China certainly seems to be the buzzword when it comes to trade at the moment. On my first day back in the office following my trip to the Far East, I heard that Jim Paice, food and farming minister, was heading out there on a mission to open up trade to China.

"As the world’s biggest economy with the largest population, China offers huge opportunities for Britain’s farming, food and drink sector," said Defra.

As well as its huge and growing population, China is not a country that is prepared to stand still. It sees something that it likes and goes for it. Either developing its own version or copying someone else’s. In acknowledgement of this growing trade opportunity and to foster inspiration and ideas, Rich Products hosted a bakery study tour to China, organised by David Powell. Beginning in Shanghai and ending in Beijing, it took in the 15th annual international Bakery China trade show in Shanghai, visits to retail bakeries, manufacturers and supermarkets, and, of course, a spot of sightseeing for good measure.

Michael Goh, technical manager, bakery Asia, kicked off the trip with a talk on Chinese market trends. According to communications firm APCO Worldwide, the contribution to Chinese GDP from manufacturing has grown from 42.8% in 1989 to 48.6% in 2008, while the amount of both imports and exports has skyrocketed in the past 15 years. China is home to well over one billion people 1,347,350,000 in mainland China at the end of 2011, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China. It has around 160 cities with over one million people, and 56 different ethnic groups. These are staggering numbers. China is definitely not a country that can be ignored.

According to Rich Products, traditional Chinese bakery food ’man tou’ was invented in 3,000 BC. There are more than 1,000 typical Chinese bakery products, but currently there is very little bread or cake in comparison.

One difference between Chinese bakery and Western-style bakery products are that they use not only wheat flour, but also rice flour and other cereals. They are also steamed, boiled, pan-fried and deep-fried, as well as baked.

Despite the fact that traditional Chinese bakery products have been around for an eternity, there were almost no bakery retail outlets in China before 1980. However, since then, China has sought to turn bakery into a national industry.

Goh said it had been in a healthy growing period since 1996, when the first bakery associations were formed. Rich’s research into the market showed that there are more sub-brands offering premium products, more pastry and coffee models and more effective merchandising.

An increasing number of frozen cakes and desserts are making their way on to the shelves of premium supermarkets and international coffee chains, such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee and McCafé. These chains are increasing their store numbers through aggressive growth plans.

Modern-day China is a real mix of East meets West, with chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and Pizza Hut gaining an increasing presence. Interestingly, they offer the same products as you would find in the UK, but with the addition of some local specialities. Duck’s tongue-topped pizza anyone?

As part of the trip the group visited a number of retail bakery outlets from Malaysian and Japanese to Chinese concepts as well as a few supermarkets. The visits were designed to show how these types of businesses operate, and to see if any of their concepts could be applied to the UK.

Ted Rich, managing director, Rich UK, explained: "They sell the product completely differently over here." In their retail outlets, they often have the products displayed in individual perspex boxes, where customers pick up a tray and some tongs, and pick the products themselves. And they are not separated out into sections. As Powell added: "Right next to a cream-filled cake you could find a savoury pork roll."

Product integrity

There was also an interesting concept when it came to takeaway drinks, said Powell. Coffee cups, for example would be sealed with a film lid, similar to those found on ready meals. "The Chinese like everything to be sealed, so that nothing can get in. It’s almost over-packaging, but it’s all about the integrity of the product."

"For bakeries here, their margin is with their cakes that’s where they make their profit," said Rich. "In terms of product appearance they are really meticulous. Products are beautifully decorated with intricate designs and lots of colour and glazes."

The trade show the next day was a real eye-opener into the world of Chinese bakery. It was busy and noisy, colourful and vibrant. And you could feel the excitement as people went in. Martin Mu, marketing manager retail bakery, at Rich Products in China, showed us a few of the products and concepts that Rich is promoting in China at the moment.

Cake pies a cake made in a pie base and mousse doughnuts were two of the new concepts it has launched, while Mu told us that fruit is becoming increasingly popular for use in cakes and as a decoration, with strawberry the firm favourite.

One thing that was clear from going around the exhibition was that how things look is very important. The cakes especially were beautifully decorated. Meanwhile, the breads were seldom plain varieties most have seeded toppings and inclusions such as cranberry, or cheese and spinach rolls, for example.

Powell told me it was about "face" in China you have to been seen to be wearing the right clothes and have the right bag and bakery is no exception.

Richard Ferranti, executive vice-president and chief operating officer at Rich Products, said: "There is also an enormous influence from social media. How it will impact purchasing decisions is really hard to predict, but we’ve dedicated resources to monitor it."

Ferranti said the Chinese bakery market is "vibrant and growing". "China is, without a doubt, along with India the fastest-growing market we’re in. We’ve had significant double-digit growth in China. There are so many opportunities in this country, the challenge is picking which ones to prioritise."

He added that having three meals a day was a dying trend, with snacking throughout the day becoming more and more common.

"The impact some of the coffee chains have had is enormous. These chains can open just about anywhere because they are aspirational. We need to think about how we can develop products that meet these trends."

He added: "China views Western products as aspirational. They eat an amazing amount of cakes, sweets and desserts. A lot of those cakes are bought as gifts, so they have to look pleasing to the eye."

It certainly seems that China is a market to watch, if nothing more than because, as Ferranti says, "they implement their ideas in about a 10th of the time that others do".

l Read China part 2 in the next issue of British Baker (15 June)