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COVER STORY: Tianjin’s Revolutionising Restaurateurs
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altThe recently formed De Ke Zhi Restaurant Management Company Ltd is a multinational investment company with an ambitious mission in China. According to co-owner, Carmelo Micallef, the company’s objective is to help revolutionise Tianjin’s ‘social infrastructure’ by providing unique and unsurpassable dining venues within the city. In November, the group opened the first of many restaurants and nightspots that they have lined up to take the city’s expat and Chinese communities by storm. The Texas BBQ Saloon, situated in Aocheng’s Magnetic Plaza, looks set to become one of the most popular places to eat and drink for the foreseeable future. We caught up with this dynamic management team to get an insight into their exciting new business.
 
First of all, give our readers a bit of background about the De Ke Zhi team.
Our company is comprised of experienced business minded individuals from China, UK and the USA with substantial experience within different aspects of business - ranging from real estate, marketing, hospitality, catering and the investment industry. After discussing various business ideas based on what was (and wasn’t) happening in Tianjin, we came together as a group looking to embark on a number of serious, long term business projects in the food and beverage sector.
Alan Wang is the Chairman of family Investment Company, who for the past several years has invested in Beijing, and was motivated by a Warren Buffett saying that ‘it will always be safe to invest in what people eat’ Coupling this with the desire to redirect much of their investment to Tianjin because of its strong growth expectations led to joining up with this team. They see Tianjin as a city of culture with a substantial Chinese middle class who are looking for good quality food, nice places to relax, and to experience authentic western culture. In addition, Tianjin Expats are looking for ‘real western food’. The Alumni of Peking University, where Alan received his EMBA, feature strongly in our investment team: Lai Mengchen (Chairperson of Tianjin Dekezhi Restaurant Management Co Ltd) also graduated from Peking University before doing post graduate studies at UCL (London) and Leuven University (Belgium). Both are proud Tianjin local people looking to contribute to the future development of their home city. Mengchen fully understands and respects both the Chinese  and Western markets; from the initial introduction Alan was highly impressed by her knowledge and strong negotiation skills. All of us believe that the Western and Chinese combination is the best way to develop the business.
 
alt What inspired you to open the Texas BBQ Saloon as the company’s first venue?
During our initial market research phase we found gaps in the market and focused on identifying what Tianjin really needs in terms of food and beverage locations. Another of our funders and head chef, Larry Steed, has spent 12 years in Texas.  We strongly believe that our BBQ will be a  revolution for the restaruant scene in Tianjin. No one has ever tasted such delicious BBQ in Tianjin!
 
Tell us about the challenges of opening a colossal dining venue like this here in China?
Between the foreign members of the team we have a lot of collective business experience. We are, however, relatively new to China, and setting up a business here is somewhat different to doing it in Europe and the USA. We are incredibly fortunate to have highly experienced and knowledgeable Chinese partners working with us, but it is fair to say that for all of us we have felt like we are doing certain things for the first time ever. It has been, and will no doubt continue to be, an interesting learning experience.
 
We have all said, right from the start, that we will do everything correctly and in line with regulatory requirements and we are confident that ultimately we will reap the benefit of our policy to lay long term foundations. With a big venue like the Texas BBQ Saloon, before we even opened to the public, so much work had to be put into getting the corporate structure established, satisfying all the regulatory requirements of the Fire Department and the Health Bureau, installing electric and gas utilities, designing and completing all the building works, recruiting and training professional staff, and of course all of the other logistical issues such as importing our custom-made Texas BBQ ovens from Taiwan. We are committed to making the first Tianjin venture of our investment company work and we have the right team to succeed.
 
How does your new venue fit into the city’s rapidly evolving expatriate community and nightlife scene? What gives the Texas BBQ Saloon the edge over the many other restaurants and bars in Tianjin? 
Tianjin is physically a big international class city with the social amenities of a small western town – it has a growing Western population plus a substantial Chinese middle class looking to enjoy authentic western foods with good levels of service in a quality environment. From the very beginning of the project we have avoided going too far down the road of analysing what others are doing. We are very keen to set our own standard of quality - both in terms of food and service. The Texas BBQ Saloon will bring together authentic western food and authentic western standards in a great meeting place. 
 
All of our fantastic culinary concepts are backed by consistent quality. So many times when people eat at restaurants in Tianjin and elsewhere they go there once and have a great meal, then go back another time and the quality has slipped significantly. We are committed to getting it right every time someone eats or drinks at our venues. We have excellent staff who are energetic and enthusiastic people striving to deliver the best food and service in Tianjin. We are also very much open to ideas and input from our customers! 
 
What are your thoughts in terms of clientele and where most of the future revenue will come from?
Of course the expatriate community in Tianjin is always expanding and there is certainly a big demand for somewhere that foreigners can come together over tasty food and affordable drinks to chat, relax, watch sporting events and listen to live music. On the other hand, the growing middle class in China will also obviously be an incredibly important client base for us going forward. As Chinese consumers become wealthier, the service industry, particularly the restaurant sector, is benefiting enormously. 
 
As an expansion-minded company, which is basing its future growth prospects largely on development of the internal consumer market, how worried are you about the impact of a broad economic slowdown?
What people often forget is that whilst China as a whole may be slowing down, certain areas within the country are still experiencing robust growth. Tianjin is a perfect example of this. The Chinese economy is set to grow by about 7.6% this year, but Tianjin’s GDP is estimated to increase by a staggering 16% or more. The past 10 years has seen a dramatic growth in Tianjin’s physical structure, it is now ready for local business people to invest in the development of the city’s ‘social infrastructure’. This area has great potential for our investors.  
 
The timing for us to start implementing our business model here in Tianjin is perfect. We all feel like we are in the right place at the right time. If the broader economy should have difficulties, we are confident that we can still manage to succeed due to Tianjin’s own economic story in the coming years. 
 
altYou have previously stated that De Ke Zhi is a dynamic company with an ‘aggressive expansion plan’. What future projects can you tell us about?
Before opening the Texas BBQ Saloon we had already decided on our expansion plans for the coming years. This is not only our first venue, but it will be the first of many Texas BBQ Saloons in Tianjin and eventually, in China. We have identified three key locations within this city: Aocheng, the city centre and TEDA. After that we will look at expanding into Beijing and other major cities.
 
It is important to remember that The Texas BBQ Saloon is only one of several thematic venues that we will be opening in the near future. Our next project will be The Irish Pub and Restaurant, followed by a large and family orientated American Diner. 
 
We want to bring the authentic western dining and entertainment experience to Tianjin – locations that offer fantastic food and drink, as well as fun entertainment for our customers. We do have five brands highlighted for investment that we will start building very soon now that we have created a successful template with the Texas BBQ Saloon. 
 
We sincerely hope that we can contribute to making Tianjin a great place to live. 
 
We hope that all the readers will take the opportunity to visit and enjoy our first venue, the Texas BBQ Saloon! For more infromation, please visit: www.texasbbqsaloon.com.

By Josh Cooper
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