Drexel Hill Native Finds Success with Restaurant Chain in China

Greg Savarese changes his name to earn cred in Beijing.

Greg Savarese  has found his groove in China as founder  of the American-style bistro, Ricci.

For Fang Zi Qian, Saturday morning is the same as any other day. He’s suited up and behind his desk by 8 a.m. The arduous process of building a brand doesn’t honor weekends, especially for someone who’s determined to hoist his start-up into the Starbucks-caliber ranks.

Seven years ago, Drexel Hill’s Greg Savarese became Fang Zi Qian. The name change was an absolute necessity, boosting his credibility in Beijing business circles. He’d gotten to know the Chinese capital, studying there for a semester as a communications major at Maryland’s Loyola University. Now, at 30, he’s the managing director of Ricci, an American-style restaurant chain that’s gaining traction in China’s urban centers. “I started with an idea and the naïveté that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to,” says Savarese. “Four stores and three cities later, I know I wasn’t naïve at all.”

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Six years earlier, Savarese had been working as a liaison for American students in Beijing. When his contract ended, he wasn’t ready to return to the United States—and the dim prospects of finding a job in a recession. Soon enough, one of Savarese’s former professors introduced him to a wealthy investor from Southeast Asia who was looking to fund a business in the food-and-beverage industry. 

“At the time, I didn’t care what the business was,” Savarese admits. “I would’ve opened a pencil factory, if that was where I’d find success.”

Through his research, Savarese saw a demand for casual, convenient places to dine in cities where personal space is hard to come by. Homes are small, and many households include extended family members, so it’s pretty rare for urban types to entertain guests at home. Savarese’s idea eschewed the formality of sit-down restaurants while still emphasizing comfort and relaxation in an atmosphere not unlike American and European bistros. The initial business plan was based on a proven strategy—basically a Starbucks model that caters to the Chinese palate. 

As for that company’s primary commodity, coffee’s popularity has been growing in China, but it’s still second to tea. Savarese wisely played it safe, proposing to supplement his coffee selection with robust, traditional teas. “You walk into the other chains and get tea in a bag,” he says. “I made a conscientious decision to serve whole-leaf, house-brewed varieties.” 

Menu ideas emerged from studying Chinese tastes at casual dining spots around Beijing and Shanghai. When the Chinese stop for tea or coffee, food almost always accompanies the purchase—only they prefer honey toast and mango pudding to cheesecake and brownies. That in mind, Savarese steered clear of Western-style snacks.  

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His plan in order, the newly named managing director of a yet-to-be-named restaurant chain enlisted three former Loyola classmates to assist him. Ryan Wedeking settled into the position of marketing vice president, while Omar Ali was hired as VP of development and Dave Soffer as VP of operations. “Greg’s passion for entrepreneurship and unbridled tenacity are at the core of this project,” says Ali.

Together, the four plowed ahead to the development phase, categorizing their brand as an East-meets-West fusion of culture and food. The group agreed on a name that held a similar meaning to the Chinese. A 16th-century Jesuit priest from Italy, Matteo Ricci was one of the first Westerners to earn trust and respect in China. 

The fledgling Ricci Café faced adversity almost from the get-go. “Starbucks made it difficult to find real estate,” says Savarese, with lingering aggravation. “We were a company with zero brand history and a team of executives unknown in the industry, so developers turned us down time and again because they were holding out for a Starbucks contract.” 

And those that already worked with the company were obligated to turn away other businesses with “coffee” or “café” in their names—even those that offered coffee as part of their menus. Hesitant to erase the “Café” from his brand but determined to get his first location built, Savarese added a larger selection of food, so as to more closely resemble a bistro—sandwiches, soups and salads, all tailored to local tastes. The modification brought about a deal with a developer. 

The first Ricci Café opened its doors in April 2012 and faced an immediate struggle. As it turned out, implementation—creating brand awareness, attracting customers, delivering a consistent product, etc.—would be the toughest challenge yet. “We were reviewed in newspapers, magazines and blogs,” Savarese says. “And everyone’s a critic.” 

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Savarese’s inexperience in the restaurant industry had become a formidable roadblock. He had no choice but to delegate. “I could set the stage,” he says, “but how the actual goods and services were delivered had to be up to my employees.” 

After months of working with cooks and training staff, Savarese began to see more positive reviews. As mistakes were corrected and sales increased, Ricci expanded its menu, incorporating flavor profiles from all over Asia into heartier meat and noodle dishes—and especially sandwiches. “A sandwich gives the Chinese that Western influence they want,” says Savarese. “But they really enjoy ours because they’ve got the taste they’re used to.” 

Ricci menu favorites include the Sichuan spice-rubbed chicken focaccia, the Malay pork satay wrap, an Asian-inspired lasagna, the Pattaya grilled-pork salad, and cream of baby bok-choy soup. Desserts include jujube sticky rice balls and hand-rolled jasmine truffles.

Savarese has also tweaked the brand, eliminating the coffee cup from the logo and “Café” from the name, while adding “Creative Eats.” Meanwhile, a second Beijing location opened in June 2013, followed in September by one each in Guangzhou and Shanghai. “We’re looking into food-and-beverage, fast-food and consumer-goods market research,” says Savarese of the company’s intensified efforts to diversify of late. “That includes products like canned drinks, as well as the distribution of different packaged food-and-beverage products.” 

Savarese hasn’t put a time frame on the prospect of returning to the U.S. With his recent marriage to a woman from Beijing, he’s focused on China-—for now. “But I’m always thinking of how I can build myself out of daily operations,” he says. “With the right management, I can live in America and run the company from there.”

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