Chen Zemin was born in Chongqing in 1947 into an army family. After graduating from medical school he worked in a hospital in Zhengzhou and in 1984 was then promoted to deputy head of another hospital in the city.
To earn extra money to cover his two sons’ tuition, Chen opened an ice cream store with Rmb15,000 borrowed from friends. He made the equipment himself and business was good.
Chen proved to be a good chef too. In Sichuan he learned how to make tangyuan, a traditional Chinese dessert, a sweet-sauced rice ball boiled in soup. Then on a business trip to Harbin he saw local people freeze their dumplings outside in winter. This gave Chen an idea for making a new type of tangyuan and three months later, the first frozen tangyuan were born under the brand name Sanquan Tangyuan.
Selling the concept
After a general manager of a supermarket tried Chen’s recipe, he introduced frozen Sanquan Tanyuan into his store. Chen changed strategy accordingly – putting more effort into cooking at street markets and persuading store managers to try his product. With this technique, he got his frozen tangyuan into most Zhengzhou supermarkets. After a year promoting his product, he quit his hospital job in 1992, creating his own company, Sanquan Group, at the age of 45. Even as it grew, he was one of its most active salespersons, driving around in a second-hand van equipped with kitchen tools. “Maybe it looks stupid, but it works” was Chen’s verdict. Sanquan Tangyuan started to have success in other markets like Xi’an, Taiyuan, Shenyang and Beijing. By the end of 1993, his factories were producing 30 tonnes of frozen tangyuan a day.
Play together theory
By 1995 copycat versions of Sanquan Tangyuan’s products were also appearing. Chen chose to focus on improving quality. His theory was that a competitive market would end up producing stronger players who, in the end, would be better able to compete with foreign peers. Soon he’d expanded into more than 400 categories of frozen foods such as dumplings and rice-puddings.
He also started a fast food chain – Youzhi Youwei (Yummy) – to sell his own products, He listed his firm in Shenzhen in 2008 and by 2010, sales hit to Rmb2 billion. Last year’s numbers were down to Rmb1.8 billion after a food safety scandal hit fellow dumpling maker Wanchai Ferry (see WiC132).
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