Always on the lookout for independent expat startups (and pie!) in Shanghai, we caught up with Jeannie Polizotto, former Taiwan resident and founder of pie-delivery company, Country Style Pies. She was nice enough to provide insight on the ups and downs of running a small delivery business in Shanghai and turning the Chinese public onto something as American as apple pie.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up in Shanghai.
I am a foodie who’s especially interested in food culture. I love to hear the stories behind foods from different countries, so I enjoy traveling around and experiencing local cuisines. Before I opened Country Style Pies, I knew I would be a self-employee one day, so I worked in a pretty wide range of jobs, including, sales rep, buyer, and marketing in different companies.
My first job happened to be in Shenzhen. This was the first time I came to China. Although it was not a pleasant experience, I had to take a break and go back to Taiwan, but I learned there was so much happening in China, so like everyone else, I had a China dream. When my husband Kyle proposed, he asked me where I want to go. I said, “Shanghai”. That was 2010, when the expo was on.
What inspired the Country Style Pies concept?
It was 2005 and I was invited to my first family thanksgiving. Kyle, my husband, was so nice to invite me after we met in Europe. It was the first time I had American style pie. It was the richest fest I’ve ever seen. There were more dishes than people. Everyone was so happy to get together so the atmosphere was fun and lively. For dessert Kyle’s mom served pie, and since everyone had their own favorite flavor there were several different pies. Therefore, pie to me is a family food representative of people sharing their lives at the dinner table.
When we decided to get married, I visited Kyle’s family again. Kyle’s mom taught me how to make pies. I felt I was part of the family. It was an honor. Therefore, our concept is “family, like mom used to make”, “sharing with people you love”, “generation, from mom to daughter”. We stand for no trans-fat, no flour improver, and no preservatives. To ensure quality, CSPies uses certified suppliers, imported diary, and fresh fruit for their pies. “Keep it simple and keep it good,” is the goal.
It’s an international city with lots of foreigners and open-minded Shanghainese. I thought it would be easier to promote American style food here than in a more inland city. Also, people here are highly concerned about what they eat, so our concept would also be helpful.
What was it like setting up a small delivery business in Shanghai? Tell us about some of the ups and downs. Do you find it harder succeeding as an independent voice in China, where it’s uber big brand-conscious, as opposed to say the US or elsewhere where the small, craft culture is more developed? Or is the relative lack of other small craft concepts advantageous?
I wish I could answer this question better. This is my first venture. I believed it would be hard from the beginning anywhere I go. I’ve been very lucky to have friends that like my goodies and even invest in me. Some people might think I am crazy to take this leap, from zero to company. Why not do Taobao first? I guess I am the stubborn type. If I am doing it, I want to do it right. My first step was starting a registered firm, because all the other services are attached with this first step.
More and more Shanghainese are starting to appreciate what we are doing, especially if they’ve had apple pie in the USA. They know I am the real deal. I have strong faith that this will take off one day with the Chinese crowd.
Not being able to take out a small business loan must have made it doubly difficult, right?
I don’t think it’s a big issue. Many investors are always looking for good ideas. People who live here, either Chinese or foreigners, are pretty generous when it comes to business. Of course I had been talking to many people about my idea. Luckily, I have a network of friends that helped me find investors who I believed I could work with.
My investors are not only helping me financially, but they also contributed their life experience into this business. They are still my best consultants and mentors, when I have a problem I can ask them. I believe this way is much better than getting a business loan from a bank.
Do you have mostly Chinese or Western customers? What’s been the reaction among Chinese customers?
Mostly Westerners. Most of the Chinese complaints are that the pies are “too sweet” since it’s basically an American family recipe. Some of Shanghainese also like sweeter food, so their reaction is generally good. I don’t want to change my recipes too much for the Chinese tastes, so in the future I will invent some pies just for them.
Was it difficult locating a steady consumer base in Shanghai?
So far, yes. At the beginning we targeted foreigners but they tend to come and go. In the future we will focus on the Chinese consumer to bring in more steady business.
How will you plan to turn Chinese customers on to pie? A lot of businesses woo Chinese clientele by tailoring their goods to Chinese tastes ie., wine pairing dinners with Chinese food, Starbucks‘ Green Tea Latte etc. Will you go this route at all? You aren’t creating a mung bean or stinky tofu pie or anything right?
That’s a good question. It will take more time to see how Chinese take it. In Taiwan, there are some adapted flavors like “sweet red bean cheese pie”, “taro pie”, and green tea cheese pie” already. I prefer to stay with the traditional recipe for the first year, and we will see the market demand. This is why we like to go to different markets to talk to customers directly. Also, our B2B clients often provide some suggestions for us. Stay tuned, you will see more from us.
Since you were born in Taiwan, but also lived in the US, do you find it easier to translate American pie to the Asian palate?
Taiwanese culture has a mix of Chinese, Japanese, with hints of Western. So I was exposed to different foods from a young age, which allowed me to appreciate different kinds of food. When I lived in Europe I enjoyed seeking out new flavors in each place I traveled.
It might be easier for me to understand food cultures, so I can tell good story about food in general. When I choose to do American pie, my idea is to keep it original with family recipe and then develop new flavors for Chinese tastes. Most of my Chinese customers enjoy seasonal fruit pies, apple pie, banana cream pie, and savory pies. Like my concept, I want to keep it simple and keep it good. Tongues don’t lie.
Your favorite pie?
My favorite pie changes by season. Now it’s peach pie with crumble topping. I like blueberry strawberry pie in spring, I like apple pie in autumn, and during the wintertime I love to have chicken pot pie.
Favorite Shanghai food?
Hairy crab (大闸蟹).
What does the future hold for Country Style Pies? Are you thinking of expanding or setting up a pie shop in the future?
We already have a licensed workshop and I am very happy about that. In the future, I am hoping to have more B2B sales and meet more interesting people in town. I like to take it slow and steady, so we will stay with this format for a while but I will definitely add more staff and experiment with new flavors.
To have Country Style Pies delivered to your home, dial (0)21-5522-2586. See www.cspies.com for details. You can also find them at the Jiashan and Yanping Markets every Saturday.
Update: Country Style Pies will be closed from July 26 to August 1. It will reopen August 2.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].