For Alex Cree, the idea for a pizza-baozzi fusion brand was born on a trip to Guangdong.
In the summer of 2015, when Alex Cree was on a trip to Guangdong and having a conversation with clients and colleagues, he had no idea that he would soon be changing his career.
The American came from an investment banking and consulting background, and was a successful consultant focused on the Chinese food and beverage industry.
During the conversation, an American client praised Chinese baozi (steamed buns) for their taste and price, but complained that the fillings were not high quality and sometimes upset his stomach.
Then the whole group - comprising Chinese and Americans - started joking about putting Western fillings into Chinese baozi, and Cree said they should be called "Bao-zza".
The idea for a pizza-baozzi fusion stuck in his mind, and a year later, after developing recipes and business plans with partner Loren Heinold and other friends in Los Angeles, where he was living, Cree quit his job and returned to China to work full time on the project in mid-2016.
The idea was to take two common staple foods from the East and the West, and reinvent them, to create a new product that was unique, modern and delicious, according to Cree.
Their brainchild Baozza tastes like pizza but feels like baozi, except that the dough, which draws inspiration from both Western and Chinese cuisines, is a tasty, fragrant hybrid that includes baozi dough ingredients for texture and form, and a distinct blend of Italian herbs and cheese for flavor.
The product comes in four variants - - Margherita, Meat Lovers, BBQ Chicken and Spicy Hawaiian Jalape?o.
It took the team over a year of hard work to come up with the ingredients and the cooking methods, and to decide on the final recipes with help from both Western and Chinese chefs.
In July 2016, Cree and his team held their first pop-up event at UrWork, a co-working office space in Beijing, and sold almost 200 baozza in an hour and a half, even though people had never heard of anything like this before.
"We were amazed at people's willingness to try a new thing. It was as simple as showing people that it is pizza baozi, and sometimes it is simple innovations that have the most impact," says Cree.
At some events, they had queues 40-50 people deep; often people waited over an hour for Baozza when they have had plenty of other food options around, says Cree.
Then, in September 2016, managed to open a delivery center catering to online food delivery platforms such as Baidu Waimai, Eleme, Metuan and Jinshisong.
In December, they launched their own delivery service, after seeing steady growth in customers.
Meanwhile, besides event catering and online delivery, they also plan to open retail outlets across the country.
Cree credits the popularity of Baozza to quality and taste as well as the pizza market, which has grown enormously in China since the 1990s.
Baozza customers love the combination of the pizza taste and the baozi texture. It is soft, chewy, and blends well with melted cheese.
Also, it is not greasy or messy when people eat it, which makes it much more portable so people can carry it, just like traditional baozi which are carried around in plastic bags, says Cree.
Besides while baozi is traditionally a breakfast option and pizza a dinner one, Baozza works at any time of day, as a meal or a snack, he says.
Most of the Baozza customers are young Chinese professionals who are game to try out new trends in food and lifestyle, he says.
"When we started last summer, we knew our product was delicious, but we really had no idea what the average Chinese would make of it. So, to see the positive reactions has been incredibly heartwarming," says Cree.
Cree and his team have experimented with over 20 baozza flavors, including classic pizza ones such as Pepperoni Baozza, funky flavors like Buffalo Chicken Baozza, mash-ups like Cheeseburger Baozza, and one of the team's favorites - - - Banana Nutella Marshmallow Dessert Baozza with vanilla and chocolate chip dough.
They plan to release new Baozza flavors on a regular basis.