Popular US$1.40 buffet in China may close after nearly 10 years as new diners lured by viral videos steal and waste food

Popular US$1.40 buffet in China may close after nearly 10 years as new diners lured by viral videos steal and waste food
  • Modest buffet in China caught national attention in August when a blogger posted viral videos of eatery online but owner says she now faces ruin
  • Humble outdoor establishment offers honesty-based voluntary pay system for the 35 dishes available, such as roast duck and chopped pepper fish head

A 10-yuan (US$1.40) buffet eatery in China that shot to fame online last month has revealed the resulting surge in business has caused chaos, and its owner considering closing down.

In August, the modest outdoor restaurant in Hefei, Anhui province, eastern China, attracted widespread attention on mainland social media after an online blogger posted a series of videos on the buffet called “Hefei North City 10-Yuan Meal Box”.

The humble establishment offers a 10-yuan buffet featuring 35 dishes, ranging from roast duck and chopped pepper fish head to braised pork and chicken pieces, with customers allowed to refill their plates as much as they want.

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Owner Wang Rongya, affectionately known as the “10-yuan lunch box lady” online, and her husband have run the buffet for nine years, primarily catering to migrant construction workers, with their profits coming from a high volume of customers.

To accommodate the number of diners, they introduced a voluntary honesty payment system since collecting individual payments became impractical.

The couple has consistently prioritised quality and affordability without raising prices for nine years, firmly believing that a business should operate with “a sincere heart in exchange for a sincere heart”.

However, the sudden surge in popularity since August brought unforeseen challenges to its existing honesty-based payment model.

The sudden influx of curious diners and internet celebrities flocking to the stall has created chaos for the eatery and made it hard for the migrant worker regulars to get a meal.

There have even been people holding signs in the crowds outside the eatery that read, “Migrant workers get priority for meals,” according to AHTV.

Wang also suffered business losses and told Douyin blogger Shi Tan that some patrons took more than they could eat and then wasted significant amounts.

Some people even brought their own bowls and containers and took food away without paying, while others paid for one portion and then took away several.

“We’ve lost 1,400 yuan (US$200) and over 100 portions,” Wang said.

Criticism further compounded her predicament after she faced accusations online of exploiting migrant workers to gain business.

“It’s mainly a sense of injustice. They said really hurtful things. Who would stage something like this for nine years? Who could have known nine years ago that ‘this woman’ would become famous?” she told Jiupai News.

Overwhelmed by the growing challenges and frustration, Wang is considering shutting down her business.

“I believe a good heart is exchanged for a good heart. I just feel a little sad. I don’t want to carry on.”

The story has elicited considerable sympathy from online observers, with many expressing their support.

One commented: “She had tears in her eyes, but she still managed to talk about it with a smile. Life is already tough, and yet some people still want to take advantage, which is truly despicable.”

Another agreed: “Many people indeed live without a shred of reverence. They treat others’ kindness as an opportunity to exploit, and view others’ livelihoods as entertainment and games.”

“They were doing just fine until these internet celebrities came along and messed things up,” said another.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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