STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For centuries, Western businesspeople have dreamed of making a fortune in the legendary China market. You just need to sell something, anything to China's 1.3 billion consumers and you'll be rich. The reality, of course, is totally different.
And NPR's Frank Langfitt has yet another tale of American entrepreneurs in the China market. This time it's two young MBAs who tried to launch Auntie Anne's Pretzels in the Middle Kingdom and did not succeed. But one of them wrote a book about their adventure called "The China Twist."
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Wen-Szu Lin and Joseph Sze's venture began as an appealing tale, bringing the American soft pretzel to the Middle Kingdom. They opened their first store around the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They were even featured on NBC's "Today Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF NBC'S TV SHOW, "TODAY SHOW")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's a good pretzel, dude.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: With his wife's blessing, Joe partnered up with this friend from business school, a fellow Chinese America, and opened the very first, Auntie Anne's in Beijing.
WEN-SZU LIN: We bought the rights to China, just so the fact that we could expand this brand in China.
LANGFITT: That's Lin, the author of "The China Twist," a self-published book. In fact, Auntie Anne's, a popular staple in malls across America, almost didn't get off the ground here. The Chinese government impounded the company's second shipment of pretzel mix, jeopardizing the entire operation. Inspectors claimed they found dairy bacteria in a sample.
Lin thought that was odd, because the mix had no dairy at all. After weeks of hopelessly lobbying, Lin got a surprise call from an official. Great news: the company's second pretzel mix sample had passed inspection.
LIN: I was really shocked by it because I actually had never sent in a second sample.
LANGFITT: In retrospect, Lin thinks the pretzel mix was just a small victim of a larger trade tussle between the U.S. and China following the melamine milk scandal.
LIN: During that time, I think a lot of Chinese shipments, food-related products, going into the U.S. were being detained. You know, my guess is it could have been, you know, tit-for-tat in terms of stopping our shipment.
LANGFITT: Mix in hand, the MBAs now tried to introduce a beloved American snack to a nation where soft pretzels were unknown. They used an event that had been foolproof in the U.S., the pretzel giveaway. Free pretzels drew huge crowds here. But not, Lin says, the middle-class Chinese consumers who could actually afford the brand.
LIN: They were janitors, they were the employees of the other, you know, stalls next to us and their friends. And these are people who made, you know, probably less than 1,000 RMB a month.
LANGFITT: That's about $160. Looking back, Szu says one of their biggest challenges was reading the China market.
JOSEPH SZE: The cultural divide was huge. I think we made a faulty assumption in the beginning that our Chinese heritage was in line with the cultural and this cultural phenomenon that was happening here in China.
MARY BERGSTROM: The trials and the tribulations and the challenges are so different than maybe what you would expect.
LANGFITT: Mary Bergstrom runs a brand consultancy in Shanghai. She says many of the problems Auntie Anne's ran into are typical for foreign firms. Bergstrom says some popular brands in the U.S. have crashed here because they failed to offer an experience Chinese were looking for
For instance, Best Buy offered customer service and technical expertise to savvy Chinese consumers who cared about price. And, she says, in an earlier case, Dunkin Donuts offered sweet pastries completely outside China's culinary tradition.
BERGSTROM: Number one, you know, consumers aren't used to eating things with their hands, so that's already a, you know, a behavioral hurdle that you have to get over. The second issue would be, you know, the taste. In the U.S., donuts are very sweet, whereas cakes in China tend to be less sweet.
LANGFITT: Dunkin Donuts, incidentally, is back in China, trying to make a second go. Auntie Anne's tried to adapt its products to Chinese tastes. Sze says they changed the size of pretzel dogs, offered pretzel bites and dips in various local flavors.
SZE: We managed to get the platform to break even.
LANGFITT: But that wasn't enough. The company needed more funding to expand and survive. And after the global financial crisis hit, that became impossible. The last of the dozen Auntie Anne's stores in China closed last year. But neither Lin nor Sze have soured on pretzels - or China. Sze still believes Auntie Anne's can succeed here. And Lin says the China market is still the place to be.
LIN: I don't feel like I'm done with China yet.
LANGFITT: Lin now works directly for Focus Brands, which owns Auntie Anne's along with Cinnabon and Carvel. It took time for him to work through all the tough experiences of the last few years. But Lin says he was finally able to let it go by writing his book.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.