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Grills Uninterrupted

The sudden popularity of Zibo-style barbecue ignites hope of a transformation for this fading industrial city

By Wang Yu , Sun Xiaobo Updated Aug.1

Diners crowd the barbecue festival Zibo hastily held at the city’s biggest seafood market during the Labor Day holiday, April 29, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

After a surge in tourism during the first post-pandemic Labor Day holiday, where revenues for the first time exceeded pre-Covid 2019 levels, most destinations in China returned to normal. But not Zibo, a relatively obscure city in East China’s Shandong Province that overnight became one of the hottest tourist destinations for its street barbecue, which saw the city appealing for visitors not to come to give its over-stretched tourist services a break.  

At the end of May, travelers from across the country still swarmed there, making a beeline for the simple barbecue stalls that crowd the streets with plastic stools and low tables. People continued to post videos on social media of long lines, crowded diners and cheap but fine kebabs. Many commented “Are there fewer people now? I guess I can set off.” Others said “Life is not complete if you haven’t tried Zibo barbecue.”  

The influx skyrocketed during Labor Day. On April 30, the second day of the five-day holiday, Zibo high-speed train station served more than 100,000 passengers for the first time, with 54,581 arrivals and 46,697 departures. It peaked at 112,860 the next day.  

The phenomenon appears to have started in March, when college students from nearby Jinan, capital of Shandong, started posting about trips to Zibo to eat barbecue. Seizing the opportunity, the local government started promoting barbecue, publishing a map of restaurants and announcing to hold a barbecue festival during the Labor Day holiday. The city also adjusted bus routes to pass by barbecue restaurants and stalls. It had already became a popular tourist destination during Qingming, or Tomb Sweeping Festival in early April, and now its grills and kebabs found internet fame.  

Other cities reliant on heavy industry are eagerly eyeing Zibo’s sudden success to see if they can find new solutions for economic transformation. But there is concern over whether Zibo’s sudden prominence is a flash in the pan. 

Foodie Destination 
Zibo is an unlikely gourmet destination. A third-tier city with a population of over 4.7 million, Zibo has several national economic and technological development zones and high-tech industrial parks. Manufacturing dominates the city’s economy, particularly ceramics, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, metallurgy, construction materials, machinery and textiles. The city is developing new industries such as IT and biopharmaceuticals, and it also has beautiful natural scenery and rich tourism resources, which have perhaps been overlooked untill now.  

But Zibo moved quickly when it saw the influx of foodies. In 20 days, it transformed its biggest seafood market into a makeshift venue for a barbecue festival. The place was still packed with diners in mid-May, according to videos posted on social media.  

Its night market on Shuijingjie Street saw lines of over 300 meters, with wait times of up to three hours. People came from all over the country.  

Normally, these restaurants open around 4pm. But diners started lining up at 9am to get a seat in some famous restaurants, many rushing there straight from the station, dragging their suitcases.  

Shortages of ingredients, especially pork, and lack of kitchen staff meant waiting a long time to get food, even after customers were seated. They turned customers away, telling them to go to their rivals. Restaurants were plastered with “Help wanted” signs.  

When Zhang Min, owner of a barbecue restaurant, ran short of the wheat flour wraps used to wrap kebabs and green onion that marks the local barbecue style, she had to beg for supplies from her neighbors. They sold out in a minute, leaving diners disappointed. 
Short of staff too, Zhang transferred a few from her other restaurant, a Korean-style barbecue. Sometimes Zhang had to work the grill herself.  

On April 18, Muyangcun, one of the most popular barbecue restaurants, announced a three-day closure to let its burned-out staff rest. The restaurant used to open from 4pm to midnight. But in the busiest month, people lined up at 8am and would not leave. The restaurant had to open from 8am to 2am.  

On April 20, our reporter tried to book a hotel in Zibo and found there was no vacancy, not even at the expensive Hilton Hotel.  

Statistics from Meituan, a food delivery and shopping platform, show that bookings for hotel rooms during the Labor Day holiday surged 800 percent over 2019. Many taxi drivers told NewsChina that since April, their daily income had doubled.  

The local government realized their limits and in late April started attempting to cool the frenzy. They refused to take interviews and “the local media stopped promotion too. We’re trying to cool it down to avoid attracting more tourists. They don’t know hotels are sold out. Our biggest concern is to ensure honest service and food safety to make sure the tourists have a good experience here during the holiday,” said a publicity official from the local government who spoke on condition of anonymity on April 24.  

Two days later, local tourism authorities warned tourists that despite their best efforts, there was not enough accommodation, and advised them to delay coming.  

Chen Qiang, director of Zibo’s new barbecue association, said in mid-April that the daily turnover of some restaurants reached 150,000-160,000 yuan (US$21,136-22,540), more than the daily turnover of a five-star hotel. 

Code of Success
Zibo residents believe the trend started with the students from Shandong University. In May 2022, when Covid rules were strict, thousands of students were transferred to Zibo to quarantine. When they left, the local government treated them to Zibo kebabs.  

The students, touched by local people’s warmth, returned to Zibo in spring after pandemic controls were lifted. Their videos and posts about barbecue attracted the first wave of attention, before internet influencers’ videos made it more popular.  

More importantly, when people flooded into the small city, Zibo did not let them down.  

The kebabs are two or three times cheaper than in bigger cities with generous portions. Chen Yingjie, director of hit documentary series The Story of Chuanr, which looks at types of barbecue and grilled food in China, included Zibo barbecue in the first season. “Zibo barbecue, though a local delicacy, is only a bit above-average among afficionados. In the past, it was little known outside, far behind [famed] barbecue cities like Jinzhou in Liaoning Province,” he told NewsChina.  

What truly appeals apparently lies beyond kebabs. At a time when locals cheating tourists at hot travel destinations often become headlines, the hospitality and sincerity demonstrated by Zibo’s citizens and government might be the key.  

Zibo authorities did everything in their power to bring in diners, such as adding trains from Jinan and extra buses. Volunteers manned transit hubs. The city ensured prices were controlled to avoid gouging and put on extra security patrols.  

“Without such efforts to improve the environment and service quality, the popularity of Zibo barbecue might not have lasted,” said Pan Helin, co-director of the Digital Economy and Financial Innovation Research Center at Zhejiang University. He attributed the success to every Zibo citizen who did their part to maintain the city’s image.  

Some residents picked up travelers at the train station for free. To make room for tourists, locals avoid eating out during the holiday. Some offered free accommodation.  

Many interviewed citizens said they knew barbecue is a small business in Zibo, but they believe how they cope with it has a lot to do with the reputation of the city and, maybe, its future.  

“Zibo sets a good example in mobilizing its resources to provide quality services to activate the city’s economy,” Chen Yingjie said.  

“A streaky pork skewer costs only 1 yuan (US$0.14) while a mutton or beef one is 2 yuan (US$0.28). It’s cheap,” said a tourist surnamed Yuan from Beijing interviewed by China City News in Zibo on May 22. She explained that she was overwhelmed by the feeling of being respected. “I’m not here for cheap prices. I just want to feel I’m being treated honestly as a tourist.” 

Burned Out 
The booming barbecue business completely altered Zibo’s catering industry. In the seafood market where the barbecue festival was held, business for everything except pork was slack. A Le, a seafood wholesaler, said barbecue has squeezed out other types of restaurants, and his seafood sales have dwindled too.  

Before the Labor Day holiday, at least 15 new barbecue restaurants opened in Zibo daily. By mid-April, there were over 1,270 barbecue restaurants, a local barbecue restaurant association chief Chen Qiang revealed. In May, the number of companies related to barbecue surged to over 3,400, according to data on Qichacha, a company information provider. In the first quarter, 336 barbecue-related companies were built, a year-on-year rise of 111.32 percent, according to Qichacha.  

The surging demand caused a shortage of ingredients and grilling tools. Pork is not a problem, as Shandong is a major pig producer. But the locally produced wraps were in dire shortage. 
Yang Feng, a wrap producer in Zibo, told Shenzhen TV in late April that he expanded his workshop three times in a month, but still failed to meet demand. “The whole of Zibo is out of stock,” or “I couldn’t help even if you kneel down and beg,” Yang often told buyers. Some customers even drove hundreds of miles to wait outside his factory to fight for the oven-fresh wraps.  

Barbecue grills, mainly produced near Binzhou, Shandong Province, became scarce. Zhang Qiaochu, whose father built a kitchenware factory in 2014 in Huantai near Binzhou, said they were surprised when they sold out all 2,000 ovens in stock in early March. They supply barbecues for over 40 distributors, each of whom used to order only several hundred a year. They were not expecting the sudden demand.  

In March, orders for small ovens flooded in and supply fell short. They worked 16 hours a day, close to their physical limits, employed more skilled workers and expanded capacity, but still fell short. He started recommending factories in Hebei Province.  

Despite the demand, the price for a grill remains around 50 yuan (US$7), allowing manufacturers to earn a margin of about 8 yuan (US$1) due to government price regulation, Zhang said. 

Follow Zibo 
Zibo’s success attracted government officials from other cities in Liaoning, Henan and Hebei provinces. “The popularity of Zibo barbecue shows that a city’s economic development does not depend on temporary tourist projects or promotion but a good combination of history, culture, goodwill and government efforts,” visiting officials from Nanyang, Henan Province summarized at a seminar.  

Song Xiangqing, vice director of the school of government at Beijing Normal University, believes the Zibo phenomenon is typical in terms of city image promotion. “Many cities that have abandoned the old paths [of relying on resource-intensive industries] are anxious to find new ways out. Zibo set an example in making attempts based on its own characteristics,” said Song, who said Zibo should be an inspiration to other cities, particularly resource-based ones.  

“The barbecue boom allows the world to see another side of Zibo – an improved living and business environment. Before, people would first think of chemicals, ceramics and [industrial] pollution,” commented a local economist who requested anonymity, adding that despite the sudden fame, Zibo still faces challenges in optimizing its economic structure.  

The economist said Zibo’s economic structure is typical of Shandong, where traditional industries, focusing on chemicals and textiles, accounts for 70 percent of the industrial economy. 

Zibo’s industrial history dates to the end of 19th century when mining, ceramics, glass and silk industries emerged. In the 1950s, Zibo attracted lots of investment and by the end of the 1980s, it had developed a comprehensive industrial base, boasting the biggest manufacturers for household ceramics and colored glaze. But the glory did not last. Since the end of the 1990s, when reforms and structural adjustments caused factories to close, the city declined.  

The local economist noted that in the past 20 years Zibo has been trying to update its industries toward fields like biological medicine, information technology, high-end equipment and functional materials, with little effect.  

The city already tried to leverage social media to improve its profile, hosting a music festival in 2020 and promoting its barbecue for the first time. But there was no deep exploration of local tourism potential. Now the city is considering how to associate barbecue with the culture of Qi, an ancient state that lasted from the mid-11th century-221 BCE, with Zibo as its capital. 
Ren Yunpeng, director of Shandong University of Technology’s research center for ceramics and glazes, noted that tourist exploitation of Zibo’s ceramics history is in the early stages. “Compared to Jingdezhen [China’s porcelain center] in Jiangxi Province that has succeeded in using ceramic art to attract tourism, Zibo requires more time and talent to tap its resources.” 
Other interviewed experts said that Zibo’s exploration of Qi culture is mainly on the academic level, suggesting more professionals are needed to integrate it closer with the culture and tourist industry.  

“After the holiday, we’ll analyze how the popularity of barbecue has influenced the city. Then more energy will focus on how to continue the heat and how to leverage the popularity to motivate the city economy and the adjustment of industries,” a person close to the city government who requested anonymity told NewsChina.  

Some worry that the allure is already fading, a common fate for hot social-media destinations. In June, wait times to get into the most popular restaurants are down to only 30 minutes.  

Chen Yingjie is concerned about what to expect from the city next. He said that it is natural for the frenzy to cool down, but he hopes it will be gradual so as not to shock local barbecue businesses.  

In any event, the city is revived. “Barbecue is just a small business. But taking the chance, Zibo manages to boost its image. It’s better than sitting by and watching the city stagnate in recession,” Chen said.