When you drop by the new Pizza 4P’s Ben Thanh Market location, you’ll notice the simplicity and emptiness of the space. A rare, yet refreshing, sight in Ho Chi Minh City.
Designed by Shunri Nishizawa, a former pupil and associate of famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the new location represents the beauty of simplicity in this chaotic city. Through an ambitious combination of contemporary architecture and innovative food, Pizza 4P’s has created an iconic culinary space in a historical location. It’s meant to inspire creativity and awareness of their global food experience mission.
In 2011, co-founders Yosuke and Sunny Masuko left their corporate jobs to take on what they considered their life’s work. Five years later, Pizza 4P’s is making moves toward the goal of a $100 million annual run rate and an initial public offering (IPO) by 2020.
And it all started with a pizza oven in their backyard.
We had the chance to sit down with the Masukos to learn why they took on this creative project, despite their polar opposite backgrounds in Japanese corporate life.
How do you two balance your artistic and business interests?
Yosuke: I studied sociology and film in England and Australia. Sunny studied Chinese politics and new media in Japan. My decision to study an artistic field was influenced by my father, a director of a radio station. I became interested in expression, rather than business. But in Japan, the work culture directed me toward my previous career in finance. An invaluable experience that has helped to shape our company building experience with Pizza 4P’s.
Sunny: We’re both artistic people with experience in business. We focus more on art, though we prefer a balance of both. Moving from Japan to Vietnam, the work culture is worlds apart in business and artistic sensibilities. In Japan, we’re trained to be disciplined. The space for creativity is limited. In Vietnam, there is an element of unpredictability in business that requires you to be creative. If we were 100% business-minded people, we would build an Internet company. Today, we always think about the business. But we can’t create initiatives that are 100% business-oriented. There has to be a balance with our artistic senses.
How did you two transition from your corporate roles in venture capital and media to making pizzas?
We discussed our plans to work on a creative project long before we started. We wanted our next project to be a mutual passion that we both shared. It needed to be both of our life’s work.
We left our corporate jobs at CyberAgent first (we were coworkers there for some time). We planned to build a sustainable ecoresort, with a vision to move into retail, production, and a restaurant. The inspiration for this started with the pizza oven in our garden.
We enjoyed inviting friends over every weekend. We were well known among our friends for our pizza workshops. We had a simple understanding of how to make oven fire pizza. We think that pizza is an easy-to-make food that doesn’t involve intricate steps of preparation. Thus it is easy for everyone, from young to old, from every background, to enjoy making and eating pizza. We went all over the world eating pizza and trying different ingredients.
We went everywhere… Naples. Bangkok. Singapore. India for the naan and the mozzarella, since buffalo milk is difficult to get in Vietnam. Did you know Italian buffalo is originally from India?
Indisputably, we learned a lot from our travels.
Where did you get the Pizza 4P’s logo?
The logo is an adaptation from the Shinsaku Takasugi family insignia “Maru ni Takedabishi”, which comes from Sunny’s side of the family.
We changed it a bit to reflect the modernity of our concept.
As Japanese expats, what are the most difficult challenges in managing a business in Vietnam?
Today, we emphasize team building, communication, and employee satisfaction. We want everyone that is part of the team to be proud of Pizza 4P’s. We want our customers to be proud of it too.
Why did you choose Ben Thanh Market as the location for your new flagship restaurant?
In order to become one of the leading restaurant groups in Vietnam, we need an iconic and authentic location to associate our brand with. Ben Thanh Market is a central and historical place.
We looked at 300 locations before we found this one. It took us one year. This location is a 100 year old French colonial heritage building. By putting our location in a heritage building, we hope to respect the history and beauty of the original design while introducing a new concept to a larger mass market audience.
Can you tell us about all of the business units and brands under the Pizza 4P’s flagship name?
We have five business units.
Restaurant: our flagship business unit, Pizza 4P’s. Our experimental lower cost option is called Pizza for Good. Retail e-commerce:Box 4P’s, which focuses on delivery Wholesale distribution: selling cheese to hotels, foreign restaurants Production: our cheese farm in Da Lat Resort: we’ve found a location in Cau Dat and we’re starting the design. We want to start with the food experience, the farm, and a workshop area. Step by step before we start the accommodations.
What are some target goals for Pizza 4P’s in the next 10 years?
We aim to become one of the leading advanced food experience companies in Asia.
We plan to expand overseas to Bangkok first and then the rest of Southeast Asia. We’re also exploring the market opportunity in Japan. We’re aiming to file for an IPO in the next five years. Our target by 2020 is $100 million of revenue to achieve this goal.
In order to hit these goals, we’re focusing on deeper internet initiatives. We’re also exploring software development for restaurants such as reservation and point-of-sale systems. We’re also taking a look at take home products. We’d love to have our brand in everybody’s home in order to become a true household name in Vietnam and in Asia.
If you two took some time off from Pizza 4P’s, what would you two do?
We would visit restaurants, advanced technology farms focusing on sustainable agriculture, and meet as many architects as we can.
Then we would meditate.
At the moment, we also struggle to balance time with family. Our two daughters were born at the same time that we started Pizza 4P’s. We’d like to take them around the world and give them exposure to different types of food along the way. It’s never too early to develop their tastes for food.
What are some nice-to-knows about you two?
We’re workaholics. Very Japanese in that sense
We love dancing. On our first date, we went to a rave party. Yosuke: It was risky. Sunny had no idea. Sunny: He said we were going to see fireworks, but he was planning to go to the rave the whole time. It was my first rave.
Our first overseas experience together was in Thailand, at a rave on Ko Pha Ngan
Yosuke: I came to Vietnam to establish the overseas branch for CyberAgent’s venture capital arm.
Sunny: I worked for the media unit at CyberAgent. Yosuke and I met at CyberAgent while working in Japan.
Where do you think Vietnamese tastes for food and drink will go and evolve?
Vietnamese people love cheese and more authentic styles of Italian pizza. We’re seeing more Vietnamese adopt global mindsets and read more into what they’re eating before they make decisions.
Vietnam is becoming similar to Japan as exposure to overseas cultures and styles becomes more common. In Vietnam, people already have a liking for gourmet flavors, because Vietnamese food is already at such a high culinary level.
Within Southeast Asia, foods are less spicey in Vietnam and that’s helped to cement local trends like Pizza 4P’s. Locals are open to Western flavors. Thailand, among other places, has a stronger preference for spicier foods.
So as Vietnamese tastes evolve, has your customer base become more local?
Right now we serve about 70% locals and 30% foreigners. When we started on our first spot on Le Thanh Ton, the location wasn’t the easiest to find. We relied a lot on word of mouth. Because we served pizza, rather than Vietnamese food, we weren’t always the first choice among first time travelers to Vietnam.
What’s it like marketing Pizza 4P’s in Vietnam? What’s your strategy?
None of our core team members specialize in marketing. But we’ve found that social media and influencer potential is quite powerful if you have a brand.
When we first opened our new Ben Thanh market location, the first month saw 90% Vietnamese customers. We allocated zero marketing budget to the opening. The soft opening was meant to test how much organic traffic we can receive. Word of mouth through social media helped to boost the percentage of local traffic quickly.
Our most exciting experience of marketing in Vietnam is when we opened our Hanoi location. We were just soft launching and there was no advertisement. On our first day of soft opening, Namster Do arrived by chance for lunch. He shared our opening on Facebook and it received more than 1000 likes and 168 shares. We had an endless number of phone calls over the next 24 hours. After our first day, we had enough reservations to book up our Hanoi location for the next three weeks.
Who should I talk to next?
Shunri Nishizawa, the architect of our latest location at Ben Thanh Market.