Goubuli prepares to put big dough into expansion

Goubuli prepares to put big dough into expansion

A chef makes steamed buns with meat and vegetable fillings at a Goubuli Group restaurant in Tianjin. This time-honored brand, which has an aggressive expansion program, also plans to list on the A-share market. Li Shengli / for China Daily

An eatery giant known for its steamed stuffed buns, and with an ambitious expansion plan to buy a United States coffee chain, is joining a growing number of Chinese enterprises in going global.

Goubuli Group, a renowned Chinese food corporation based in North China's Tianjin, announced on Thursday that it plans to buy a US cafe chain company in the first half of the year.

If completed, the deal will help the dumpling group - also known as Go Believe - to acquire hundreds of stores in more than 40 countries and regions in Europe, the United States and Southeast Asia, Geng Jing, deputy general manager of the company, told China Daily on Thursday.

Geng declined to specify the targeted brand, nor did she reveal details on how the acquisition process is going.

But she did say that the two companies have reached "an initial agreement" and will iron out the wrinkles in coming months.

Geng said the company expects to win support from the Tianjin Commerce Committee, a governmental review that is needed before a purchase can be made.

If completed, the deal would mark the biggest overseas acquisition in China's catering industry, Geng said.

According to a statement provided by the company, Zhang Yansen, chairman of Goubuli Group, said the acquisition will enable Goubuli, which also is preparing to be listed on the A-share stock market, to promote high-quality Chinese cuisine overseas through the coffee chain's existing network.

"It can reduce the difficulties of overseas expansion and help the company adjust more quickly to local markets," he said.

The time-honored Chinese food items made headlines recently, following President Xi Jinping's unexpected visit late last month to Qingfeng Steamed Stuffed Bun Restaurant, where he had a lunch of six stuffed buns with a dish of vegetables and other local delicacies.

Qingfeng, a Beijing-based chain famous for steamed buns, has seen hundreds of diners rush to order the same menu, which has been tagged the "Xi Jinping combo".

The overseas expansion plans of Goubuli, which was established in 1858 and headquartered in the port city of Tianjin, have gained momentum in recent years.

After opening a branch in Japan in 2011, it announced a plan to partner with Singapore-based food maker Tee Yih Jia in October last year to sell Goubuli products in more than 50 Asia-Pacific supermarkets.

But some are predicting that Goubuli's ambitions to go global will face failure if it can't cater to local eating habits and abide by local laws regarding consumer protection and labor rights.

Li Juan, a 28-year-old Tianjin resident, said she believes that Goubuli has lost customers over the years because of high prices and diminishing quality.

"I once treated a visiting friend at Goubuli's flagship restaurant, but the stuffed buns were too oily, and the waiters didn't take care of us very well," she said.

Mou Dongliang, deputy secretary-general for the World Association of Chinese Cuisine, said that while domestic companies may eye the overseas food market, many fail to meet local tastes, so their customers are limited to overseas Chinese.

But Mou said that even though some restaurants may have customers lining up, it is still hard for them to expand into a chain business.

"They may succeed at one place, but such success can rarely be duplicated," he said.

"They have to research local eating and spending habits, as well as local regulations on business management, consumer protection and labor rights, before opening a new store. Expansion without proper research can be very risky."

Yang Lin, a lawyer at the Beijing-based Yingke Law Firm, said Goubuli's deal can be completed only if it wins approval from the Tianjin Commerce Committee, and noted that when the government will complete its assessment is hard to predict.

"The time of closing the deal will be largely decided by the local government's attitude. It could be possible for Goubuli to wrap it up in six months, since no governmental review is needed on the US side," she said.

She suggested that Goubuli hire accounting, business and legal consultants to analyze and counter any possible investment risks.

"A successful acquisition is only the first step in going global," Yang said. "Business restructuring and how to meld with the local culture are some of the challenges that lie ahead."

Li Xiang in Tianjin contributed to this story.


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