Sunday, 10 July 2016

Laowai 老外 Serves the Best Pan Fried Bao Shengjianbao in Wuhan, China 小路易生煎馆 JK1541

This is the inspiring story of He Aojie (Jacques Olivier Ramponi) from Switzerland - his amazing journey from Switzerland to Wuhan, China to study Traditional Chinese Medicine to now the owner of his famous pan fried bao 生煎包 shop 小路易生煎馆 in Wuhan, China.

Aojie came to Wuhan in 2003 to study to be a Traditional Chinese Medicine physician. After graduation in 2006, Aojie moved to Shanghai to continue his TCM studies. In Shanghai, Aojie met his wife Liu Jia and they marry in 2007.

Settled in Shanghai, Aojie felt that it is not possible for a foreigner 老外 to practice TCM in China. Aojie was expecting to practice TCM in Switzerland upon graduation. Now, Aojie had to look for a new career in China to raise his family which includes their little boy and girl.

Aojie was introduced to pan fried bao when he was courting his wife. It was love at first bite. Aojie had been enjoying pan fried bao ever since. As he want his new career to be something which he is passionate about, Aojie decided to give the idea of running a pan fried bun shop a try. 

At first, family and friends discouraged Aojie as being a pan fried bao vendor doesn't command much social respect in China. It would be a "loss of face", something important in Chinese culture.

Still, Aojie's mind is set.

To Aojie, he is still the same person no matter profession he is pursuing.

From 2008, Aojie started research and development on making pan fried bao. Aojie had to learn everything from scratch as no pan fried bun shop owner would teach others the secrets of the trade. Aojie sought out and tried every popular pan fried bao shop or stall in Shanghai. It took Aojie one and a half years, and over one hundred attempts before he found a recipe that he felt worked.

Aojie conducted a taste test at home with a group of friends. When no one could not tell which were Aojie's baos or baos from Shanghai's famous shops, Aojie knew that his baos were ready for business. It took Aojie 2 years to reach this point.

As there were already many long established pan fried bun brands in Shanghai, Aojie decided to start his newborn pan fried bao business in Wuhan. In Wuhan, Aojie's shop will be the city's first pan fried bun shop.

Aojie had to adjust his pan fried bao to the taste buds of Wuhan folks. Shanghainese like their flavours milder and sweeter, whereas Wuhanese prefer more robust flavours.

Aojie opened his 小路易生煎馆 for business in Sep 2009 at #24 Qianjin 5th Road (a quiet side street at the time).

To Aojie's surprise and delight, his pan fried baos were well received from the first day his shop opened. His baos were sold out from day one and they were all gone earlier and earlier every day. Wuhanese like the savoury sweet flavour and texture of Aojie's pan fried baos.

Gradually, thanks to Aojie's booming business, the unfancied side street where he started his shop transformed into Wuhan's popular food street with many stalls starting up here.

Why is 小路易生煎馆 so well liked?

Aojie shared that one of the secrets of his popular pan fried bao is in the gelatin jelly 肉皮冻 mixed into the minced pork filling. The gelatin gives the meat stuffing a nice bouncy bite. Aojie also found the golden ratio between the wheat dough, meat and condiments which he firmly adheres to with Swiss precision. The balance of flavours and textures of Aojie's pan fried buns are just right. Yet, the golden ratio is constantly fine tuned according to the seasons - making a good pan fried bao is an art and not easy at all!

Aojie is also very strict about quality control. Aojie said that as every dollar from the customer is the same, he has to make sure that every single bun he sells is also the same. Aojie does not hesitate to throw away a whole pan of baos when it does not meet standards, even if only slightly. Besides a matter of principle, it is also a matter of trust between Aojie's shop and it's customers.

Aojie's staff respects his Swiss style commitment to quality and service to customers.

Source: Screen grab from YouTube

From the amazing story of Aojie, I learned about daring to be the first - he is the first Laowai 老外 to open a pan fried bao shop, and the first such shop in Wuhan. The dramatic career change from TCM physician to pan fried bao hawker takes a great deal of courage too.

Steadfastness and self believe - Aojie knows who he is at his core, no matter how others may see him.

Systematic plans and disciplined execution - Aojie tasted all the best pan fried baos in Shanghai to create his own recipe. After over 100 experiments, he did a successful blind taste test before launching his shop.

Pragmatic and realistic - Aojie knows his newborn pan fried shop would stand no chance in Shanghai, the birthplace of 生煎包 - so, he opens his first shop in Wuhan instead. He also started in a quiet side street instead of a glitzy, high traffic but expensive area.

Standards in products - Aojie spares nothing to ensure consistently high quality, even if it means throwing away substandard products.

Responsibility to family, staff and customers - Aojie personally gives them his time. He shuttles 1,740 km round trip every week between Wuhan and Shanghai to spend time with family. He guides his staff firmly but fairly. Aojie reminds all his customers about the scalding broth in the bao "小心烫口".

Leadership - Aojie's staff initially found him strict and his standards stringent but he eventually earned the respect of all of them by his firm but kind leadership.

Adaptability - Aojie adjusts the flavours of his pan fried bao from his understanding of Wuhanese taste buds. He also fine tunes his recipes according to changes in humidity and temperatures due to changing seasons.

Commitment to ethical principles - Aojie never short changes his customers. He does his best to ensure that they get the same quality bao for the same dollar they spend.

Clear business goals - Aojie was approached many times for collaborations but declined until his start up has stabilised.

What lessons did you learn from watching Aojie's entrepreneurship story? Please share with us in the comments.

Besides the qualities important to build a successful business, I also gleaned a bit about what goes into a good pan fried bun 😆


👆Click to read about what are 生煎包.

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