Six years ago, when the British oven maker AGA Rangemaster was first planning to try out the China market, it asked a chef to work out which cooking techniques the two cultures had in common. The answer was a shock.
Of the 10 ways that the British apply heat to food, and the 15 Chinese ways doing it, there was only one clear overlap – boiling.
It wasn’t the best of indicators for an iconic British brand whose products are deeply associated with Sunday roasts, freshly baked cakes and richer UK families.
But AGA’s CEO William McGrath was undeterred. True, China had spent the best part of the last 4,000 years shunning oven-based cooking, but, everything – including the way people make food – was changing, he argued.
Which is how, on March 27, McGrath came to be standing in front of a hall full of people in Beijing, launching the AGA TC and its sister brand RedFyre.
“We have made China a priority. We think it could be transformational for us just as it was for Jaguar Land Rover,” he told WiC earlier in the day.
A bit like AGA, which is labouring under the weight of huge pension deficits, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) was close to bankruptcy before launching the Evoque SUV in China. Now, China is its largest market and it has even begun local production.
The trick, said McGrath, is getting the Chinese to see AGA and the Redfyre ovens in the same light as JLR’s cars – a great British product, with a long history of quality.
“Authentic British is very important to buyers here. So the idea that you can buy a product still made in the factory where Abraham Darby first smelted iron ore with coke in 1707 is going to be key,” he said.
Other trends in AGA’s favour are a rising interest in Western food, especially baking, and a shift away from traditionally narrow kitchens to open-plan spaces that are also used for dining and socialising.
McGrath believes that scares over food safety have triggered a wider interest in healthier food too. So one line that AGA will be pushing is that food cooked in one of its traditional ovens requires less fat to make because there is no fan drying the dish out.
Factors such as the loosening of the one-child policy and the lack of central heating could also come into play, says McGrath, as the company intends to promote it always-on ovens as the warm “heart of the home”, where families snuggle up.
AGA’s are popular in rural England but will the Chinese be persuaded? For those who aren’t quite ready to buy into the full AGA story there is also the Redfyre, which has been engineered to incorporate a powerful wok burner that “would be illegal in the UK”, notes McGrath. This ought to adapt more to local tastes. The Redfyres are also cheaper, priced at between Rmb50,000 ($8,059) and Rmb80,000, compared to as much as Rmb250,000 for an AGA. They will be stocked too in Chinese stores, unlike AGAs which will have to be ordered from the UK.
Interestingly, when the first order does arrive it won’t be the first AGA to be installed in China. That honour goes to the oven sitting in the kitchen of a faux Scottish castle at the Treaty Ports Winery in Shandong province. The owner, the winemaker Chris Ruffle, was McGrath’s roommate at university. Ambassadors like that might well pique interest from China’s status-obsessed super-rich…
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