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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 19, 2009

UH grad's pizza a hit in China

By Kim Fassler
Special to The Advertiser

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Olav Kristoffer Bauer, better known as "Kro," shows off a few menu items at Tube Station Bistro, one of five restaurants he co-owns in Beijing. The UH graduate has made a name for himself with pizza as his specialty.

KIM FASSLER | Special to The Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The Tube Station Bistro near Beijing Normal University in western Beijing offers sandwiches, salads and a scaled-down version of Kro's popular pizza.

KIM FASSLER | Special to The Advertiser

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BEIJING — The man behind Beijing's best pizza is living proof that you don't need an MBA to run a successful business in China.

At 26, Olav Kristoffer Bauer — better known as "Kro" — co-owns five restaurants in Beijing. His first restaurant, called Kro's Nest, opened in 2005 when Kro was just 21 and is widely considered to have the best pizza in the city.

The University of Hawaii graduate and businessman talked about his experience recently at one of his restaurants in west Beijing.

An interest in China and cooking, along with keen business sense and lots of hard work, propelled Kro to the top of his restaurant empire, which includes three Kro's Nest pizzerias and two Tube Station sandwich shops.

Originally from Atlanta, Kro spent his high school junior year in Beijing and wanted to go to college in China. But when his parents objected, he enrolled at the University of Hawaii-Mänoa.

Why UH? "I tried to get as far away as possible," he said.

At UH, Kro did a self-designed major, concentrating on Chinese and Japanese languages. He never took courses in economics or accounting, but says that working in the Student Employment & Cooperative Education office taught him valuable lessons about running an office.

"The main thing I learned was to do what you love and apply yourself," he said. "I didn't have the traditional college experience at UH in that I did a lot on my own, but these experiences helped me greatly in what I have accomplished today."

Knowing and understanding Mandarin was also key for Kro when he returned to Beijing. He immediately revived old connections and sought an unfilled niche in the city's vast array of food offerings. He found it in pizza.

Opening a restaurant in Beijing costs roughly a quarter to a third of what it would in the U.S., Kro said. It was an opportunity the young entrepreneur could not pass up.

Business wasn't always easy. He woke up every morning at 4 a.m. and drank two pots of coffee before the restaurant opened at 6. One of his cooks made off with his pizza recipes. The restaurant also got in accounting trouble early on because Kro hadn't standardized ingredients — he measured cheese by the handful instead of by weight or volume. The result was seriously cheesy pizza, and serious problems for his bank account.

"It was good pizza, but not realistic pizza," he said.

Rising prices also put a squeeze on his business. Just before last year's Olympics, the cost of cheese rose from $62 for a 44-pound case to $217 per case.

Today, Kro's biggest challenge is maintaining the integrity of his product and trying to be in multiple places at once. He's a fixture at his restaurants and really gets to know customers.

"I don't know how to divide myself up," he said. "I try to teach people how to be me, but it doesn't work."

With Beijing almost covered, he talks about opening an American-style diner and expanding — possibly to Shanghai — in the future.

That's welcome news for Chinese and foreigners alike. People from all over have come to get what Kro describes as "an authentic taste of America." One group drove five hours from Hebei province just to eat his pizza; others came from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Kro has been asked to talk to MBA students interested in doing business in China. He stresses the importance of making and maintaining connections, frequently reinventing your product and always seeking new opportunities ("have your hand in as many cookie jars as possible").

"Development here is so fast, but there are a lot of holes," he said. "As long as you can find a hole and fill it, it can be a moneymaker."