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Monday, May 28, 2001, updated at 08:51(GMT+8)

French Company in China Serving Lunch to the Masses

When Chairman Mao exhorted the Chinese people to rise up and "serve the masses," lunch was not what he had in mind.

But 25 years after Mao's death, a French company in Shanghai is working to bring a cheaper, better lunch to the city's workers, in a twist on the tradition of corporate canteens providing lunch to the workers.

SodexhoPass is a French catering company which has introduced a pre-paid smart card usable at 250 of the city's restaurants to both Chinese and foreign companies.

The French multinational, which provides catering for places as varied as the Wimbledon tennis tournament and offshore oil rigs, runs luncheon voucher schemes worldwide, providing employers with an additional tax-deductable benefit for their workers.

Sodexho general manager Stephane Michelin said getting the card off the ground in China was harder when the company set up in 1999, because of the lack of clear tax benefits but is optimistic about the future.

"It's surprising how important lunch is at Chinese companies. It's very democratic. Everybody from the managing director down to the cleaning lady has to have their say," he said.

Sodexho approaches large companies, like China Construction Bank and the Shanghai Yellow Pages, and first conducts a survey of employees preferred lunch destinations.

Then Sodexho liases with the neighbourhood restaurants, installing machines to deal with the prepaid smart card at restaurants and installing another machine at the employer's office to charge up the cards.

For Ni Jun, a human resources manager at telephone directory company Yellow Pages, the SodexhoPass cards were a godsend.

Yellow Pages employees had been eating lunch at a canteen in the firm's office building, where they had to use coupons issued to them by the company.

In addition to the hassle of buying the coupons and doling them out to employees each month, Ni Jun had to mediate between the canteen's surly staff and irate employees infuriated by the canteen's sloppy service and tasteless food.

"On one occasion there was a fight between some of our staff and the canteen's employees and instead of apologising the canteen manager came up here and berated me for allowing our staff to behave like that," she said.

China's economy only threw its doors open for business 20 years ago and the service culture of "the customer is always right" is still far from embedded in the minds of many people accustomed to working for state-owned enterprises.

But a month after Yellow Pages issued smart cards to the 130 employees who had formed the backbone of the canteen's business, the building canteen went bust as people headed for better, cheap neighbourhood eateries.

"Lunch is really important to people in middle-income jobs. If you feel fed up with eating lunch in the company canteen when you are stuck in the office eight hours a day, then you feel fed up with your job," Ni Jun explained.

For the restaurants cooperating with Sodexho also has advantages. Sodexho translated the menu at the Zhuang Yuan Lou Hotel into English, which has boosted business, said restaurant manager Ding Caigao.

"Although not all of our customers use Sodexho cards, but there are usually a few people here at meal times using cards which brings other customers in," he said.

So far, Sodexho estimates there are 15,000 to 20,000 people using their smart cards daily and with business growing fast, the company expects to break even in about three years, Michelin said.

Sodexho is also working with the local restaurant association to persuade the government to make employee lunches tax deductible.

"Our card can only be used at restaurants which are registered with the Tax and Sanitation Bureaux, so what they loose in tax revenue from employers they will probably gain from restaurants," Michelin explained.

Many of the smaller mom-and-pop operations serving lunch boxes to offices are not registered with Shanghai's tax bureau.


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When Chairman Mao exhorted the Chinese people to rise up and "serve the masses," lunch was not what he had in mind.

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