NRN speaks with Greg Walther, president and CEO of a joint-venture between AmRest Holdings and Stubb’s Asia Ltd.
La Tagliatella, a casual-dining concept that is a joint venture between Europe-based AmRest Holdings and Texas-based Stubb’s Asia Ltd., will open a unit in Shanghai this fall.
Greg Walther, president and chief executive of the partnership, known as AmRest HK Ltd., is in the process of opening both La Tagliatella and the Stubb’s BBQ concept in Shanghai this fall. The first La Tagliatella restaurant opened in 2001.
Concept owner AmRest Holdings has more than 135 of the Madrid-based La Tagliatella restaurants throughout Spain, France and Andorra, and plans to open one in Atlanta this fall through a separate partnership.
AmRest Holdings has a portfolio of about 700 restaurants, including the U.S.-based brands Applebee’s, Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks.
Walther said La Tagliatella will be known in China as Chun Yi Tang, or “Pure Italian Heaven.” The concept serves Northern Italian cuisine.
Walther, who has worked in international development with Outback Steakhouse and Brinker International, spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about the developments in China.
Can you tell us a little more about La Tagliatella?
It looks like fine dining but at casual-dining prices. The inside is heavily wooded to look like a Northern Italian home. Parts of the restaurant look like a library. It’s positioned in Europe, and we’re going to do the same positioning in China. It has a real “wow effect” when you walk in. … It looks like an old villa.
The forthcoming La Tagliatella restaurant in Atlanta is slated at about 5,200 square feet. How about the Shanghai unit?
My units are going to be closer to the European model, which seats about 180. We’re anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 square feet. The main difference is there is no belly-up bar. We only have a service bar.
How will it fit into the Chinese market?
One, they love brands. Two, they love nice things. And three, they are always concerned about value.
You are also taking Stubbs BBQ into China?
We have a site under construction for that as well. We won’t have a 2,000-person music venue, but we will have music and serve authentic Texas barbecue. … We will have an exact replica of the big belly-up bar they have in Austin, and an authentic wood smoker.
You worked with Outback in the Far East before. What has changed?
The change has been unbelievable. It’s hard to overstate how much it has changed. It’s like night and day. In fact, the pace of change is increasing. There’s a tsunami of young urban professionals — well-educated and well-compensated — and they are looking for where and how to spend their significant disposable income. They eat out quite frequently. This group increasingly eats out with a knife and fork instead of chopsticks.
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And what has been the most significant change in the business climate?
The most significant change has been the establishment of what is known as a WOFE [pronounced “woofie”], a wholly owned foreign entity. You are no longer required to have Chinese partners. That’s been in place for approximately five years. … I’ve been doing Western casual dining internationally for 20 years, and without a doubt this is the best market in the world right now. Its time has come.
When are the actual openings planned?
La Tagliatella will open Sept. 15, and the Stubbs should be open about Oct. 15. We have two more La Tagliatellas that will open before the end of the year.
What type of neighborhoods will they be located in?
They will all be in center Shanghai. It tends to be a vertical city. We’re not opening in a typical ex-pat neighborhood. Our target is the young, urban Chinese professional. If I had to define it easily, our target is anyone who carries a smartphone.
Do you have any advice for those interested in going into Shanghai now?
I’d urge them to make sure whatever they are bringing to the market is appealing. A short answer is: Do your homework. We learned from our preparation and our focus groups and interaction with our demographic.
Do you have any plans to open restaurants elsewhere in China?
We want to establish ourselves first in Shanghai, which is quite frankly the commercial capital of China, and from there we can branch out to other major Tier One cities. Starbucks has gone there, and they are now going to the Tier Twos and Tier Threes.
How are you using social media to introduce these concepts to Shanghai residents?
Our platform for the launch of both brands is based on the smartphone. One of the differences between the markets, and we learned this early on, is that China has more Internet users than anywhere else in the world. Most of those people are on the Internet through their phones, not necessarily going home and getting on the computer. That’s how they communicate back and forth with each other.
How do you approach it?
We have built a brand launch around social media, bloggers, the equivalent of Facebook and Twitter. We use game-ification through our mobi websites. It’s a multi-prong approach. We’ll play out a series in our story through characters blogging about the brand. Then we’ll introduce different games you can earn points and prizes with, which will need to be redeemed at the restaurant and generate foot traffic and interest in the brands. I don’t think it’s ever been easier to launch a new brand in a new place. When I was with Brinker and opening Chili’s, I had an employee in a pepper outfit handing out leaflets.