Festivities mark opening of China's first Pizza Hut

September 11, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

BEIJING -- China's first Pizza Hut restaurant opened yesterday with so much diplomatic fanfare about stability, friendship and progress that one would think a nuclear test ban treaty was being signed.

Firecrackers exploded, champagne corks popped, balloons drifted skyward above the bright red roof of the $1 million, 180-seat restaurant on Dongzhimenwai Street. Its name has been rather loosely rendered into Chinese as "Bi Sheng Ke," which might mean something like "Compelling Victory for Guests."

A 12-inch pizza with all the toppings will cost $6.17, more than a week's pay for most workers. To make a go of it, Pizza Hut will have to convince squeamish Chinese that pizza's main ingredient, cheese, isn't just evil-smelling "rotten milk," which is how most regard it.

Beijing Vice Mayor Wu Yi stood shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. Ambassador James Lilley at the opening of the restaurant, which took two years to bring about. Pizza and peace were the watchwords of the day.

"Today in China the political situation is quite stable; the social life is quite normal," said Jiang Ming of the Beijing municipal government's economic and foreign trade commission.

"All of these factors prove that the climate is favorable for foreign investment in China."

In fact, stability is fragile, social life is strained, and investors are avoiding China in droves in the wake of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing.

When army troops shot their way into the capital in June 1989, a bus was peppered with machine-gun fire a few hundred yards from the site of the new Pizza Hut.

Last year's turmoil delayed the opening of the Pizza Hut, but the parent corporation, Pepsico Inc., bottlers of Pepsi-Cola and Seven-Up, decided to go ahead with the joint venture anyway.

"Certainly, things took a little longer than we hoped, but I don't think we ever lost confidence," said William Heinecke, vice chairman of Pepsico Food Service International. Behind him a band played "Anchors Aweigh," and about 300 curious Chinese halted their bicycles to stare at the brand new building with the roof painted red, considered a lucky color.

The dearth of new foreign investment after last year's crackdown made the Chinese even more eager to smooth the way for the Pizza Hutdeal, Mr. Heinecke said.

"They were willing before. After they were even more willing to see it through," he said.

Pizza Hut, the world's largest pizza restaurant chain -- 7,000 outlets in 58 countries -- gained a toehold in Asia 10 years ago when its first restaurant opened in Thailand. Two Pizza Huts will open today in Moscow, where they will be known locally as "Pitsa Khat."

Henry Foo, general manager of the Beijing Pizza Hut, said he thinks the restaurant "fundamentally enhances the quality of life of the people of China."

Pizza has been available at several hotels in Beijing for years, but the Pizza Hut is the first restaurant in China to specialize in bi sa bing (pizza cake).

A Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant opened on the southwest corner of Tiananmen Square in 1987 and has proved a spectacular success, outselling any other Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in the world. Kentucky Fried Chicken also is owned by Pepsico.

The new Pizza Hut can count on plenty of customers among the foreigners in Beijing, but whether there is a local market is another question. The pizzas will be sold by the pie, not by the slice, and they are fabulously expensive by local standards.

"Too expensive," said a laughing group of young construction workers who stood idly outside the restaurant while the red ribbon was cut yesterday morning. All of them said they'd be lunching on cold rice and vegetables, brought from home in aluminum lunch boxes.

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