only offer QR code-based ordering, they would rather not eat there at all.

Despite the criticism on self-service ordering, it is also praised by many. The general consensus on Weibo seems to be that virtual ordering is great, but should not be the only way to order and that smartphones and tablets should never replace ‘old-fashioned’ menus and waiters.

By Manya Koetse

Featured image via http://dc.wio2o.com/new/diancan.php

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©2021 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

Viral Video Exposes Wuhan Canteen Kitchen Food Malpractices

Boots in the food bowl, meat from the floor: this Wuhan college canteen is making a food safety mess.

Manya Koetse

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A video that exposes the poor food hygiene inside the kitchen of a Wuhan college canteen has been making its rounds on Chinese social media these days.

The video shows how a kitchen staff member picks up meat from the floor to put back in the tray, and how another kitchen worker uses rain boots to ‘wash’ vegetables in a big bowl on the ground, while another person is smoking.

The video was reportedly shot by someone visiting the canteen of the Wuhan Donghu University (武汉东湖学院) and was posted on social media on November 7.

According to various news sources, including Toutiao News, the school has confirmed that the video was filmed in their canteen, stating that those responsible for the improper food handling practices have now been fired.

The Wuhan Donghu University also posted a statement on their Weibo account on November 8, saying it will strengthen the supervision of its canteen food handling practices.

“The students at this school will probably vomit once they see this footage,” some commenters on Weibo wrote.

Wuhan Donghu University is an undergraduate private higher education institution established in 2000. The school has approximately 16,000 full-time undergraduate students.

“I’m afraid that this is just the tip of the iceberg,” one popular comment said, receiving over 25,000 likes.

Students from other universities also expressed concerns over the food handling practices in their own canteens, while some said they felt nauseous for having had lunch at the Wuhan canteen in question.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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