China Consumer

Weighty purchase

$2.6 billion spent on festive mooncakes

Weighty purchase

Dietary dynamite: the mooncake

Like the Christmas fruitcake, China’s mooncake won’t do much good for your waistline. Mooncakes, which are served up during Mid-Autumn Festival are heavy and cloying (core ingredients: egg, sugar and salt). Legend has it that the cakes were baked deliberately thick to conceal messages among Chinese rebels keen to rid themselves of Mongol rule.

Nowadays, like the venerable Christmas pastry, they make the rounds more at family functions. Not always because they taste good, but just because you can’t show up without one.

This year China will bake something like 250,000 tonnes of mooncake for the festive period (Mid-Autumn is celebrated on September 22; or the 15th day of the eighth lunar month). For the industry, that results in revenues of Rmb14 billion ($2.6 billion).

There are a range of recipes – all high in calories (a typical mooncake contains twice as many as a Big Mac). The most popular version is a Cantonese style of lotus-seed paste and salted duck-egg yolk. Second in popularity, and also southern Chinese in origin, is a cured ham and five nuts mix.

More often than not, mooncakes are purchased not so much to be eaten (many confess to disliking them) as to be given as presents.

“It’s the time of the year for businesses to show gratitude to their partners, to government officials and to their own employees,” says Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research (CMR) in Shanghai. “It’s a vital way of building relationships.”

As yet, no one has calculated how much yolk-and-pastry mix ends up in the office trash. Presumably it must be in the thousands of tonnes.

What with its gift-giving function, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that mooncakes work in incentive terms too. Some mooncake packages come with luxury watches, jewellery and Bordeaux wines. In 2008 a jewellery store in Liaoning grabbed headlines when it went one step further, offering cake laced with gold.

Western chains have also embraced the seasonal opportunity. Haagen-Dazs offers ice cream mooncakes that bear no resemblance to their progenitors except for their shape. They come in flavours like vanilla and strawberry cheesecake, and are encased in chocolate coats.

Starbucks is dabbling too. The coffee giant began selling mooncakes two years ago, although the offering also gets the Starbucks treatment. Cakes promise espresso and caramel macchiato flavours.

Prices are on the up too, with manufacturers blaming increases in the cost of ingredients, especially in sugar. This year the favoured Cantonese-style mooncakes are said to have gone up most, as lotus-seed costs have also doubled. The Hong Kong-headquartered Wingwah Mooncake says that this means cake prices will have to go up as well ­– but complains that its profit margin is still going to be down on last year.

Other cake makers look for profit by cutting corners, often literally. Beijing-based maker Daoxiangcun has reduced the weight of its own mooncakes from 125 grams to 110 grams to keep prices in line with last year. The company was aiming for sales of Rmb350 million ($52 million) by the day of the festival, reports the Nanfang Daily.

It may well have met its targets. Despite the increase in prices this year, mooncake producers say that sales were off to an especially strong start.

Products with elaborate packaging remain popular. The Portman Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai expects to sell about 20,000 mooncake boxes this year. The attraction is less about the mooncakes themselves, admits Kris Kaminsky, the food and beverage manager at the hotel. Instead, customers like the way they have been presented in a lookalike jewellery box. “It’s a box to be kept after the mooncakes are eaten,” she told the Financial Times. Or after they have been thrown in the bin…

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