The chili sauce of the Chinese brand “Lao Gan Ma” doesn’t exactly look all that glamorous, the design even seems really old-fashioned. And yet, it has a cult following in China: You can buy Lao Gan Ma T-shirts and mobile phone covers on the internet. At New York Fashion Week in 2018, sweaters appeared donning the likeness of the somber-looking woman in the logo. Her name is Tao Huabi. She is the creator of Lao Gan Ma, which translates roughly to “old godmother.” As a successful businesswoman who had no formal education and was forced to overcome many hardships in life, the 77-year-old is regarded by many Chinese today as the ultimate embodiment of the “Chinese Dream”.
Tao was born in 1947 in Guizhou, one of China’s poorest provinces. Her biography titled “If I Hadn’t Been Strong, I Would’ve Starved” became a bestseller in China. Instead of learning to read and write, Tao had to help feed the family as a child. She invented her product during the Great Famine that followed Mao’s campaign of the “Great Leap Forward.” At that time, between 1959 and 1961, several million Chinese died. The combination of wild-growing medicinal plants and home-grown chili peppers was intended to make the meager root vegetables that served as her family’s main food source at the time a little more palatable.
After years as a migrant worker, Tao, who was widowed at an early age, had saved up enough money in the late 1980s to open a small cookshop. There, however, she discovered that customers came not primarily for her noodles, but for the homemade chili sauce she used to spice up the dishes.
At the end of 1994, Tao opened a small shop where she offered her preserved chili oil sauce in different varieties. It was the cornerstone of the Lao Gan Ma empire: today, the group Tao runs with her two sons is the largest producer and seller of chili products in China, producing 1.3 million jars per day. In 2020, the company achieved record sales of more than 5.4 billion yuan (about 835.6 million U.S. dollars) – a 7 percent increase from the previous year. “I have to be the number one if I want to do anything,” says the aged entrepreneur.
Revered like a pop star
Tao’s sauces – there are now 17 different varieties available – can now be found in Asian supermarkets in more than 30 countries. YouTube is home to numerous videos paying homage to the spicy ingredient. In early 2020, British chef Alex Rushmer proclaimed on Twitter, “I would eat a bowl of gravel if it was smothered in Lao Gan Ma.” She even has her own fan clubs – on Facebook, the Lao Gan Ma Appreciation Society has 4000 members.
An unbelievable success story – yet Tao still forgoes modern marketing. Lao Gan Ma has no social media accounts and its website hasn’t been updated in years, nor has its logo, which is still emblazoned with Tao’s grim likeness. “We sell the taste, not the packaging,” she once said.
In 2019, Lao Gan Ma was named one of China’s top 100 brands along with China Mobile, TikTok, Tsingtao, Huawei and Alibaba. Still, Tao does not want to take her company public. “Going public is cheating money from others,” she said in 2013. For the government in Beijing, the millionaire entrepreneur is a patriotic role model. Tao, who to this day cannot read properly, is a party member and active as a representative of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress in her native Guizhou.
When asked about the price difference of Lao Gan Ma in China (ten yuan, which is about 1.30 euros per glass) and other countries (4.99 euros on Amazon.de), she says: “I am Chinese. I don’t make money from Chinese people. I want to sell Lao Gan Ma abroad and make money from foreigners.” Fabian Peltsch