Amici’s Pizzeria Adds Far East to its Chain
Sophie Lo is convinced the burgeoning middle class of China’s largest city has a craving for upscale Bay Area pizza and pasta.
The Menlo Park businesswoman and her brother, developer Jimmy Lo, are working with officials of Amici’s East Coast Pizzeria Inc. to open the first restaurant of the San Mateo-based chain in Shanghai on Jan. 5. The 7,500-square-foot restaurant in the city’s upscale Huaihai Road shopping district will be Amici’s first location outside the Bay Area, where it operates 12 restaurants, including in San Jose, Cupertino, Mountain View, Menlo Park and San Mateo.
Lo says Amici’s is typical of many businesses on this side of the Pacific looking to expand into China, where the culture has become increasingly affluent, savvy and American friendly. There is a strong appetite for American products.
The wealthy city of Shanghai, the world’s largest city, has 23 million residents, including four million expatriates from the U.S. and other nations.
“Chinese people enjoy good food,” said Lo, citing the Chinese proverb, “To the ruler, the people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven.”
But she added, the Chinese tend to eat smaller portions of food at meals than do Americans and believes that customers there will appreciate the small and thin-crust pizzas Amici’s offers.
Lo said it will cost $1.5 million to open the first Amici’s in Shanghai. Her brother is handling store development in Asia. They and Amici’s owner Peter Cooperstein hope to open at least 200 Amici’s locations around China over the next decade or so. Expansion into neighboring Asian countries is possible.
“Shanghai is very westernized and young people in particular really admire everything about U.S. culture, including the food,” she said.
Strong roots in Asia
A native of Hong Kong with deep family ties in Shanghai, Lo has spent much of her career helping North American and European businesses tap into Chinese markets. The world’s largest nation has 1.3 billion people and an economy growing at 9.5 percent annually.
Most of her clients have been bigger than Amici’s, which projects 2011 sales of $32 million. Her resume compiled through her family’s company, Sun Lee Holdings, includes work with Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell plc and Bayer AG, along with Nova Chemicals Corp. and Mitsui Chemicals Inc.
Lo moved to the Bay Area initially in 1986, earning a bachelor’s degree in international marketing from San Francisco State University. She returned to Asia to work with Sun Lee Holdings, but came back to the Bay Area in 1994 to found Sound Perfection. The company designs and installs audio, video and home theater systems.
She continued to keep an eye out for potential Chinese success stories among companies from the United States and other western countries. A loyal Amici’s customer, she met Cooperstein when she became the landlord of his Menlo Park location in 2009.
The pair realized the Chinese are no strangers to pizza. Its availability ranges from versions served in fine-dining establishments to the country’s 560 Pizza Hut locations.
She also convinced Cooperstein that the cost of doing business in China isn’t prohibitive, and the profits could be healthy, too.
“Rents in Shanghai can be three or four times more expensive than in the Bay Area, but labor costs are 25 percent of what they are here,” Cooperstein said. “Our target audience will be the locals in Shanghai who have a taste for upscale products and American food.”
Cooperstein said he estimates his company’s first Shanghai eatery could generate about $5 million in annual sales.
Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic Inc., a Chicago food industry research and consulting firm, gives Amici’s a reasonable shot at Asian success.
“This is the time to get into China,” he said. “The economy is growing and it has a huge population. As long as American companies adapt to Chinese culture and tastes, they can be successful. Not as much money is being invested in restaurants (in the U.S.) because the economy is still terrible. I expect to see a lot more interest in China.”