“You’re in big trouble, Goubuli called the cops!” declared a recent posting on Sina Weibo about travel blogger Gu Yue.
On September 10, the same platform shared a video of Gu’s review of the buns at a Beijing branch of the restaurant Goubuli. The restaurant’s name translates as “the dog doesn’t care” and derives that monicker from a dish concocted in the 1850s by its original chef in Tianjin with the nickname Gouzi (which means “little dog”). His famed steamed buns (Gou Bu Li) contained pork stuffing and soup and such was their renown that even the Empress Dowager Cixi was said to be a fan. Folks queued round the clock for his soft and fragrant baozi, but customer service wasn’t his strong suit, hence the name bestowed on his stall’s fare – “the dog doesn’t care”.
In spite of his surly approach his buns became a Tianjin culinary icon and eventually a state-owned business under the Goubuli brand.
In Gu Yue’s video, the blogger searches the internet to find the lowest-rated restaurants in Beijing and lands on Goubuli’s Wanfujing branch. On the Dianping app, Goubuli had received 2.84-2.87 stars out of five for the past six months, which ranked it in the bottom 99% of Beijing street-eats. At the restaurant Gu spent Rmb60 on eight meat sauce buns (Rou Jiang Bao) and another Rmb38 for a basket of eight pork buns (Zhu Rou Bao).“Really it’s not that unappetising,” opined Gu in the video. “But for this quality Rmb20 is about right. Rmb100 is a stretch.” He concluded that the meat sauce buns were too oily, while the pork buns had a sparse filling and an overly thick, sticky skin.
On September 11, the same Wangfujing branch of Goubuli issued a statement claiming Gu had spread false, vicious information that was damaging to the restaurant’s reputation and financial livelihood. The branch – located in the heart of Beijing – claimed it had reported Gu to the police. Gu reacted to the news on his weibo account the same day. “When I saw Wanfujing Goubuli’s statement it really scared me! There are many places where it is difficult to say the truth, even about a meal. I don’t want to waste my time thinking about this. I hope they can make better-tasting, value-worthy buns.”
Many netizens rushed to Gu’s defence. “There can’t be only one person who thinks the food tastes bad, or there wouldn’t be so much agreement now. The restaurant isn’t removing the problem, but trying to remove the person who raised the problem. Goubuli is really becoming ‘Goubuli’,” stated a widely-forwarded post, referencing the customer service complaint that gave the bun its name back in the 1850s.
Earlier this year Jiemian News conducted a survey, finding the words most associated with Goubuli’s Beijing outlets were “poor service”. Jiao Liang, a partner at the Beijing Zhongce Law Firm gave a legal assessment of Gu’s case: “The video on the whole engaged in objective documentation. I believe taste is the consumer’s own judgment. To make these views public on the internet, although lacking in clear standards, does not infringe on the restaurant’s right of reputation.”
On September 15, the Goubuli Group issued a statement announcing the termination of its contract with its Wangfujing branch. It apologised for how the outlet had handled consumer reviews, and said it would re-evaluate the operations of all franchisees, and continue to prioritise customer satisfaction. Goubuli added that it had moved swiftly to take back 80 franchised stores. Among the 12 original stores in Beijing, only a single franchise store remains.
Goubuli Group delisted its restaurant chain and frozen food subsidiary Goubuli Food from the Beijing NEEQ exchange in May, citing “the need for business development”. The firm’s revenues have stagnated at around Rmb100 million for the past three years.
Interest in the Gu case has been widespread: a weibo hashtag on the subject now has over four million reads and 20,000 discussions. Meanwhile the controversy has only increased Gu’s viewership, as his video was reposted alongside the hashtag. He says he hasn’t so far been contacted by the Goubuli Group – or, fortunately, by the police. No doubt his photo will be circulating in restaurants around China – after all, a bad review from Gu looks to be fatal for the establishment in question.
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