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Exclusive Interview of Zhang Lan - South Beauty Goes Global After 12 Years of Metamorphosis

August 7, 2012 - Hong Kong

South Beauty, a renowned Chinese catering brand that specialises in Sichuan cuisine, opened its first branch in Taipei in early 2012. The debut symbolized a significant move of the brand to go global after 12 years of transformation. Its founder andchairman of the board, Ms. Zhang Lan, is a legendary business woman well known across the straits. In an exclusive interview from Hong Kong Wen Wei Po recently, she shared her legendary experience, business philosophy, pursuit in life and her belovedSouth Beauty.

Wang Jiao, journalist from Hong Kong Wen Wei Po, reports from Beijing.

As one of the "post-50s" generation, Zhang Lan was born in an intellectual family. Bound with the same fate as her peers in that era, she went through Cultural Revolution, during which she was sent to work in rural area and became a worker after returning to the city. Tasting the ups and downs in life and refusing to yield to destiny, Zhang Lan chose to study abroad. Her fabulous adventure is a perfectbook to read for young entrepreneurs even in the modern context.

In 1989, Zhang Lan who was already a mother, got a chance to study in Canada through the help of a relative overseas. She set herself a clear goal, "I will be back to China as soonas I earn USD20,000". This goal was finally achieved four days before Christmas in 1991. "I managed to save USD20,000. By then, the street was filled with Christmas joy and all my relatives and friends hoped that I could stay to spend the festival, but I just wanted to go back to China as soon as possible". The home in Beijing is actually her most expected Christmas gift in that year.

Zhang Lan came back to Beijing with her "first pot of gold" . With a down to earth attitude, she chose to work in the "labor-intensive" restaurant industry. People soon found an "Ah Lan Restaurant" in the most popular district, Dongsi of Beijing, and many Beijing people of the elder generation still remember the popularity of the restaurant in those years.Its unique decor and original Sichuan cuisine set it apart from other restaurants which were mainly operated by the State at that time.

Since the opening of her restaurant, Zhang Lan acted multiple roles as the chef, waitress, manager and purchaser. Even until today, Zhang Lan still described the catering industry as one that requires "diligence". "If you do business in this industry, you should work like a willing ox that is diligent and thrifty. You should not only work hard but also think actively".

Years of endeavour has consolidated Zhang Lan's reputation in Beijing's catering industry. With "Ah Lan Restaurant", "Ah Lan Garden Seafood Restaurant" and other restaurants which were all profitable in hand, Zhang Lan made a surprising decision in 1999. She sold the restaurant and planned to work on something greater. "I feel that the catering business remains to be my favorite in life". Zhang Lan was back in the saddle after half year of consideration with an ambitious goal-creating an international Chinese restaurant brand.

Her experience of studying overseas taught Zhang Lan the stereotype foreign people hold towards Chinese cuisine- French cuisine features fine gorgeous foods, while Chinese cuisine is only composed of a few dishes. "The food in China Town could barely be regarded as Chinese cuisine, which possesses five thousands years of history full of inexhaustible treasure from our ancestors, but why is Chinese cuisine undermined nowadays? I must build a brand."

Zhang Lan then founded South Beauty, a restaurant targeting at business people. She believes that the white collar group are the most rational, who will bring their friends to visit again if this place appeals to their taste. "South Beautyrelies on consumers' rational choice rather than a large scale promotion."

Zhang Lan opened the first South Beauty restaurant at the China World Trade Center in Beijing, a high-end place where the global business people could learn Chinese culinary culture within a short period of time. As for the name of "South Beauty", Zhang wants to establish an international brand representative of Chinese culture and the name just serves the purpose, from which people would know that this brand comes from China instantly. "A small bridge over the flowing stream is a typical Chinese impression left for many foreigners, that is why our brand is called "outh Beauty".

When an artistic restaurant that uses a Sichuan opera facebook as the logo debutedat CBD in April 2000, the restaurant is destined to be exceptional one. After twelve years of transformation, South Beauty has by now developed into a catering group with more than 50 restaurants. The opening of the Taipei branch in early 2012 helpedSouth Beauty expand across the strait. From once being the hostess "Ah Lan", the later, then being the "Beautiful Manager" for South Beauty, the group has become the "Restaurant Queen" across the strait today.

Not satisfied with current achievement, Zhang Lan has more ambitious goal. "My dream is to create a'Chinese Louis Vuitton', to become the LV in the catering industry," she said, "New York, Paris, Milan, London, Switzerland, Tokyo...wherever there's a Louis Vuitton, I hope there's a South Beauty restaurant."

Optional Draft I: Zhang Lan: Managing Restaurants from an Artist's Perspective
Babbling brooks, antique stone bridges, oil-paper umbrellas and distant green bamboos..., all this elegant waterside charm seems to bring us suddenly to the bluestone lane in the misty drizzle. At another turn, the eyes are greeted by western frescos and luxurious chandeliers. Such decoration full of exotic flavors and integration of oriental and western styles can easily trigger a subtly fantastic feeling deep down in the heart. The South Beauty Restaurants, combining delicious food with art, were from Zhang Lan's mind's eye.

Combining art and fashion with catering is part of the major features and core competitiveness of South Beauty. Zhang Lan obviously is not merely a businesswoman, but a restaurants manager with an artist's perspective, as everything from decorative planning to the names of dishes has been artistically designed.

Zhang Lan has been very frank about her love of art, and once declared to "become a pure artist upon retirement". In fact, born in a family of scholars, Zhang Lan has been deeply infatuated with art, which somehow ensures her restaurants grab the eyeballs of customers at first sight. In 1991, when her first venture "Ah Lan's Restaurant" opened for business, she particularly went to Sichuan and took back trainloads of 13m-long thick bamboos to build bamboo houses, even painting in person on the bamboo walls, which made this little restaurant so distinctive and unique in that age of general poverty and cultural blankness.

Until nowadays, all the branded restaurants under "South Beauty" don't look like any simply relaxation and eating places, but more like exhibition halls of art works. "A good entrepreneur can also make a fine artist," Zhang Lan confessed, "It's art that gives me inspiration". She has mulled over each and every aspect, from the setting, lighting, to plates presentation details and environmental protection inthe restaurants. In her opinion, "catering is an art, because it has served the same purpose, namely bringing wonderful enjoyments to people."


Reporter: Your legendary experience is an epitome of the hardships and takeoffs of successfulentrepreneurs since the opening-up and reform of China. Could you please talk about your old dreams and current career pursuits?

Zhang Lan: Girls are dreamers. I used to dream to become a surgeon, simply because I loved this profession. With the change of times and society, my ideals and targets varied with different periods of time.

I have a very clear target for the time being - operating and managing South Beauty like, as always, promoting a culture instead of a catering enterprise. Meanwhile, South Beauty is also committed to the traditional Chinese culinary culture, the integration of Chinese and western cuisines, fashion and innovation. In respect of dish innovation, dining environment and service quality, South Beauty has always attached great importance to health, fashion, decency and taste.

Before enjoying delicious food there shall be pleasing utensils and settings. I would like my customers to sit in a restaurant with both the "most classical and graceful Chinese flavors and the most avant-garde and exquisite western style" before they enjoy delicacies "passing through their throats down to their hearts". Since very young, I have been affected by my father and his painter friends and fallen in love with art. That's why each South Beauty restaurant is not only an enterprise but also a piece of art, a culture. We are aspiring to become a palace of art, in pursuit of artistic culture and food.

Reporter: As a successful entrepreneur, what suggestions and advice would you offer to the entrepreneurial young people?
Zhang Lan: I won't recommend young people under 35 to start their own business. There may look like lots of opportunities, but it takes time to amass the required work experience, mental maturity and capital. With only borrowed capital and hired experience which are too easy to come by, you cannot make it. Before turning 35, one needs to settle down working and learning at a good enterprise, thus enhancing himself. Once on the entrepreneurial path, you must keep going until you succeed. This is also my own motto.

Reporter: South China has been claiming to become the LV of the catering industry. As we all know, LV represents more of the culture of luxuries, what kind of business culture do you plan to build up?

Zhang Lan: Actually the Chinese food culture has been well-established with a long history. So we hope to showcase the Chinese culture to the world as an embodiment of the Chinese food history. LV can be a luxury brand, why can't the Chinese food? I think Chinese food in itself is a luxury, with nutritional values and cultural connotations of five thousand years, isn't it?

It is not by price but through culture that our value is enhanced, the traditional five-thousand-year Chinese culture of ours. South Beauty embodies such a culture. Therefore, in my opinion, where there is LV, there shall be South Beauty, that's how I think of Chinese food nowadays.


Zhang Lan, born in 1958, graduatedwith a business management diploma from Beijing Institute of Business in 1987. Ms. Zhang then studied overseas in Canada and returned to China in 1991 before entering into the catering industry and opening the "Ah Lan's Restaurant" of Sichuan cuisine. After 9 years of capital accumulation, Ms. Zhang established the "South Beauty" branded restaurants in 2000, and currently serves as the chairman of the board of South Beauty Investment Co., Ltd. South Beauty restaurants under the brand of South Beauty Group were once selected as a Chinese food supplier for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and South Beauty Group has now become one of the most reliable international catering service and management groups with the highest growth potential in thePRC. Zhang Lan has been honored the World Entrepreneur of the Year - Ernst & Young, the Asia Pacific Entrepreneur Award and etc.

About South Beauty Restaurants

In 2000, at China International Trade Centre, the core of Beijing's CBD, South Beauty was formally established and experienced rapid development within just a few years.

While deploying its operation and strength in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai to second-tier cities in China, South Beauty is also readjusting its strategic target - to further divide the existing customer bases and demands, and continuously perfect the dishes, services, environments and ideals in respect of formal Chinese business meals devoted respectively to the top-notch service market, the high-end business meal market, and the fashionable & healthy food market.

So far, South Beauty has opened nearly 60 branches in such cities and locations with greatest commercial values as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Taipei. Over more than a decade of robust growth, South Beauty has gradually established the new standards for high-end services in China, evolved into a world-class Chinese restaurant brand with the highest fashion taste and innovation concepts, and led the Chinese food industry to pursue its national catering brand with international standards.

Source: South Beauty Restaurants

Copyright 2012 ACN Newswire. All rights reserved.

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