In September of last year, Shanghai eaters were shocked when Mr. Wu shuttered A Da Cong You Bing, the city’s best scallion pancake shop. The only explanation for the abrupt closure was a worn sign on the door that read: “My family has a problem. The stall will be closed for a few days.” But this wasn’t the whole truth.
Some attributed the shutdown to the fact that the stall was featured on the BBC program Rick Stein’s Taste of Shanghai, claiming that it had drawn too much attention to the unlicensed vendor and the government had taken note. In China, there’s a saying: “People fear fame like a pig fears getting fat,” and the recent crackdown on restaurants without proper licensing has hit some of the city’s most vaunted eateries: from Yongkang Lu’s infamous bar street to Tai-an Table, a restaurant that received one Michelin star and was promptly closed by the government the next day, and the late-night street stalls on Zhaozhou Lu (Lao Shaoxing Doujiang, Er Guang Wontons).
It appears, though, that it wasn’t just a few more foreigners frequenting Mr. Wu’s shop that prompted the shutdown. After 34 years in business, during which Mr. Wu mainly ran his shop out the back door of his ground level apartment in the former French Concession, neighbors had begun to complain about the fragrant pancakes he makes every day.
We don’t know whether it was the line, the scent of fresh-baked goods or just a general bad day that started these neighbors’ complaints, but Shanghai’s foodies erupted in dismay when the notice to cease and desist came. You can’t find cōngyóubǐng like this anywhere else in the city. It’s a dying art, and Mr Wu is well-loved, as much for his cheerful demeanor as his dedication to delicious pastries.
Fortunately, the delivery start-up Ele.me caught wind of the outcry and saw an opportunity to garner some goodwill with the local community – it was a genius public relations campaign. Ele.me won’t be delivering the pancakes on their online platform, but they found Mr. Wu a new spot, and the district level government expedited his licensing application. He’s now set up in a shiny new space only a few blocks away from his apartment. On the first day of business, Ele.me sponsored two free pancakes for everyone who came. The queue quickly reached 100 deep; to this day, it remains even longer than it was at his old shop.
In typical Shanghai fashion, all this attention has attracted those looking to capitalize. The line is mostly made up of “yellow bulls” (黄牛 – hired hands), who stand in line for those who have the cash but not the time to wait for the finished product. But Mr. Wu seems happy – he’s kept his prices the same (5 RMB), only sells 300 a day and still takes Wednesdays off. The only thing that has changed is the location – and, fortunately, the neighbors.