Food is the heart of most cultures. In China, one of the oldest cultures in the world, food is central to family gatherings and celebrations. It’s what binds people, a tangible way of showing love and respect. But in recent years, the Chinese food industry has suffered from concerns around safety.
Two siblings, Harn and Anmao Sun, set out on an ambitious venture: to create a trusted source of food in China and, by setting an example, to instigate a movement around conscious farming practices. The American-born entrepreneurs launched Hunter Gatherer, a restaurant and retail food space built around a transparent supply chain, from farm to table to grocery shelves. The venture is based on growing and serving what they call real food: The ingredients are chemical-free and come from known and trusted sources—food they’d eat themselves. The purpose of the venture is simple: to serve people real food that is their right.
Having studied and worked in the US, Harn and Anmao grew accustomed to browsing farmers markets on Saturday mornings or picking up a burrito at Chipotle. But when they returned to China, they were unsure about the safety of the food they were eating.
Bell pepper salad in chili-lime dressing is one of Hunter Gatherer’s most popular dishes.
“In China, you wouldn’t go to a food stand, because you’d be concerned about the ingredients,” Anmao said. “You can’t take the safety for granted.”
Hunter Gatherer’s very existence challenges bedrock assumptions about how food is produced in China. A long and depressing list of scandals—milk contaminated with melamine, pork produced from diseased pigs, used cooking oil repackaged and sold as new—has rocked the public trust.
“In China, agriculture is going through a huge change,” Anmao said. “In the US, agriculture operations are regulated. Farmers’ practices are regulated. If they use pesticides, there are limits because these farmers understand that once a certain threshold is hit, additional pesticides will not yield more crops. But in China, pesticide use came about 30 years after the US and Europe, and because of a lack of full understanding, farmers in China incorrectly operate under the assumption that more pesticides means more crop yields. Also, with over 250 million farmers in China, it becomes immensely difficult to properly regulate everyone.”
Harn and Anmao wanted to restore trust in the simple act of eating in China, and they came to IDEO to build a scalable business based on that vision. This was essentially a startup, a shared commitment between IDEO and Hunter Gatherer.
“I’ve lived in Shanghai for the past seven years, and as a relatively active and health-conscious person, I’ve had to invest quite a bit of time in finding food that I trust,” said Charles Hayes, managing director of IDEO Shanghai. “That investment has been both in the time it takes to research the sources of ingredients but also a literal investment in paying a high price for imported food just for that extra peace of mind.”
Anmao and Harn took up residence in the IDEO Shanghai offices to incubate their business. Together with IDEO designers, they tested packaging, cooked countless meals, and found ways to introduce unfamiliar ingredients to Chinese consumers. They discussed different concepts of lunch and dinner, and how notions of freshness in Chinese culture might affect cold-storage systems. In IDEO’s prototyping kitchen, the teams tested all manner of different foods, flavors, colors, mixes, and price points, and they brought consumers in to try them out. IDEO designers, along with the founding team, also worked on the brand and positioning of what would eventually become the Hunter Gatherer enterprise—its location, human resources, and marketing strategies.
As the restaurant concept came together, finding the right food sources had to be addressed. Traditional agriculture couldn’t be trusted; organic certifications were available on the black market, and safety protocols around chemical use were nonexistent. Anmao and Harn decided to invest in their own farms. They met with farmers, asked questions about their methods, and walked in the fields to see for themselves. Eventually they settled on two plots of land outside Shanghai and began developing more than 80 different crops to be used in the restaurant.
When it came time to find the right space for the first location, Anmao and Harn discovered an open, airy storefront on Anfu Road in Shanghai’s tree-lined former French Concession area. They designed and built a retail space and kitchen, and along with IDEO designers, they trained the staff and organized workflows. The staff set the tables with Mason jars filled with flowers, hung photographs of the farmers who grew the food, and put up a sign that showcases the percentage of vegetables coming directly from the Hunter Gatherer farms, already more than 70 percent in less than a year after opening.
Customers can shop for fresh vegetables, locally sourced and imported canned and jarred goods, bins of cereal, freshly made smoothies, artisan sauces, and exotic chocolates. Upstairs, they can feast on delicious dishes in the homey restaurant.
Reviews have been glowing. One customer raved about the machine that grinds fresh nuts. Another loved the open space, the “good vibes,” and the refreshing cucumber water. Young people go there on dates, and families return for the delicious menu variety.
The convivial space has blossomed into more than just a restaurant and grocery store. It’s become a gathering place of sorts, both for the community and for partners who share the same vision. Farmers and food purveyors are invited to showcase their products at seasonal events and to mingle with customers and share recipes and stories.
“Hunter Gatherer has come to symbolize a kind of lifestyle the Chinese people have been looking for,” said Eugene Lin, an IDEO business designer. “A place they can enjoy hanging out with friends, as well as a movement and mission they can stand behind.”
This is just the beginning of the venture. The plan is to open 40 more locations throughout China. But the vision for Hunter Gatherer’s growth is bigger than brick-and-mortar restaurants—where the business will truly scale is in the digital space. Eventually, the plan is to launch a Hunter Gatherer online grocery store from which anyone can buy food grown from trusted sources.
“We have to create trust with the consumer. It’s the most difficult and most valuable thing to do in China, especially with food,” Anmao said. “Our brick-and-mortar locations will establish that increased trust. Then we can go online and grow the idea to the rest of the country.”
Will Hunter Gatherer have a hand in changing the way that the world’s most populous nation thinks about food? Its principles are already spreading, from neighboring farmers adopting more sustainable planting methods, to a growing market for products like wine.
But the true sign of success will be almost invisible—the moment when an increase in demand will result in safe food for everyone and when real food becomes commonplace.