Lu Zhengyao, the founder of Luckin Coffee who was forced out of the company following a 2020 admission that as many as half the coffee chain’s sales were fiction, is back in the retail game. This time, he’s running what looks like just another noodle shop.
Qu Xiaomian, whose name you could translate as “Charm Noodles,” opened its first two locations in Beijing and Chongqing on Sunday. It serves Chongqing-style noodles and bingfen, a type of sweet jelly dessert popular in Sichuan. The company is reportedly targeting (in Chinese) a first wave of 500 shops.
For connoisseurs of retail strategy, the noodle chain is a letdown.
Luckin had three advantages: it was introducing consumers to a new habit, it was lean, and its product was crazy cheap. When it launched, coffee in China was a high-end niche product, dominated by Starbucks and specialty cafes. Luckin made it a daily necessity for millions of office workers, using locations in office buildings, delivery, and discounts to push coffee into consumers’ hands. A focus on app-driven pick-up and delivery let the shops stay lean on labor costs—it wasn’t uncommon to see only one person in a shop, working through a queue of fifty orders.
Luckin never made a profit, but it grew like an invasive species to a peak of some 4,500 stores in 2019. When it was forced to cut back in the wake of the accounting scandal, it had opened a market for newer chains like Manner Coffee. Luckin never went away, and after a long quiet period trading on the OTC markets, it’s expanding again and claims to be profitable per-store.
READ MORE: The Big Sell | Luckin is not dead
Qu Xiaomian doesn’t seem to share any of Luckin’s advantages.
The product isn’t new to anyone in urban China. Chongqing xiaomian (little noodles)—essentially, a vivid red bowl of chili oil with some pickled beans and noodles for contrast—are a common breakfast food in their home city. Around 2015 or 2016, the meal broke into the national consciousness as a quick lunch, and a Chongqing noodle craze saw China’s cities carpeted with shops selling them. It’s died down a bit from the peak. Yet it’s still a challenge to find a mall in Beijing, or a cluster of restaurants near an office park, that doesn’t have at least one Chongqing noodle shop. Qu Xiaomian doesn’t do much to stand out.
The Beijing location is a stall in an underground food court, sharing seating with neighboring restaurants. Located in a well-hidden corner of the basement of Phoenix Retail City, a high-end mall, it saw a bustling lunch trade a little past noon on Monday—perhaps 20 customers at one time, enough that the shop’s red bowls pushed into the space in front of food court neighbors, but not so many that it was hard to find a seat.
Luckin’s operational innovations are not in evidence at Qu Xiaomian. Customers do order on phones, but the WeChat mini-app is relatively clunky, requiring one scan to open the app and another to identify what shop you’re at. Staff count seemed high: I counted seven people preparing food behind the counter, four or five bussing tables, and two whose job seemed to be calling order numbers and helping customers figure out which bowl of noodles was theirs. Another three middle-aged men in polo shirts loitered attentively by a wall, discussing the business. Asked about business so far, they said “pretty good.”
Nor is the food distinguished by low prices, or especially high quality. Customers seemed neither over- nor underwhelmed. “It’s kinda spicy,” said a woman finishing a bowl of noodles. “It’s OK if you like spicy.”
The food was a little pricey, but generous. A bowl of wanza (crushed yellow pea) noodles, a soy-braised egg (lu dan), and a bottle of water cost me RMB 33 ($5.10). That’s more than you’d pay at a typical Chongqing noodle shop, but probably in line with a location in the embassy part of Chaoyang District. It is not offering discounts to first-time customers.
The noodles had a rich soup, and a good amount of the traditional toppings—even peanuts, which at a cheaper shop can be detectable only in trace amounts. It comes at only one level of spice, well-calibrated to be hot but not nuclear, allowing the customer to taste the other ingredients. But the noodles themselves tasted over-cooked, or hastily defrosted—short on al dente character. The braised egg was rubbery and bland.
An extensive jelly menu could be the shop’s distinguishing feature—a good third of the menu was taken up by bingfen, served in plastic cups and containing brightly-colored syrups. Colorful jellies could be a riff on the vast fancy tea market, which Luckin entered in 2019 to a muted reaction.
Bottom line: Qu Xiaomian doesn’t look like the Luckin of noodles. As of now, it looks like just another noodle shop.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article described wanza noodles as “crushed chickpea noodles.” Wanza sauce is in fact made from yellow peas.