US fast food giant Yum! Brands has opened a luxury restaurant overlooking Shanghai’s Bund to test menu concepts on locals.
Atto Primo, complete with its Italian name, is as far from the fast fried chicken concept of KFC or Pizza Hut as you could possibly get. The expansive restaurant is located in a historic building more than 100 years old. The decor is heavy on design and atmosphere, the dining environment with dim light, captivating wall murals, natural wooden furniture – and it has an expansive bar.
“Atto Primo also houses a bar, and the design here stems from a puppet theatre concept,” wrote one Shanghai food blogger, seemingly unaware of the identity of the owner. “When diners make their order, bartenders, baristas, pizza and grill chefs leap into action, preparing cocktails and coffee, pizzas and meat, much like a puppet being pulled along by its strings, acting on the fancies of its masters.”
So far from fast food is Atto Primo, Inside Retail Asia crossed checked multiple sources to be sure it was a Yum! Brands project. Sure enough, both Forbes and Reuters have reported on the concept, without going into any detail of how stunning the restaurant looks.
To us, it’s as if Primark had suddenly unveiled a $5000 Vera Wang style wedding dress!
Yum! China has apparently dubbed the venture a “lab” and while the investment has not been revealed, just the location and the decor, not to mention the sheer size of the venue, suggests a serious chunk of the R&D budget has gone into this experiment.
“A high-end test kitchen will let Yum! test the waters with new menus and concepts and get feedback from more sophisticated diners – helpful if you want to go a bit upmarket,” Ben Cavender, a principal at China Market Research Group, told Reuters.
Yum! China has been experiencing serious challenges in China, which started with, but are by no means all linked to, food safety scares when suppliers were outed using dodgy hygiene standards. The company has about 7000 QSR restaurants across the country, but its early-to-market advantage from being one of the first multinational food chains to enter China has been eroded by an increasingly sophisticated army of local chains more attuned to Chinese eating habits and tastes. Yum!’s same store sales slumped 16 per cent in the last quarter of 2014. Some analysts describe the company’s predicament as “brand fatigue”.
In an email to Reuters, Yum! China spokesman Jonathan Blum described Atto Primo has “an innovation lab to help us learn more about the evolving tastes of Chinese consumers”.
Somehow, in an environment where diners can expect to splash $50 on a dinner, Yum! will learn recipes and dining solutions it can sell at the bottom end of the market over the counter of a KFC or Pizza Hut.
English language blog Shanghai Wow describes Atto Primo as “a fine balance between classy, fashionable interiors and a good, authentic menu”, again with no obvious awareness it is a Yum! establishment.
It has a heavy Italian theme, suggesting it may be more about developing menu solutions for Pizza Hut than KFC.
Designer Lance Smith has blended modern design elements with the building’s historical architecture for an “east meets west” end result. Think wine red colours, turquoise green, heavy theming such as a giant mural of a bull (surely more Spanish than Italian).
The restaurant is divided into three main areas – Sonetto, Drama, and Satira.
“The Drama section features Pirandello’s famous masks. It’s dynamic, jarring, very dramatic, almost like being seated on the stage of a grand Italian play,” writes Wow Shanghai.
“The Sonetto area is located beside the building’s 100-year old floor-to-ceiling colonial windows. Overhead, Vivaldi’s quatrain lyrics that inspired his famous “Quattro Stagioni” concerts are etched across the ceiling.
“The Satira area, where the main focal point is a large mural of a bull made up of different vegetables against a backdrop of red. The painting is inspired by the works of 16th century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.”
A Forbes columnist observed Yum! is calling the restaurant a lab for now, but “I suspect it could quickly expand the concept with new outlets if it proves popular”.
We doubt that very much, but we can see the potential in some of the images of food dishes shared by That’s Shanghai for low cost versions suited to QSR restaurants.
A trendy eatery being managed by a fast food specialist is a hard concept to embrace. But then one has to not-so-grudgingly admire any multinational brave enough to venture into such a costly and experiential form of research in order to understand a local market.
KFC China is at the bleeding edge; Atto Primo is at the leading edge. Somewhere in the middle there surely has to be a compromise of convenience and innovation which could well lead to a profitable change of strategy for a business with such a large store network and reach.