With more than 130 international restaurants featuring top chefs and authentic ingredients flown in from around the world, the Shanghai Expo may well become the world’s largest food court for the next six months. Event planners estimate that of the 70 million visitors, 85% of them will eat inside the Expo zone.
The selection promises to bewilder the average Chinese visitor who has likely never sampled properly spiced lomo saltado or fresh torsk. The logistics, security and quality control challenges are bewildering some foreign caterers.
Terje Hamnes, head chef for the Norwegian pavilion, arrived in Shanghai from Oslo late last year to begin preparing for the event. Norway’s menu will be centered on a range of fresh seafood dishes with supplies flown in from the European country three times per week. This process has gone smoothly thus far, but it hasn’t been easy.
"The local logistics getting into the Expo area are another matter," Hamnes said. "The 2010 Expo is being touted as the safest expo ever, and that’s a good thing. But from a strictly food and beverage [F&B] point of view, operations are severely hampered because it’s very difficult if not impossible to get direct deliveries into the Expo area."
Some countries have an easier time than others. Peru has invested US$300,000 in "The Peruvian Kitchen," a temporary restaurant that will seat 50, but the country is lucky in that it could call on Eduardo Vargas, a Peruvian restaurateur who happens to run six restaurants in Shanghai, where he is a minor celebrity. Vargas will import about 3,000 kilos of chilies, corn, potatoes and other key ingredients from Peru, while sourcing the rest from China, but his network of existing restaurants offers an established logistics base for obtaining ingredients. This convenience has made him one of the few Expo food planners who sounded relaxed weeks before launch date.
"I believe a lot of restaurateurs coming to China for the first time [for the Expo] are having a hard time. I’ve been receiving phone calls from the other pavilions asking me to take over their pavilion restaurants," he said with a laugh.
The logistical puzzle
At the bottom of the food chain are 100 or so approved food suppliers, each of whom has already endured a long application process. They make the food, but they aren’t allowed to deliver it. Instead, designated logistics companies are charged with the task, and they need notification two days in advance to allow time for submitting their vehicles’ numbers, drivers’ identification and other papers to relevant authorities. When each shipment arrives at the Expo, it is thoroughly vetted by health inspectors. No one gets in or out of the area without clearance in advance each and every time.
"[This process] hasn’t come as a surprise, but it makes it much harder to run a F&B operation than normal," said Norway’s Hamnes. "It’s not always that easy to know three or four days in advance how many kilos of carrots you’re going to need, but here we have to."
The process also drives up costs, and some pavilions have already complained in private about price gouging.
Beyond the Expo
This compromise – ensuring absolute food security at the inconvenience (and expense) of F&B operators – is part of a wider campaign to upgrade food safety standards. Like the city-wide "civilizing" campaigns ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Expo has brought out tighter hygiene management and enforcement across Shanghai. Officials credit it with reducing the number of people taken ill in "mass food poisoning incidents" to 139 last year, down from 467 the year before.
The pressure to conform is not only applied within the Expo grounds. Caterers to external events around the city are also applying for food health certifications ahead of the Expo, whether they need it or not.
Even though it has no plans to provide food to the Expo, the Grand Hyatt Shanghai completed an 18-month process in November last year for ISO 22000 Food Safety Management Certification, the first five-star hotel in the city to do so. The certification, given by the International Organization for Standardization, is one of the world’s most stringent evaluations of food safety and hygiene all along the production chain.
"We had the Expo in mind when we applied," said Patrick Pahlke, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. "Some travelers may have reservations about hygiene in Asia. We wanted to show that food doesn’t get any safer than this."
Pahlke said Hyatt’s catering business has already seen a lot of demand to schedule corporate events over the next six months, though he declined to give specific numbers.
More than money
While food safety regulations increase caterers’ costs and put pressure on their margins, some are not in it for the money. Many pavilion restaurants plan to charge hundreds of yuan for exotic tasting menus and imported wine, but the goal for many international participants is to create long-term markets for their cuisines in China – and by extension demand for agricultural exports. This is a significant challenge in a market famous for its parochial food preferences.
"The challenge in Asia is education," said Sergi Rostoll, chief Asia representative for Gonzalez Byass, which will provide wine for the Spanish pavilion. "Catering the Expo is a marketing opportunity for us, not just in China, but also in Spain and our image worldwide. Therefore we don’t expect to earn money out of it."