As American as his pie

Updated: 2012-08-10 07:57

By Sun Yuanqing (China Daily)

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As American as his pie

Mark Huetsch, who runs a pie delivery service in Beijing, says a successful food business requires far more than just good food. Zhang Wei / China Daily

Entrepreneur brings a taste of his home to Chinese capital

When Mark Huetsch arrived in Beijing as an exchange student from the United States in 2006, he immediately made plans to return to the Chinese capital some day.

Six years later, he is not only back, he has also brought some sweet temptations of his own.

The 27-year-old entrepreneur has been making American pies and offering a quintessentially Western pastry that has so far been quite alien to the city.

"I'm sure the pie consumption in Beijing has gone up since we have been here," he says, laughing.

Huetsch, along with his Chinese co-founder Wang Liang, is now into his third year running Pie House, an online pastry delivery service. They have about 20 employees and the duo is hiring for a new outlet in Shanghai after tasting success in Beijing.

Huetsch believes the online pie delivery service is just what a densely populated city, with temperamental weather to boot, needs.

"It's really convenient to order and I like the home-made taste of the pies. It's not easy to find genuine American pie here," says Zhang Sinan, a Beijinger who used to study in the US.

Growing up in a "pie family" in Illinois, Huetsch first came to China as an exchange student when he was studying at Stanford University. He fell in love with China instantly - but for reasons that could seem strange for Chinese people used to crowded spaces.

"China is just really lively. I grew up in a farm town, and studied at Stanford. Beijing was my first time in a big city. I just loved seeing all the construction cranes and seeing all the buildings going up overnight. I know that some people in China don't like it, but to me it's not something you see in the US," Huetsch says.

After graduation, Huetsch was faced with two paths - staying in Silicon Valley and joining the high-tech start-up scene, or returning to China which was developing very quickly. He decided on China because it was "more exciting".

His career choice in the rising Asian giant also could not be further from the norm. As a lifelong pastry lover and baker, Huetsch never found any pastry that satisfied him during his time in Beijing. Wang Liang, whom he got to know during his time in Beijing, also missed the cakes she had when studying and working in Europe.

The two started with humble beginnings by making pies for their friends. Their first big break came on Thanksgiving Day in 2009 when they received a total of 10 orders. But finding an ideal location proved elusive so they decided to launch an online delivery service first.

For the first and second year, Huetsch made his own deliveries, rain or shine. He sometimes slipped on the ice in Beijing's painful winters and had to head back to make another order, he says.

But with a growing team, he is now able to focus on product development and quality control while Wang deals more with sales, marketing and hiring.

Started off with four types of pies - apple, pumpkin, French silk and banana cream, Huetsch has added tartlets and cakes, which are smaller and better known by Chinese customers.

"Because a lot of Chinese people haven't been exposed to pies ... people could come for our cakes, then look at the pies and say 'those pies look interesting, and I trust their cakes, so they probably make good pies too'. Maybe then they will transit to trying the pies as well," he says.

Huetsch also tailors his products to Chinese tastes and flavors as Chinese people tend to have a wider taste spectrum compared with Americans.

"Some Chinese like really heavy stuff, and some like really dainty, light stuff. It's just kind of all over the map. Whereas in the States, you would probably satisfy most people. So we have stuff on the lighter end of the spectrum which is like mousse, then we have heavier stuff like a red velvet cake, or a cheese cake which is moist and dense," he says.

Chinese tastes have also allowed Huetsch to try more quirky ingredients like durian, mango and green tea, which are rarely used in pastries in the US.

"I drink green tea everyday, but I just don't like it very much. The issue is that I have to rely on other people's taste until I can make green tea-flavored pastry," he says.

However, he concedes that a successful food business requires far more than just good food, especially when it is run in a place where few people know what the "right stuff" tastes like. Training employees to meet rigorous standards of quality and cleanliness, as well as high levels of customer service, has remained one of Huetsch's biggest hurdles.

"Personally, I see a gap between the level of services in the average Chinese service business and the average American service business. It's difficult to train the staff because people would sometimes cut a corner here, and I try to avoid that," Huetsch says.

His customers are no longer mostly expats; the majority are now Chinese, most of them in the central business district and Wudaokou, the college area.

Having thrived in the online delivery business, Huetsch is now ready to consider his next step.

"I think at some point we will probably have a physical store in combination with delivery," he says.

"Every now and then I get invited to a party where people have our products, and I get to see tons of people enjoying the stuff that our team has designed and produced. This is a really good feeling."

(China Daily 08/10/2012 page20)