Fancy a gourmet sandwich during a visit to Shanghai? And where do you get hold of high-end Western deli produce? A new gourmet food store aims to fill that hole and come to the rescue of homesick expats – and the Chinese – says Clare Dowdy
A former executive chef of London’s Mezzo restaurant believes he has spotted an opportunity in China for a chain of upmarket, international delis. Called Slice (as in slice of life), the first outlet is in Shanghai, with a second one to follow there on Shanghai Times Square Plaza in August. David Laris, its founder, already has ambitious roll-out plans. He envisages about 20 Slice outlets in two different formats in China, with a further four in other countries in South-East Asia, all in the next five years.
Slice is a high-end, gourmet concept that is aimed, initially, at expats and returnees. However, his eventual goal is to attract locals with a taste for good quality, healthy and fresh produce. ‘There is a fast-growing interest among the middle class Chinese community about this sort of thing. This growing fascination with world food and increased exposure will further draw them to this concept,’ believes Laris. So, right from the start, everything in the stores is in two languages (English and Mandarin) and Slice stocks top-notch Asian products as well as Western items.
The stores have been created by Shanghai-based multidisciplinary firm Neri & Hu Design & Research Office, which handled everything from interiors to packaging. The consultancy sees Slice as filling the gap between the old-world street markets, which were lined with fresh produce and created an experience for the shopper, and the new-world supermarkets, where technology and design has turned the experience into a practice in efficiency. ‘In a modern world that has devalued the human experience, our design captures the spirit of the marketplace in creating a human-centered experience,’ suggests Lyndon Neri, founding partner of NHDRO.
Laris elaborates. ‘I realised there was no real representation here of a quality gourmet deli, with a strong emphasis on good, clean foods, which had their origins in well-cared-for production techniques, whether that was fresh vegetables or products made in-house, such as a simple sandwich, soup, pastry or bread.’
This issue of provenance is one he particularly wants to build on. ‘It is our intention to have much in-store collateral related to where food items come from, how they were selected and how they should be best used,’ he adds. Hence the in-store tasting and demonstrations. ‘It’s our strong desire to connect with the customer, to build a relationship and be their local grocer – so to speak – while still drawing on an international knowledge of food and professional service.’ He admits that none of this will be achieved overnight in China.
NHDRO’s interiors have drawn on traditional Chinese design. The space is divided into three rooms: a central cashier, a marketplace and a deli. ‘The central area is also where you enter and it is surrounded by wooden screens that filter natural light, which creates depth, a sense of scale and patterns across the floor,’ says Neri. These screens are an integral part of Chinese domestic spaces. The ‘market’ is flanked by tables and chairs, creating a figurative city street – what Neri calls a modern abstraction of an old-world market. Meanwhile, the deli area is covered in a canopy, ‘reinforcing a sense of domesticity and warmth that is conveyed throughout the design’, Neri adds.
While Laris points out that Slice has no direct competition at present, he acknowledges that this will quickly change when others realise that the gap between mass and boutique can be filled with a solid concept. ‘We expect to see real competitors emerge in this area of the market,’ he says.