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Coffee shops perk up sleepy rural places

China Daily| Updated: December 18, 2023 L M S

New business models are drawing visitors and providing jobs. Yan Dongjie reports from Anji county, Zhejiang.

On Oct 2, the fourth day of the Mid-Autumn Festival and the National Day holiday, a rural coffee shop in the eastern province of Zhejiang sold more than 7,100 cups of the beverage. The equivalent of one cup of coffee was sold every four seconds over the eight hours of opening time, which the outlet claimed is a domestic sales record. It broke its own record of selling more than 5,100 cups during the Labor Day holiday in May.

The Dark Blue X Cafe in Hongmiao village, Meixi town, Anji county, was built on the grounds of an abandoned mine that had been idle for more than 10 years. The scenery attracts tourists from nearby cities such as Shanghai, Hangzhou, Zhejiang's capital, and Huzhou, also in Zhejiang.

Hailed by netizens as an "Iceland-like site in Anji", the heart-shaped mine shaft is 108 meters deep and filled with rainwater, which reflects the deep blue sky.

"Young people nowadays enjoy coffee, but coffee shops don't just sell coffee anymore: scenery and design have become more important," said Gu Pingling, the cafe's designer.

All the coffee, be it a latte or an Americano, is priced at 68 yuan ($9.30) a cup. "The price is a 'ticket' to enjoy the rural scenery while sitting down, relaxing and taking a few snaps. Coffee is the ticket, the scenery is the product," Gu said.

There are more than 300 coffee shops in Anji, a mountainous county with a population of about 580,000 in the north of the province, surpassing Shanghai in terms of per capita cafes. The county was acclaimed by Lonely Planet magazine as "China's City of Coffee in 2022."

Local authorities spent a long time planning the transformation of the mine into a new business opportunity. For example, Shen Yongtian, secretary of the local Party branch, made a fact-finding visit to Shanghai's Zhujiajiao Water Town, where the camping industry was growing rapidly.

Persuasive proposals

According to Shen, early last year, a group of college students proposed building a cafe in cooperation with the village. Their diligent research and innovative plan set them apart from all other competitors.

"They became more familiar with the topography and geomorphology of various locations near the mine in just a few days, far quicker than I did. What's more, their detailed proposal was persuasive and compelling," Shen said.

To further promote rural vitalization, villages in Anji have widely implemented a model called "Two investments and three returns", in which residents and the village collectively invest capital and resources, and in return they earn rent, wages and dividends from operations managed by cooperating companies or entrepreneurial teams.

Dark Blue X is a prime example. The village collective holds a 49 percent stake, while the project operators hold 51 percent. Within just one year, the cafe has attracted about 300,000 visitors, bringing in revenue of more than 10 million yuan ($1.3 million).

"Catering to the consumption habits of today's young people, we have retained some original buildings in the mining area and made some modifications. The scenery here is our main attraction," Gu said.

She added that the cafe has not only attracted a growing number of tourists but also lured aspiring young employees. Dark Blue X has set up an arts center as a platform for exhibiting and selling works, which has prompted more than 50 design graduates to join in.

"Here, I can balance my life and ideas," said Cheng Xiao, a graduate in fashion design, who joined in June.

In addition to making coffee, Cheng runs his own secondhand clothes studio in the art center, and is responsible for the design and the bazaar-style project.

"While gaining work experience, I can also create, think about what I want to do in the future and prepare for it," he said.


The cafe's designer Gu Pingling (left) talks with an employee. YAN DONGJIE/CHINA DAILY

Scenery and streams

The Waterfall under the Clouds coffee shop in Dali village, Shanchuan township, was built near a series of waterfalls in the mountains. From the cafe to the related camping area, it looks more like a leisure resort from the outside than Dark Blue X does.

Thousands of photos and travel notes posted on Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book), a lifestyle-focused social media platform, show visitors taking off their shoes, sitting in the local stream, stepping on stones and enjoying coffee.

In December, Lin Feng, an experienced tourism entrepreneur, settled on the waterfall landscape in Dali and began constructing the cafe and camping area in cooperation with the village collective.

When something brings in obvious benefits and a promising future, the villagers naturally support it. After opening in June, the cafe had earned a profit of more than 500,000 yuan by September.

According to Ying Zhongdong, secretary of the Party branch in Dali, with several projects implemented under the "Two investments and three returns" model, the village collective is expected to earn an additional 1 million yuan this year.

"The income will be widely used in the development of the village infrastructure, such as cleaning up and beautifying the roads, street lighting, garbage sorting and construction of cultural and leisure facilities, including libraries and art galleries," Ying said, adding that the villagers' living standards have improved dramatically since the projects started. "Young people can succeed in their endeavors now. The development in Anji county is getting better, and to some extent that's because the villagers are willing to accept new ideas and try new things."

As the residents are almost strangers to new ideas, it makes sense to support young people who are not only more innovative but also better at optimizing new media platforms to improve operating efficiency, he added.

Xu, a mother of two from Hangzhou who heard about Dali through travel guides posted on Xiaohongshu, said: "The lush mountains, lucid water, and bright colors here (in Dali village) are all inviting, which makes it more comfortable than being in the city. You can access nature, breathing as you wish where the sky is the ceiling."

Buried gold cannot shine, so to gain greater exposure for the Waterfall under the Clouds, the entrepreneurial team cooperated with Xiaohongshu to create an internet-famous cafe image in ways that applied the secondary marketing strategy to its online publicity, luring people who would not usually consume such products.

"Setting this place up as an internet-famous cafe to tick off is more in line with the consumption habits of modern young people. If it is positioned simply as a tourist attraction, young people may not be interested," said Lin to explain his business strategy.

According to him, his creative team plans to further develop the business format on the edge of the cafe, to build it into a multifunctional area, and to improve the development of the "Cafe+" business model.

"We plan to develop adventure and resort businesses on the mountaintop, such as rock climbing and camping in ways that utilize the natural resources to the fullest," Lin said.

Luo Jiayuan contributed to this story.

Contact the writer at yandongjie@chinadaily.com.cn