Woman Restaurant Entrepreneur Embraces Brand-Driven Growth

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


The journey of Zhang Lan is the tale of an entrepreneur who exemplifies the story of globalization. She has gone from working many part-time jobs while studying overseas, to becoming one of China’s most successful food entrepreneurs.

Starting with a very small and humble restaurant specializing in spicy food from China’s Sichuan province, Zhang has cannily used branding innovation to grow her business and build her reputation in the food trade. Today the company she started, South Beauty Group (, has 71 restaurants, most in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

A series of bold moves focused on raising the profile of her restaurants and the South Beauty Group has paid off: the group was singled out by the China Hotel Association as one of the top 10 Chinese restaurant brands. By riding the country’s breakneck growth and urbanization, her restaurant group has enjoyed double-digit growth in recent years in revenue and profits.

Zhang’s mission is to revitalize the Chinese restaurant scene by introducing a more upscale and consistent dining experience.

China’s restaurant industry is booming and represents a significant opportunity: it is said it will have revenue of 3.7 trillion yuan (US $590 billion) by 2015 (China Daily).

“Most people in China don’t know how to present food. I am happy that I have given some importance to the appearance of food,” Zhang told the China Daily newspaper.

“I strike a balance between popular and high-end brands in my daily life. This also works for South Beauty Group, which aims to attract customers to a modern place to enjoy high-grade and popular Chinese cuisine.”

Her business mission is to take the group outside of China and become a global brand.

“Buoyed by the booming domestic high-end catering market, South Beauty Group is looking to be a major luxury brand in the global catering industry. It is not an easy task considering that there are different cultures and eating habits. But my past experience has taught me that opportunities often come along with challenges,” she told China Daily.

Zhang’s business story started in a journey to Canada to pursue further education. To make ends meet, at one time she took on six part-time jobs, including washing dishes and food preparation.

Anybody who has gone to another country to work and better their life knows how hard this can be: “During that period, I was so tired by the end of the day that I had to lift my legs onto the bed with my hands,” Zhang said.

But working hard in restaurants and beauty shops earned her US $20,000 in savings within two years.

She returned to Beijing in the early 1990s, a time when the country was undergoing significant market reforms. She opened a small restaurant in Beijing in 1991 serving Sichuan cuisine. Dining out was still a new experience in a country that had spent decades under austere communism. She made her restaurant different by emphasizing cleanliness and unique flavours for the food. She even used the design of the restaurant to set it apart: she gathered bamboo from Sichuan and used it to transform the restaurant into a little bamboo house.

This attention to detail paid off. By 2000, Zhang had been successful enough to give her the confidence to open her first South Beauty Restaurant in Beijing’s China World Trade Center, a high-end office building in the Central Business District. It proved to be a great way to boost her business’s profile.

“It was a bold decision, as rents were high, but I knew the returns would also be high,” she said.

By 2006, she was successful enough to make another brave move: open a luxury restaurant called the Lan Club, in Beijing. Having learned about the importance of distinguishing herself in the ever-growing restaurant marketplace in China, she invited world-famous designer Philippe Starck ( to design the restaurant.

For Zhang, there was a bigger strategy at work: “I was not disheartened when some people said that I threw money away like dirt and 12 million yuan (US $1.92 million) was too much for a design draft. But I got great publicity and brand recognition with this design, far more than what is received by most companies which spend millions of yuan on television advertisements. Not everyone in China can boast of a Starck design in their restaurant.”

In 2007, the company also started cooking meals for airlines flying between China and France, the Netherlands and South Korea. In 2008, it won the bid to be food and beverage provider for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and was named official caterer to the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.

“These international events have given us great confidence in planning overseas expansion,” Zhang said.

The hallmarks of the dining experience at a South Beauty Restaurant include dramatic food presentation, upscale décor, a pleasant dining atmosphere and critically, waiting staff who are informed about the dishes they are serving.

Dramatic food preparation includes cooking food at the table for the diners and serving stir-fried shrimp on a plate with a goldfish bowl filled with live fish.

“I want to change the cheap price and bad atmosphere tag that most Westerners have about Chinese food,” Zhang told China Daily.

She has attracted investors to take a stake in the business and become the second richest female entrepreneur in China, according to the 2011 China Restaurant Rich List.

While the international economic crisis is still damaging growth in the United States and Europe, Zhang still plans to go global. She is looking to initially expand into Asia before moving into Europe and North America.

“Our mission is to promote authentic Chinese cuisine across the world. With (the) Chinese economy growing steadily and its cultural influence gaining, it will not be long before we see some big global Chinese catering companies, much like McDonald’s,” Zhang concluded. And it looks like South Beauty Group wants to lead the way.

Published: November 2012


1) Restaurant Branding: A website dedicated to discussing restaurant branding and how to do it. Website:

2) How to Start a Restaurant: Tips from the website. Website:

3) Top tips on opening a restaurant from successful celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. Website:

4) Tips on how to handle the start-up costs of staring a restaurant. Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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Better by Design in China

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


In recent decades, China has been known more for its inexpensive manufactured goods than as a producer of high quality products. But this is changing as the country seeks to move up the economic chain.

China’s long-established design traditions were largely overlooked as the country made its breakneck push to become the world’s manufacturing powerhouse. But now Chinese manufacturers want to be known for high-quality designs and products rather than just for cheap-and-cheerful merchandise.

China is a critical lesson for the rest of the global South, and offers much inspiration to any country trying to develop, modernize and eradicate poverty.

The country is the main reason for the dramatic reductions in global extreme poverty rates, and it can be proud of using its average yearly economic growth rate of 10 per cent to lift 440 million Chinese out of poverty – the biggest reduction of poverty in history (The Economist). The strategy of exporting manufactured goods into Western markets at competitive prices has dominated the past 20 years.

But China faces a dilemma as other nations in the global South are moving into this niche. It needs to quickly become a high-value nation, with unique products and designs generated in the country.

Luckily, a renaissance in Chinese design in the last five years has been gradually grabbing the attention of the world’s creative community.

Innovative Chinese designers are creating home furnishings and interiors that are being snapped up by European companies.

The Italian kitchen utensil design company Alessi turned to eight Chinese architects – including Ma Yansong and Yung Ho Chang – to design a range of trays called (Un) Forbidden City. The architects’ designs were manufactured in Italy – a reversal of the pattern that has dominated for the past 20 years.

The architects drew on Chinese traditions and 21st century technologies to design the trays. One was made using a 3D scanner which captured images used to make a mould.

The drive to change and transform China’s global economic role was promoted in 2011’s Beijing International Design Week (, with its theme of transforming “Made in China to Designed in China.”

“When you have so much of a manufacturing base in one place, it’s natural that people start thinking about how to climb the value chain,” Philip Tinari, director of Beijing’s Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) ( – a champion of new artists and designers – told

“Chinese design has become something to rally around and, unlike art, enjoys great official support because it’s a way of improving China’s long-term economic position, as opposed to expressing thoughts about what’s been going on.”

Other Chinese designers grabbing attention include Chen Xuan, who makes tables; chair-maker Gui Yang; Li Bowen, a maker of wicker chairs; and Ge Wei, a maker of jewellery boxes.

Designer Huo Yijin makes contemporary tea trays, using heat-reactive lacquer coating to create dazzling effects.

“Users can see the wonderful effect of water and temperature reacting on the tea trays when they drink Kungfu tea in the traditional way,” Huo explained.

Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province – a city that has been making ceramics since the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) – is now attracting craftspeople from around the world looking to tap into its expertise and skill. One attraction is Mr Yu’s Big Ware Factory. Its unparalleled ability to create giant-size pottery is a design niche with much potential.

Many foreign creatives are being drawn to China for its can-do attitude and the ability to break with conventions stifling creativity in the West. The next five years could see the world’s design centre of gravity shift eastwards again.


1) Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA): The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) is a comprehensive, not-for-profit art center serving a global Beijing public. Website:

2) ChinaShijitanContemporaryArtCenter: A mixed-use art venue with experimental theatre, exhibition space, art gallery and production spaces. Website:

3) Pearl Lam Galleries: Pearl Lam Galleries lead a stable of International and Chinese artists who are multidisciplinary, refuting the hierarchy of art forms. The galleries do not follow the model of Western galleries; rather, they have evolved from the philosophy of Chinese Literati, which does not segregate between the different art disciplines. Website:

4) School of Design of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA): The Central Academy of Fine Arts, located in Beijing, the capital of China, is an academy where culture, history and art are flourishing, which enjoys the best art resources of the world. Website:

5) Beijing’s legendary 798 art district: “798” is located in the Dashanzi area, to the northeast of central Beijing. It is the site of state-owned factories including Factory 798, which originally produced electronics. Beginning in 2002, artists and cultural organizations began to divide, rent out, and re-make the factory spaces, gradually developing them into galleries, art centers, artists’ studios, design companies, restaurants, and bars. Website:

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Putting Quality and Design at the Centre of Chinese Fashion

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Awareness of the sourcing of materials for fashion has been on the rise in the past decade. Concerns about how the global fashion industry functions and its impact on the environment have given rise to savvy retailers who take care over the sourcing of their materials and the working conditions of their employees. Consumers have shown a willingness to pay a little more to know that a garment is sustainably produced and has the lowest possible impact on the environment.

The global textile industry is the second biggest consumer of water in the world. The dyeing processes used by these manufacturers do extensive damage to the water table that is used for drinking water.

In China, there have been violent demonstrations over working conditions and increasing concern over the health consequences of many modern manufacturing methods. In order to get change, new business models need to emerge, and consumers and customers need to be educated and to demand better-quality, low- or non-polluting products.

One business has accomplished something remarkable: it has succeeded in producing high-quality, ethically sourced products while also employing vulnerable people who have significant care duties and need a flexible and understanding employer.

NuoMi ( has three stores and a store/design studio in Shanghai, China. NuoMi means “sticky rice” in Mandarin ( It was founded by Filipino fashion designer Bonita Lim, a mother of four, who uses her business to help single mothers and the less fortunate.

NuoMi is also pioneering sustainable and green goods for the Chinese market. This is unusual in a country more known for its sweatshop, low-wage manufacturing industries that have propelled the country into an economic powerhouse.

NuoMi sells women’s clothing made from sustainable sources while creating jobs for people from disadvantaged communities. There are organic cotton, bamboo, silk and wool garments, and no artificial dyes or synthetic materials are used.

The design team works on colourful knitwear, dresses and baby clothes. They also offer a custom order service.

“When I was 13 or 14 years old, I dreamed of building a special company that could help people who have trouble finding a job,” Lim told the Global Times.

“I called the name of my brand NuoMi, which is (the) Chinese name for sticky rice … Our company works like sticky rice; we support and love each other.”

Born in the Philippines and educated in Canada, Lim had become frustrated while working with the Filipino government and wanted to help the poor. She started NuoMi in 2006 in Shanghai, a city booming as China’s economy continues to grow. It is also a city with a population with long-standing sophisticated consumer tastes. Shanghai had been home to various foreign concessions before the Communists took power and its population was exposed to foreign languages, cultures and tastes.

Lim became a single mother after she divorced, and this experience made her sympathetic to how hard life is for single mothers. Drawing on her passion for fashion, she hired a designer to work with her on designing a line of clothing.

“I was surprised that many of my friends really liked my designs, so they asked me to design clothes for them and introduced some clients to me,” Lim told Global Times. “I tried to design and sell clothes abroad. I got a lot of good feedback, but it exhausted me so I decided to work in Shanghai.”

Despite starting out as a hobby, the business had built a network of 20 clients. It had become impossible to just do it part-time so she formalised the business as NuoMi.  She began hiring single mothers in prison in the Philippines and designed clothing that could be easily made by them.

“Those single mothers in prison were very anxious because they had no way to help their children. Most of them committed crimes because they needed money for their kids,” Lim said.

By 2008 she had built a professional design team and now had 60 clients. With the brand NuoMi growing, she opened its first store. This has grown to four stores in Shanghai. Most of the company’s workforce is now in Shanghai but they are still people living in a vulnerable situation.

Nuomi’s newly opened store in 2008 carried a spring and summer collection of long dresses made from bamboo, cotton and soya. These fabrics were chosen for their breathability in the hot, steamy Shanghai weather.

One of the employees is 52-year-old Zhu Linfang, who takes care of a stroke-damaged father and a mother with liver cancer. “I was introduced through a friend. They paid me more than other companies. At my age almost no company wants to hire me, but working for NuoMi, I earn between 2,000 yuan (US $300) and 3,000 yuan per month,” she said.

Other employees look after ill children and have care duties that occupy much of their time. They do sewing and make toys for NuoMi.

Lim takes the time to train the employees to make sure they can do the work to a high standard.

“I tried to design products that were both suitable for them to make and could be sold in the market,” she said.

NuoMi also sells environmentally friendly glycerine soaps in flavours from mango to chocolate, jewellery made from recycled industrial materials and bathwear, pillows, and purses. The stores even carry matching mother-daughter and father-son clothing.

Wisely, service is offered in Chinese and English to customers – Shanghai is a popular destination for tourists. NuoMi is clearly a trail-blazer and a business to watch.


1) Ecodesignfair: Eco Design Fair is a bi-annual grass-roots community event whose purpose is to showcase eco-conscious designers and products to general consumers. Website:

2) Nest: Another eco-conscious design company in Shanghai. Its motto is “design with a conscience”. Website:

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Rammed-Earth Houses: China Shows how to Improve and Respect Traditional Homes

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions

(Havana, Cuba), November 2008


The pace of change across the South has been blistering. Over the past decade, the overall population has moved from being primarily rural to majority urban. In the process, rural communities have suffered, as they have seen their young and ambitious leave in droves seeking a better life in cities.

More than 200 million Chinese farmers have moved to cities in recent years. It’s easy to see why. Chinese farms are tiny, with the average rural household farming just 0.6 hectares. And incomes are low compared to the cost of living: average annual income was just US$606 in 2007, a third of city salaries.

But it is possible to improve the quality of life in rural areas and in turn boost economic fortunes.

In China, projects that upgrade homes to modern standards while respecting traditional designs and architecture are breathing new life into rural communities. A return to the age-old technique of using earth as the principal building material is saving energy and keeping house costs low.

The tradition of packing earth to build a wall dates back to some of the earliest stretches of the Great Wall of China in 220 BC.

Currently it is estimated that half the world’s population-approximately 3 billion people on six continents – lives or works in buildings constructed of earth.

This traditional building technique is being used in the reconstruction effort to build new homes after the May 12, 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. The earthquake left millions of people homeless in the country’s worst natural disaster in 30 years, and has made low-cost but efficient house building critical.

In western China, villages have been entirely rebuilt from scratch. The application of research and science to the traditional designs – roofs in the pagoda style, with buildings arranged around courtyards – enabled the development of homes that are energy efficient to run, and are more hygienic and earthquake safe. In Yongren County of Yunnan Province, over 7,000 mountain dwellers were moved to better farming land and over 2,000 homes were built in the new village of BaLaWu. Over 30 of the homes were built using rammed earth by the Xi-an team. 

“The original homes had very low living quality,” said team member Hu Rong Rong of the Green Building Research Centre of Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology (, which oversees building of the new homes. “The architecture layout of the indoor space and courtyard was not reasonable. In the courtyard the areas for living, raising livestock, storing and processing crops were mixed up. The indoor environment was not comfortable. It was cold in the houses during winter and hot during summer. Most of the rooms lacked natural lighting and were dark in the daytime.

“In the poor areas, many people still live in earth houses because of the low cost. However, most of the earth houses have low living quality.

“After we finished the project, through our design, the living quality was improved very much. The dwellers were satisfied with their new houses.”

Land reform in China has brought more hope to the country’s 750 million rural poor, many of whom live on less than US$1 a day. It is hoped that giving the rural poor more control over their lives will bring an improvement in agricultural production, food security and economic prosperity. Reforms also mean the poor have more secure land rights.

Hu said gaining the trust and buy-in of the villagers was critical to the success of the project.

“We built the first home as a demonstration. After we finished, the villagers could experience the advantages of the new home. Most of them decided to use our design and they could choose the one they liked from several proposals.”

Poverty is a big problem in the villages. Incomes are very low, at 2000 RMB per year (US $290). Hu said “families were given a house-building allowance of 8000 RMB (US $1,160) to meet the cost of building materials – and the land was free for them to use.”

“The villagers built the houses by self-help. We helped them to design and build the houses for free,” Hu said.

The houses are pioneering in using natural sources to provide light, heat, waste disposal and gas for cooking and heating.

“We used natural material like earth as a main building material to get good thermal mass and also to reduce CO2 emission,” Hu said.

“We designed a simple family sewage-purge-pool and marsh-gas-well system to reduce pollution and get energy from wastes.”

Using rammed earth has a long history in China. Across Western China, there are many buildings constructed with rammed earth. And using earth has many advantages when resources are scarce or expensive: “Earth buildings avoid deforestation and pollution, and can achieve low energy costs throughout their lifetime,” said Hu.

“With living standards increasing, more and more people would like to use burned bricks and concrete to build new houses, which will consume more energy and bring pollution,” said Hu.

But like any technology, the application of modern science and environmental knowledge to the traditional designs, can reap huge improvements in the quality of the homes and comfort levels. And win people back to the benefits of rammed earth dwellings.

“Building with earth materials can be a way of helping with sustainable management of the earth’s resources,” said Hu.

And Hu is adamant the new, environmentally designed homes respect the wisdom of traditional design.

“The new earth house design should consider the local culture. It should be proved that both the house style and the construction technique can be accepted by the users.”

Published: December 2008


  • The Rural Development Institute focuses on land rights for the poor and has a series of articles on China’s land reforms. Website:
  • Rural DeveIopment Institute has recently been given an award from the World Bank’s Development Marketplace competition to create Legal Aid and Education Centres in China’s countryside.
  • A blog gives more details on the Chinese rammed earth project.
  • Earth Architecture, a book and blog on the practice of building with earth, including contemporary designs and projects. 

Sponsored by BSHF. BSHF is now called World Habitat and it aims to seek out and share the best solutions to housing problems from around the world.

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