Wellness consulting in China

Podcast transcript #76: Bring Chinese a healthier lifestyle by doing wellness consulting in China

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Find here the China Paradigm 76, where we, Daxue Consulting, interview seasoned entrepreneurs in China. In today’s interview, we will discuss wellness consulting in China, and get familiar with a food education platform in China.

Full transcript below:

Matthieu David: Hello everyone. I am Matthieu David, the founder of this podcast, China Paradigm, and Daxue Consulting Group, a China market research company based in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hongkong. Today, I am with Kimberly Ashton. You are the founder of Sprout Lifestyle and Yin Lifestyle. And you have been in China for 16 years.

Kimberly Ashton: Yes.

Matthieu David: You’re offering wellness consulting in China. Sprout Lifestyle is a food education platform in China. You’re also selling products and your program of education to companies and individuals on how to live a healthier life and actually eat more healthily. Let’s look a bit at some numbers about the industry in China. We found that 86% of Chinese consumers consider food safety when they are buying food products. 52% consider it as a primary factor when buying or choosing food. So, it’s not a small concern. It’s an issue in China. It’s a big concern among Chinese consumers. 73% of Chinese consumers are ready to pay extra for food which is said to be healthy.

Maybe, you’re going to comment on that later on whether you feel that’s really happening or you feel it’s more of a wish but not a real thing. And 58% of the Chinese middle class is willing to pay more for ethical brands. When I say ethical brands, I mean brands that are doing good for earth. For instance, brands that are recycling. So, we see a shift in China from like 10, 20 years ago where it was more about branded products and social consumption where you show what you have bought to actually something with more substance which is good for you and your health. Thank you very much for being with us. You’re recording from Thailand. You are in Thailand. Would you mind sharing a bit more about Sprout Lifestyle. It’s already been seven years. So, tell us a bit more about the story and, also, Yin Lifestyle because those two companies are very interconnected, I would say.

Kimberly Ashton: Yes. Yes, thank you for having me, first of all. I am really excited to be here on your show. Yeah, it’s a very exciting and good time for health and wellness consulting in China. And as you said, the industry is growing. Consumers’ awareness has changed and shifted and their priorities have shifted as well. So, we started Sprout Lifestyle which was a food education platform in China and cooking studio seven years ago in downtown Shanghai. And it grew out of the niche that we saw and my passion for healthy food and teaching people about what to do with these foods and products. So, it was really quite new at the time. People would come in—Chinese consumers and expats alike—and look around and not be so familiar with what we were selling. It was always quite new. Seven years ago, people were dealing with issues like you mentioned as well, like food safety or family or personal health. And we did wellness consulting in China. 

Actually, it’s a corporate wellness consulting company for that. And again, it was just starting in the industry. And if you fast track now, seven years later, it’s really booming. There’s more employee wellness. There’s more fitness. There are more healthy food options. There are more cafes. So, the whole industry has mushroomed. Let’s say it’s grown in a short space of time. You’ve been in China for so long. I think that’s prevalent in many industries. Anything that’s new accelerates in growth, especially in the big cities. So, I think our discussion will be more around the biggest cities. It’s not so relevant to second-tier cities in terms of health or nutrition or superfoods or health foods, because it does come at a cost, assuming as well, in the introduction.

So, my comment would be that people are growing in affluence and in their awareness of personal health and what they can do. They don’t just go to see the doctor if they’re sick. Illness and food safety issues are growing globally and not just in China. I think it’s a good time now, especially in the last few years where we’ve seen the most change for health and wellness in general. I mean my specific one is in the food and the food education platform in China which is teaching people what to do with everyday ingredients that maybe their grandmothers were eating which are of a wholesome nature to food.

Matthieu David: So, what are your core products or services you sell? I mean what are you selling to your clients? Would you mind describing it a bit more so people listening to us have a clearer idea of what you do? And I know that you have a health food shop in the kitchen. Would you mind sharing a bit of what you have been doing over seven years?

Kimberly Ashton: Yes, sure. So, we’ve always had the combination of a health food shop. So, it’s like a retail shop with shelves of whole grains or things like rice or black rice or millet. We have superfoods—things like goji berries and raw chocolate. And we have some organic products like skincare products or food as well. A lot of consumers back then and more so now are leaning towards more natural things and more natural ingredients. Organic is part of it but not only.

So, people come in looking for health-conscious products. So, it’s essentially a retail shop. That was always about 40%-50% of our business. And the majority per cent of our business was the food education platform in China. So, we had a classroom of kitchen demo or kitchen classrooms full of pots and pans and chairs and tables. So, it’s an interactive space where people would learn with me or cooking teachers on how to use ingredients and eat more healthily and with less sugar. There are many different themes and classes and programs that we run there. My mission in the last seven years has been to raise awareness.

Matthieu David: Where was space?

Kimberly Ashton: In Shanghai. It was in downtown Shanghai.

Matthieu David: Okay. I need to know because some people are living in Shanghai too. Okay.

Kimberly Ashton: That was previously. So, we don’t have the physical space there anymore.

Matthieu David: Okay.

Kimberly Ashton: Unfortunately, last year, the landlords took a lot of the spaces back so we don’t have the physical space. We are an online store currently. And we run more focused training and programs. So, over the years, one of my other goals was to train Chinese students to be able to teach the teacher program. So, I trained teachers and they have started their own spaces around Shanghai but also around China. So, we have about six students in Shanghai and then we have students in Dalian and Anhui province. They have their own mini version of this so they have started a shop or a cooking studio about health and nutrition as well. So, at the moment in Shanghai, we don’t have our physical space since last year, but I teach programs and content in my students’ spaces now.

Matthieu David: Who is the typical client you have? I feel it’s actually an overall concern from all of us in China about eating healthy. It’s becoming more of an issue when people become parents and they get children. Basically, how would you describe your typical clients, both on the corporate side and the individual side?

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I’ll start with individuals. When we first started seven years ago, it was definitely more international clientele and returning Chinese who have been to the US or to Europe or Australia. And they had experienced health food. So, it wasn’t so foreign for them to come into a health food store. Now, it took about two years and then it flipped. And then we got about 80% Chinese and 20% expats. That was nice. So that’s always the mission in China as with any business—to have local clientele. So, our target demographic of the Chinese consumer coming into the store in the last five years was definitely, as you mentioned, young between 25 to 35. That was the main demographic. They were white-collar employees and those who were parents for sure. They were very much concerned about their well-being and health.

And also, we had pregnant women or women wanting to get pregnant. So, it’s definitely more women. I would say about 85% of women. We did get some Chinese male customers, especially in the cooking workshops in China. They also wanted to learn how to take health into their own hands. What else? They were more health-conscious. They would be more open to things like fitness, yoga, and looking after their bodies. Out of that 80% of Chinese consumers, I would say about 60%, or 70% maybe even, would have had an illness or be not so unwell or definitely have a family member who has diabetes or cancer or heart disease or some sort of illness, mild illness to chronic illness. And they also wanted to learn more. They know that food is so powerful. It’s encouraged in the Chinese culture to eat well. And I think that this young generation has lost that a little bit with all the fast food and the deliveries. In Shanghai, you can eat it anytime. You pick up the phone and somebody will bring you something to eat, whether it’s healthy or not. So, they realize this. And it’s in their DNA to eat healthier.

And then on the corporate side, our customers were multinationals and medium to large-sized companies. We did a lot of cooking workshops in China and employee wellness programs. I think it started about four or five years ago in Shanghai. So, people will have employee wellness days. They’ll have nutrition speakers. They’ll have activities and education inside the company to make their employees healthier. And I think that’s very popular in the west, but still just quite new in China in the last few years.

Matthieu David: How do you price? As an individual or a company, do you have cooking workshops in China that they can join? Is it one-to-one? What kind of formats do you have and how do you price?

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah. So, we had regular classes almost daily. They were about 5-6 days a week depending on the program. And then we would have days where we would have a corporate booking. So, it wasn’t just open to the public. And there were small classes between around 10 people, sometimes 20 on the weekends. And they were small workshop-style classes. It was mainly groups. We very rarely did one-on-one unless it was like training for a hotel or restaurant—like for chefs. And we did that as well but not so active in that. It was more on a referral basis. And then the corporate side would be us going to the client in the office as part of a wellness day, usually. So that would be a whole week or a whole day of speakers. We have a WeChat platform. I mean everything’s on WeChat. So, we have a WeChat platform and the newsletter so people would see this week’s or next month’s events and also the blogs and articles. And then, they would sign up through WeChat.

Matthieu David: So, most of the time, you have to correct in some way the way people cook or eat. On the opposite, when people have questions, what are the typical elements you have to correct to change in their diet? Especially from China, if we look at Chinese food, a lot of it can be very oily. It also includes a lot of rice. It’s oily as we said. So, do you have to correct that? On the opposite, do you have to complement it? Could you share a bit more of that? What are the feedbacks?

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah, that’s a great question. Not many people ask that question. I like that one. So, I’ll start with the basic one. Like you said, the Chinese diet is quite healthy. You have grains. It’s rice. At the moment, it’s a lot of white rice for the last two generations. So, the first area that we work with people is the whole grain. So, it’s switching from white rice or white flour products to brown rice, black rice, whole wheat, whole grains, or oats for more fiber and more nutrition. So that’s the first step on food education platform in China. And a lot of Chinese people, especially young people, seem to think or comment that it’s kind of like their grandmother or great- grandmother. And so, nobody wants to go backwards. Everybody wants to go forwards. But I think there’s a lot to be learned from traditional Chinese foods and everyday foods that are healthy, not processed, and not refined. So that’s the first area. The big one is whole grains.

The next area is sugar. In Shanghai and the Shanghai region, they have a very sweet palate and they like to put sugar in a lot of salty dishes. So, it’s sweet sauces and the base flavor is sweet. They’re not like Sichuan style where it’s spicy or has a lot of chili. I’m now in Thailand and everything’s very hot and spicy. So, in Shanghai specifically, it’s more about teaching them the effects of sugar on your teeth, on your skin, and your metabolism, on your sleep, and on diabetes, of course. So, there’s a lot of areas and focus around sugar. We did actually run regularly, twice a year, a no-sugar challenge. So, it was a program online and offline in Chinese that people could sign up. So again, we try to blend this education and experience element in there. Oil, as you mentioned, is a huge another topic. So whole grains, sugar, and oil and fat together.

So, educating people around healthy oils and healthy fats is a really big topic for wellness consulting in China. So, it’s teaching them which are the healthier oils. Most people just use vegetable oil, peanut oil, or soybean oil. And they’re not so familiar with other oils—olive oil, seed oil, or sesame oil. So, it’s teaching and educating together. Those would be the key topics, I would say. And then, in the last maybe two, three years, definitely in Shanghai and China and globally, you’ve seen this plant-based movement (vegetarian/vegan). It’s massive. So, it’s healthier as a vegetarian because a lot of young Chinese people are adopting this for environmental reasons or health reasons, but they’re not eating balanced.

So that’s another area that more recently, we’re teaching people about on how to be a healthy vegetarian and how to eat wholesome and healthy and not just reducing meat or taking out certain foods. You need to add a lot of other foods. And it stems actually, if I finish on this point, from the fact that in China, no one really learns nutrition in school. In France or Australia or the US, we have a sense of food preparation or nutrition from the home. Kids are more in the kitchen. They’re more engaged.  And at school and in just life experiences, they know simple things. But in China, the kids are studying and studying and studying. They’re not encouraged to go in the kitchen. And I think they’re missing these life skills. So, we also have kids’ programs that are aimed at getting Chinese children to get their hands dirty like actually washing vegetables or cooking or preparing food. I think this is a huge drawback in China for the young generation; it’s to learn how to cook and learn about nutrition because it’s not taught in schools. It’s not taught. You have to go and study this yourself separately.

Matthieu David: You just talked about nutrition and how you can learn about nutrition in China. One of the questions I had for you is about the industry of nutritionists. I think your co-founder is a nutritionist. There is someone in your team I found who is certified. You said a certified nutritionist. How organized and certified is the industry? I’m asking you this question because we see in China a lot of so-called influencers and Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), but very often, we don’t know on what base they have built this expertise they claim to have. So how dangerous can the industry be? How is the nutrition certification in the Chinese market? Would you mind sharing a bit more about what you have seen in terms of certification and government approvals and so on in China?

Kimberly Ashton: Yes. Yeah, that’s another awesome question. So yes, my co-founder is an accountant actually. I do the main teaching. We have another teacher, Miss Liao, and she’s a Shanghainese nutritionist. I am a Western one. I am a health food chef doing wellness consulting in China, but she is local. So, what she did was she did a nutrition course. It’s not her first major. She didn’t do it at the University. She was working in the corporate world. She studied a government nutrition certification in the Chinese market but it was quite a few years ago—about four or five years ago or more. So, at that time, there was an external course that you could do. It was, as she says, a very old-school, old-style nutrition. It wasn’t modern and applicable for modern times, taking into account Chinese and also Western nutrition. So about two years ago, the government actually stopped that course of nutrition certification in the Chinese market, which is good and bad.

They took one year, 2016, to update the course, which was much needed. And so, for one year, I had Chinese students coming to us. And I get this a lot; a lot of Chinese students who want to learn nutrition in China. But for that one year, there was no course. There was no option. It was completely stopped. So, at the moment, it’s just come back, but it’s more of a medical degree. They want you to be a doctor or a nurse or a clinical nutritionist. So that to me is also quite limiting for the everyday person who wants to learn nutrition. If they speak English, I’m recommending them some online courses or programs in America, Europe, and Australia. But for the student base or population in China who only read and write Chinese, there is one government course. That’s it. So, it’s very limiting.

The other option, though, in the last few years is an American program translated fully into Chinese that runs out of Beijing. And I have some students who’ve done that. So really, there are only two options for nutrition certification in the Chinese market: a formal University Medical nutrition degree or this one-year course. That’s more like a private course. And that’s, as far as I know, the nutrition certification in the Chinese market. That’s all that there is. So, for me, that’s shocking. And yet, at the same time, it’s a huge potential. So, if anyone’s watching who’s doing nutrition education, like formal certifications and nutritionists, I would love to talk to them because I think that there’s a huge potential. It’s not a business opportunity, but an actual need for people to learn about nutrition and for Chinese people, once they have that information, to share with more Chinese people.

But I also want to, lastly, mention your point on the KOLs. I think that’s very, very important. So, there are Key Opinion Leaders in China for anything, whether it’s handbags or fitness or nutrition or business or whatever it is. I think that there are a lot of people who are self-proclaimed KOLs. And that’s fine. But I do encourage people, as you said (which is a very good point) to research, especially if you’re dealing with fitness or medical things or food to see what their certification is. But more so, the experience is really important. And I have a lot of my students who come to learn courses and do training. And I call them paper collectors or certificate collectors because they just want to have a piece of paper that says, “I did a nutrition course or I did this or I did that”. But if you don’t have any life experience, if you don’t actually apply the nutrition in your daily life, I don’t think you’re a good example or an opinion leader in this field. You need to actually have five or ten years’ experience.

Matthieu David: Why do they want the nutrition certification in the Chinese market? 

Kimberly Ashton: Because it’s to show that they’ve done. It is like, “I went to the university and I got this degree. And then, I did a yoga training and I got this certificate”

Matthieu David: I see.

Kimberly Ashton: But you didn’t teach anybody. If you don’t work in a restaurant or a related field, to me, the piece of paper is useless. But there’s a lot of this in China. A lot.

Matthieu David: You were mentioning your team member, Miss Liao. In your presentation, she’s state-certified National Level Two. When I read that, I had the feeling that actually it was much more organized than what I was thinking with even the levels-level one, level two, level three. So, does it mean that you can do Level One where you know a little bit about nutrition? Then at Level Two, you know completely about nutrition. And at Level Three, you’re really an expert. How does it work? I have a hard time understanding if you put levels on it. It’s either you are or aren’t a nutritionist.

Kimberly Ashton: I agree. I totally agree. I think that’s an example for nutrition certification in the Chinese market. But just in general education anywhere in the world, levels are for curriculum development, administration, pricing, and many, many different reasons. It’s not necessarily for education reason, but it’s for curriculum development. And it’s easier for students who want to take one part or one module or one level. So, I’m not against the levels. It’s a general format of developing nutrition certification in the Chinese market. I think it’s fine. But you’re right; it needs to be clear. The course that she did was, as I said, a previous system. They don’t have this anymore. But, yeah, I think it’s just a way for people to progress. And you’re right; if you do level one or level two, again, that comes back to what you learn and how you apply it. For me, the application and experience are much more important than a piece of paper.

Matthieu David: We talked about the KOLs. KOLs are very linked to the internet. They are very linked to new technologies. 80% of your clientele is Chinese now. I believe the Chinese you meet with are very tech-savvy. At least, they are looking for apps. They are looking for devices. They are looking for easy solutions. They’re looking for something which is going to help them to get a routine. Let’s look at the success of health supplements. Just a little bit of health supplements and your life is going to get better. And then, on the other side, you can eat McDonald’s, KFC, and all these foods. So, what technology do you use currently in the market which is helping, supporting, or even replacing services like food education platforms in China or cooking and so on?

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah. Definitely. Especially in the last four or five years in China, in the health and wellness space, technology has definitely grown. And it’s not just WeChat; WeChat is a given. There is this amazing amount of resources. Actually, there are probably too many resources. And I think that leads to confusion just in WeChat itself. A lot of people are writing or selling things. So, for the average Chinese consumers, it’s very hard to know. If they speak English, they can do more research internationally on websites and blogs and find out more information. But in Chinese, it’s very limited to what’s produced in China and maybe in Taiwan in terms of books and blogs and nutrition information. So, I still believe it’s not as much variety which could be good.

Matthieu David: You think it’s limited. I mean, it’s surprising to hear that your intuition would say that you have plenty of documents, but maybe not very certified, not building that much trust and so on. So, you’re saying that, actually, it’s limited.

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah, I think it’s very old-school nutrition information that’s available in China. They are from books or medical journals or things like that. It’s changing for sure. But in my experience in my exposure, it’s still very much traditionally how people should eat. And it still has a little bit of the mentality of deficiency. China, after all, went through so much struggle. It’s a developing country. So, access to things like meat, dairy, and sugar was very little. And so now, I feel like the younger generation wants to eat more of it. And then the nutritionists are saying, “Yeah, go and eat more”. They eat so many eggs a day and drink so much milk. And they’re eating a lot more meat. They’re eating foods that weren’t natural to their body type and their culture. And so that’s what I mean when I say the information to that is limited. People think that they should eat more steak because it’s there now. They can afford it. That’s not a nutritionally sound reason.

But back to technology, definitely, WeChat has enabled a lot of people through social media, WeChat stores, books, blogs, and online courses. I think in the area of the apps, the space around that is very interesting. There’s been a lot of Chinese-developed as well as international medical and health apps for finding doctors and certified practitioners. So, there’s been a lot of space in that. So that’s really helping consumers. The health insurance companies are really into this right now—having online resources for corporates. And they’re building programs in-house for corporations, for medical, and for the wellness of their employees. So, I think they’re really utilizing technology the best. And you mentioned another one. Yeah, I think food education platform in China is also a very, very exciting space for health and wellness. There are a lot of online podcasts and lectures by Chinese medical doctors, nutritionists, and fitness people. So that for me is very exciting in terms of using technology for health and wellness. It’s something I also think is a good direction that we should be moving in.

Matthieu David: In the name of the companies, you have the word ‘lifestyle’. Sprout Lifestyle. Yin Lifestyle. Could you tell us, if you go further than food, where do you stop?

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah. That’s a good question. We don’t stop. So, I believe in a holistic approach to health food. For me, it’s like the core or one entry point. But for sure, it’s not just what you eat. You could eat really, really amazingly healthy food every day but if need to have other lifestyle habits around sleep, for example, movement, and breathing. So, this is a state of mind and body. I’m a yoga teacher as well. And I think in China, yoga itself has exploded as well for good reason. People need it. So, yeah, we take a holistic approach mainly for food, movement, exercise, and also helping people to not to sleep better but think better and calmer. So, as I said, we had a health food store and we run the food education platform in China. But we often partner with yoga teachers or fitness people and different brands because we all have the same common goal which is to improve health and wellness. And that’s a mind-body experience. It’s a whole-body experience. It’s not just what you eat.

So, in my personal practice, I do one-on-one coaching. It’s definitely a very holistic approach. Someone might come for a digestion issue but we have to look at their work and their stress and other factors of their lifestyle. So, we came up with the name when we were thinking about Sprout Lifestyle, sprout is the growth or the beginning or the start of something healthy, like alfalfa sprouts, Brussels sprouts, or broccoli sprouts. And then, lifestyle is encompassing this broader approach.

Matthieu David: You just mentioned coaching. And I’d ask the same question for the nutritionist. How organized and certified is the industry? I think there were some efforts in the West to organize the industry for diplomas or certificates or degrees. How about China? Are the clients looking for certification to reassure them and build their trust? You may know this person but there is no nutrition certification in the Chinese market to back them. 

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah, the coaching world is a little bit better than the nutrition certification in the Chinese market, I would say. Coaching as a modality or specialization has been around a little bit longer. It’s very much internationally influenced. And there are many different courses that are either in English or now have a Chinese version or translated full program. But coaching is still in the realm of life coaching and executive coaching. There are very few nutrition coaching courses. I have heard some of my Chinese students have done like a health coach type program, but it’s very short. It’s a couple of days or weeks at most and I’m not sure what they teach in there because at least students are coming to my courses and doing my cooking programs. And they’re asking questions that I’m a bit surprised, to be honest. And I’m like, “Don’t you learn this in your health coaching?”

So, the coaching industry is very developed. I’m part of the Shanghai and China coaching Association, but it’s 99% executive coaching, life coaching, or more like mental coaching. In terms of health and nutrition coaching, there aren’t many. I know many Chinese peers that have done an international program. It’s one that I did many years ago. Yeah, it’s an online program for wellness coaching. But they’re all out of Western countries in English. So, these Chinese students speak English. So again, it comes back to this gap that I see this potential for Chinese-based coaching programs for nutrition certification in the Chinese market, but whether they’re locally created or not, I don’t know—Harvard University or these wonderful programs in America, Australia, and Europe. And maybe these people aren’t interested or they don’t know how to get into the China market. But I’m sure you could help them, actually—like getting in to set up a program whether it’s online or not. I think it’s much needed. And I know that there’s a demand. A big demand.

Matthieu David: Going back to food and kitchen and cooking workshops in China, I see in some malls, spaces for cooking. A kitchen.  

Kimberly Ashton: Yes.

Matthieu David: They have an organized space for a kitchen. This particular mall is a premium mall—I mean not the ultra-luxury. But it’s a premium mall and they have an in-between shop for chocolates and other stuff.  You have this kitchen. What’s going on with those spaces? I see the same in Beijing. So, what’s going on with this kind of concept? Do you think it’s profitable? What do they teach? What do they do? Is it to learn pastries or is it to learn healthy food?

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah, you are right. There are lots of shopping malls and brands. It started actually a few years ago because they would approach us as well because everyone’s looking for content. In my space, health, wellness, and nutrition it’s purely content. They are content-starved. They get blogs and other things where they are generating content all the time. But in this particular space, nutrition and health and these kitchens, they have no teachers. They have no programs. They have no content. So, there’s another gap for writing programs or writing content. So, the kitchens started with kitchen brands. So, whether it’s the kitchen appliance—so Siemens or Fang Tai which is a very large kitchen setup company.All the manufacturers of appliances like blenders and pots and pans started their kitchen classrooms or demo kitchens as a way to showcase their products or their kitchen installations to sell products. 

Matthieu David: I see. Okay.

Kimberly Ashton: So that was the first way. So then, they realized another way to use the space is also to have healthier things. That’s when the health trend started—health foods, raw foods, diets, and all sorts of fun things. So, it comes in waves. So, then this other wave of healthy food came in. We would get a lot of calls. And so, we would also work with different brands like blender brands and kitchen appliance brands to bring the content, bring the food, the ingredients, and just use their products. So, they’re not trying to push sales on their products, but they just needed to use the space. So that’s one part. And now, they are in Shanghai. The most recent and best example of this is Hunter Gatherer. It’s a health food cafe and store. They are a very large brand. They own a bunch of other things as well. So, they just installed a kitchen. My co-teacher teaches there.

So, they built a beautiful kitchen and they sell some products but their goal actually is more on the education side. They also have an online supermarket. So again, it’s more about these large companies cross-selling, which is fine. I think it’s a good way to spread healthy eating. So, they designed a healthy kitchen. They’re not a kitchen appliance brand. They’re not a shopping mall. They built it in their own space.

But going back to the shopping malls, I think that it’s a nice idea to have a kitchen space where you can have events. So, this is another area in China where it’s growing. They are interactive events to promote something or sell something or do something. So, I think that the spaces are great to get people at the house to meet other people or learn something. And ultimately, they’re trying to sell you something but it could be a good thing that you need. So, it’s okay.

Matthieu David: We talked a lot about new retail. You can have virtual reality or augmented reality in the shop. But actually, one of the new retail waves is to have good salespeople. It’s to have salespeople who are experts. 

Kimberly Ashton: Yes. 

Matthieu David: And when you go to a kitchen where you learn how to cook and you want to buy the ingredients, then it’s a good salesperson, in fact. It’s the same as if you have a teacher of music and then you can buy the instruments. I have one more question about innovation in your industry. The founder of Uber—I’ve never remembered his name (he’s not working at Uber anymore as we know)—wants to start a shared kitchen business. And I think he decided to start that in South Korea. Actually, he had China in mind. He was looking at China. Maybe China could be too difficult to start with. But he started with South Korea as far as I remember with the information I had. 

Kimberly Ashton: Okay.

Matthieu David: Do you see something happening in a shared kitchen, where some people will book a kitchen for some time to cook something specific and bring it home or to eat close by and so on? Is it something happening in China, because now we know that China can be ahead of innovation?

Kimberly Ashton: Absolutely. I think that some things are a bit behind or slower in China. But then, as I mentioned in the beginning when it happens, it comes into China as an idea. It doesn’t matter what it is. Like in my field, juicing, detox juices came in three years ago in Shanghai. There were 16 brands making juice. Same thing. Just juice. I was counting them and they were all the same. So, when things happen, they come in and explode. So, in terms of technology and this chef idea, I think that some people are doing it on a very small scale. I’m not sure the technology side behind the guy from Uber wanting to do it, but there is demand for that and, yes, I think that would work. There are two sides. One is more like the fine-dining chef experience, whether they’re going there and having a chef cook or having food delivered or having a chef come to their house. That already happens. And then, the other side is the mass consumer side. Again, I am not familiar if he’s talking about mass production or takeaway or different dining experiences. But I would assume that if it’s technology-based, then it’s more like delivery or order. 

Matthieu David: I believe what he was thinking of is that you have a good kitchen and you want to share it like Airbnb. And you would share with your neighbor. In a sense, what I found is that in China, it could make sense because there’s such a density in one compound where you can have 2000 or 3000 people. That’s the size of my village in France. And you can have a very good kitchen you would share for making a good cake or making something very specific and so on. So basically, the sharing economy is where he wants to invest. Have you seen something happening in the food industry and the sharing economy where people share? The SuperMonkey fitness centers actually owned their space and then the teacher goes there. It’s actually a bit like what you described with a kitchen where they invite you and you have your clients in this kitchen, but they are offering the space. 

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah.

Matthieu David: Are you seeing something like this happening in the food industry?

Kimberly Ashton: Not like that. No.

Matthieu David: Okay.

Kimberly Ashton: Actually, I think that would be good potential. I’ve seen it in the fitness industry like you just mentioned. And people have asked us to come into that. It was more in co-working spaces so they would have us there. The problem for us is that it wasn’t a real kitchen. It was more like just a counter and some simple basic things. So, we could do simple things there but it’s not a full kitchen to make full meals. But I think the idea that you just mentioned would work very, very well. I’ve seen it in the fitness industry in Shanghai, for sure. People have spaces, whether it’s an office or a restaurant, in the middle of the afternoon or early morning.

And people do yoga classes there. And for sure, it’s already happening. So, the use of technology and the online and offline coming together works very well. My only concern with that for a kitchen would be that the different elements. You’ve got fire. Is it a safe environment? And then, I’m not sure how the government would manage the hygiene as well. So, there are other elements. It’s not as simple as just space, but I think it could work. And I think there are some beautiful shared spaces, and some beautiful shared kitchens either public or private. So, yeah, if he wants to do it, I think it could work with the right angle. Yeah.

Matthieu David: This is one question I haven’t asked you; what’s the difference between your two companies. Sprout lifestyle and Yin lifestyle both have the word ‘lifestyle’. What are the differences?

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah, so, Yin Lifestyle is a newer project. It’s more outside of China than inside. The idea came to me about 18 months ago. It’s a more holistic approach. So, it’s not just the food or the healthy food education platform in China. It’s from my passion for food and Yin yoga which is very popular at the moment. It’s a very slow form of yoga and it comes from Chinese meridians. TCM. A little bit more. So, I wanted to start this idea of slowing down because I was doing it myself—slowing down, managing stress through food, yoga, and movement. So, my partner and I created this brand. So, it’s still very new and we are doing things like Qigong, yoga, food, and creating workshops. It’s more of service than a physical product brand. So, that’s still in development, but I would love for people to watch that space. And as I said, that’s more outside of China. So, we’re more active on Facebook, Instagram, and WeChat. 

Matthieu David: Okay. Does it mean that you would bring Chinese outside of China to that? That’s part of it, right? 

Kimberly Ashton: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. So, when I say more international, it just means it’s more international location-wise but people could come from anywhere. Absolutely. So, I already have Chinese students coming with me to learn different food and wellness related topics in Asia—in Thailand, Bali, and also in Japan. So, I have one of my teachers actually in Japan. So, we run food education programs in Japan. We’ve been there twice already. I was just there. And we’re going again next spring. So, we take students off-site as well. And I think that’s part of the learning experience. There are so many wonderful things in China. There’s so much good food. There are so many good spaces to teach from, but everybody likes to travel and experience new things and learn. So that’s part of my growing which is still very new, but I want to spread what I’ve been doing also further in Asia and not just in Shanghai or in China. 

Matthieu David: Actually, I feel we skipped this question. It’s about pricing. How much do you charge per hour or per student to give an idea to the people who are listening to us about the cost it would be for them?

Kimberly Ashton: Sure, so the cooking workshops in China were pretty affordable. They’re around ¥200 to ¥300 depending on the program. And they were about two hours or three hours including food. You get to eat the food too.

Matthieu David: Okay. Yeah.

Kimberly Ashton: So, I think it was a good price for Shanghai. It’s a big city. So, it’s okay. Maybe not in a third-tier city. That would be a little bit harder price. But compared to, say, Hong Kong or the biggest cities in London or in Sydney, if you were to do a cooking workshop in China, it’s very, very affordable.

Matthieu David: Yeah.

Kimberly Ashton: Comparatively.

Matthieu David: Yeah. 

Kimberly Ashton: And then we would have half-day cooking workshops in China. We have these three-day or four-day training. So it would depend. So, on average, it’s about ¥900 for a day program, again, with one to two meals and all the content on a PowerPoint presentation. Usually, if you’re doing training, you’d get a manual or study notes. So, in my opinion, it’s very affordable. But it’s China and so, it’s a different pricing structure, but that’s about right. So, it’s ¥200 for a one-off cooking workshop in China. And if it’s a two or three-day workshop, it’s around ¥900. And so, I’m in China in October for the month teaching in four different cities. And that’s also about the same pricing that we do.

Matthieu David: Okay. You are actually coming in October because of the holidays. And that’s actually when people take time to learn. 

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah. 

Matthieu David: I see. 

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah. 

Matthieu David: Okay. 

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah, traditionally, students typically have to work. So, weekends and holidays are their most popular. So, for example, if I was to do a cooking workshop in China or training, it’d be in the May holiday or the Octobor holiday or times when people don’t have to take time off work to come. So, I will be in Shanghai and Hangzhou actually teaching food therapy training. And then, I’ll be doing every weekend in October in different cities because my students are hosting me now, which is wonderful. So, they have their own space. They have their own classroom and their own store. 

So, I’m going to Xiamen and Hainan. They are all setting themselves up and they want to have a visiting teacher. So, I will go and help support their business and just grow the network, which is what I want to do.

Matthieu David: We are close to the end of the interview. And as we do now, we end the interview with nine questions. 

Kimberly Ashton: Okay.

Matthieu David: The first one is what has inspired you most in your entrepreneur journey or as a nutritionist or a lifestyle coach?

Kimberly Ashton: Okay. So that’s a big question for me. It could take another hour, but I’ll just answer as short as I can because I love books. I’m addicted to books—physical books or eBooks. Just books. And so, they are in the areas of personal growth, nutrition, and alternative or natural wellness consulting in China. And I really like books that have personal stories so that you’re learning from wellness people who’ve done this before or in their fields. I think that the passion and motivation come from that for me. They’re all mainly American or Australian authors in the wellness field. Those are the areas. So, they are those kinds of books for me. 

Matthieu David: Would you name a few, like one or two?

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah, sure. So, I like doctors and nutritionists as well. So, Dr. Colin Campbell and Dr. Neal Barnard. They’re all researchers in the effects of food and nutrition on health. I have many, many books and some of them are in Chinese. Dr. Neal Barnard has many books in Chinese on diabetes and cancer. So, I read really serious, heavy topics. And then, I read a lot of entrepreneurship books. And in this field, I really like Gabrielle Bernstein. And there’s a very popular lady, Marie Forleo. She does business. She does a very wonderful program, Marie TV, about starting your own business with your passion. It’s not wellness-focused, but it’s very, very inspiring. She has courses and things like that. So, I’m inspired by other people who’ve done wonderful pioneering things.

Matthieu David: I’m sorry I’m adding a question. When you read books about nutrition, don’t you find sometimes contradicting advice and tips? And how do you deal with that? I am sure I am not the only one. I read something on one blog and something else on another blog. And they cannot go together. So how do you deal with those contradictions?

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah, definitely. So, I’ve read so many books. I’m not just claiming to know everything but I’ve read so many books that I decide what part of it that I agree with. And the best way to do it is to try.

Matthieu David: Okay. 

Kimberly Ashton: So, I’m here at the moment in Thailand teaching nutrition. And I always start any cooking class or nutrition lecture with, “Don’t listen to me. I mean, listen to what I have to say but you don’t have to believe it. You have to try it. So, if I say don’t eat meat, try it. If I say to eat meat, try it. See what works for your body”. So, there is definitely a lot of information out there. And nutrition is a huge and very personal topic. So, I am not discouraged. I read more. And then I start to read between the lines. And then I realize, “Okay, this may not work for me. I don’t agree with this”. And that’s fine. It’s okay to disagree with a principle. 

Matthieu David: Yeah, that’s the reason I think a coach, actually, is necessary. There are too many contradictory truths and findings and it’s hard to choose what’s going to be good for you. What do you read to keep up to date about China? Do you have blogs you read? Do you have WeChat accounts you follow? Are there any social networks you use? 

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah. So, my answer would be WeChat to start with, but I’m in a lot of groups and they post wonderful resources. So, there are a lot of health nutrition groups in English or Chinese. And to be honest, I don’t follow too many key opinion leaders. I like to make up my own mind about the nutrition side, but I like to follow a few nutrition blogs and plant-based vegetarian forums because they’re raising really good questions. They are relevant ones for me and my industry. And they’re posting a lot of information which is really interesting. And events too. So that would be one. In terms of business or general economics and definitely

online newspapers or even international people that are focused on the business side, LinkedIn is actually a really good one. And I have a lot of friends that have been in Shanghai for so long.

Matthieu David: It’s incredible how LinkedIn became media. 

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Matthieu David: All the interviewees I have on the show are actually telling me it’s LinkedIn. It’s mind-blowing how LinkedIn has become a source of information for people living in China. I believe it’s also because Facebook and Google are restricted or forbidden in China. So, people refer to LinkedIn.

Kimberly Ashton: Absolutely. Yeah. And there is the space to post blogs and articles. So, I like to read other people’s articles, whether it’s in general business or doing things in China. It’s fine. There’s not much on there in my area of nutrition in China, but just for general, I like to keep a look on that. Maybe not daily, but I like to look at that as well. And then, I like to see what’s trendy or happening in the industry overseas because that’s going to eventually go to China. So, in health and nutrition, if it’s popular in Australia or New York or LA or London or Paris, chances are someone’s going to do it in China soon. So, I like to see those trends—like predicting some trends. 

Matthieu David: If you had some extra time, what would you do on top of the two businesses you have?

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah, we all wish we had extra time. So, one thing I’m doing but I do wish I had more time for is to write more courses and another book. I’m actually about to publish my second book—first in Chinese. I wrote my first book in English but published in China. And my second book is called Chinese Superfoods. And it’s coming out any day now. Hopefully, by the end of the year. It’s being published in Beijing. But I’m already working on my next book, which will be a dessert book in Chinese. It’s a healthy dessert book. 

Matthieu David: Interesting.

Kimberly Ashton: So, if I had more time, I would write more books. For the Chinese market, I think there’s a need for it. 

Matthieu David: So where can they find your book? 

Kimberly Ashton: They will find it anywhere and everywhere soon. I’m just waiting for the publishing process which is a whole other story. It’s a whole discussion. It takes a long time.

Matthieu David: Online?

Kimberly Ashton: Online and offline. It’ll be everywhere. People can follow us (Sprout Lifestyle) on WeChat to hear about that. On WeChat, it’s the Sprout Lifestyle in China. Otherwise, if people use Instagram, it’s Yin Lifestyle. If they’re watching and they’re not in China, they can follow me on LinkedIn at Kimberly Ashton.

Matthieu David: How did you publish your book in China because you are not Chinese? You don’t have Chinese citizenship. Censorship still exists. You have to go through approvals and so on, I believe. But still, you feel it’s doable. It may be not that easy but it’s doable, isn’t it?

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah, it’s very doable. It’s doable. It’s just a very long process depending on your topic. And mine is on nutrition. By the time it’s published, it’s probably one year. 

Matthieu David: Is it one year by the time you finish the book and publish it or by the time you start to have an agreement on what to write on and then publishing?

Kimberly Ashton: With just the agreement. The writing process is a whole different process. That’s my own time. But just working with a publisher, to get the editing, to get the approvals, and to get the ISBN number is a whole other discussion.

Matthieu David: I see. 

Kimberly Ashton: So, we started at the beginning of this year and we should be out by the end of the year. For me to write the book, it took two years. Before that, it was recipes and photography. And so, it’s a lot of work. But the actual administration and paperwork take a long time. The other reason is I mentioned a little bit of Chinese medicine. So, once you put the word ‘food, nutrition, and medicine’ in the book, that takes it to a different category. If you’re writing a book on business, it’s probably a lot easier. So, we had to get a doctor to read the book and approve the book. So, it drags out a little bit too long. It was supposed to be in the summer but I’m hoping by the end of the year.

Matthieu David: So, will your books be in a purely Chinese bookstore like Xinhua Shudian and those stores?

Kimberly Ashton: Yes, I hope so. Yeah.

Matthieu David: Wow. Impressive. 

Kimberly Ashton: It’s called Chinese Superfoods. The name of the book in Chinese is ‘Superfoods You Can’t Live Without’. There’s a Chinese title they made. The publishing world has been a very interesting experience. I’m ready to do another one. I’m just more prepared emotionally and physically for the next one, but it’s a nice learning experience. Yeah. 

Matthieu David: Yeah. Actually, I didn’t have time to ask all your questions. There’s only one hour. Good answers. Thank you very much for your time. It was very, very interesting. I think you are in an industry that is, for sure, going to grow. And I believe that it’s a mass healthy market actually which is going to happen. I’m surprised actually that those chains like Starbucks, McDonald’s, and KFC don’t go into healthy food because they have the retail space. They have the presence. At some point, I think they will have to go into that.

Kimberly Ashton: Yeah. 

Matthieu David: Alright. Thank you very much for being with us again. We hope you enjoyed it. And I hope everyone enjoyed the talk. Thanks, everyone. Bye bye.

Kimberly Ashton: Great. Thank you. Bye


China paradigm is a China business podcast sponsored by Daxue Consulting where we interview successful entrepreneurs about their businesses in China. You can access all available episodes from the China paradigm Youtube page.

Do not hesitate to reach out our project managers at dx@daxue-consulting.com to get all answers to your questions

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