U.S. newcomer plans to take on established heavyweights
Pizza Hut and Papa John's may be the pizza pioneers in China, but another U.S. company is looking to take a more gourmet approach to win a big slice of the Chinese mainland market.
Cottage Inn Pizza, founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1948, said it plans to expand internationally by adding many new locations in China, where it already has an outlet in Qingdao, in East China's Shandong province.
“Pizza Hut has perfected its craft. It's been in China for so long, it has established itself,” said Joseph Langenbacher, Cottage Inn Pizza director of product development.
“Where we come in is that in the U.S. we're more of a gourmet pizza chain that offers more of an upscale pizza product.”
Cottage Inn opened its first location in Qingdao late last year, saying that the expansion into China was a “monumental step” in the company's history and that it had plans to open 200 stores in the next 15 years. The family-run company has 56 locations across the U.S. and is looking to reach 100 stores by the end of 2017.
Investors from China expressed an interest in starting a mainland pizza chain, said Langenbacher, which led to scouting for locations in Qingdao and Beijing.
Qingdao was quickly selected as the first city, because it already had an established pizza culture and customer base, with many Pizza Hut and Papa John outlets already located there, he said.
“We wanted to have the same principles in China, so we really wanted to focus on the quality of product, whether it's the pizza or the expanded menu,” he said.
Pizza Hut offers a sit-in restaurant experience and Langenbacher said Cottage Inn would offer a similar environment for its customers, with an expanded menu adapted to Chinese tastes.
“We feel like we have to offer the restaurant experience,” Langenbacher said. “It's more suitable to have an actual dining experience for the area. They enjoy taking their time with their family and dining.”
He said his company also looked at several existing pizza chains in China that have tried delivering pizzas and found that Chinese customers preferred going to a restaurant than eating pizzas at home.
“We really want to focus on the dine-in experience in China, because they really love the American culture, and we want to bring that to them,” Langenbacher said.
The Chinese menu includes additions such as rice dishes, pasta dishes, popcorn chicken and pizzas catering to local tastes, such as with shrimp or durian toppings.
U.S.-style flavors like buffalo sauce were removed from the menu because local consumers didn't fancy them, Langenbacher said.