HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM - Bao and Ey Doan are sat at a table on the second floor of their favorite weekend dining experience, a chic, cavernous brick-and-beams pizzeria located inside a 130-year-old French colonial building in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
Bao has ordered them one of Pizza 4P’s’ signature dishes, a Parma ham, burrata cheese Margherita pizza, though he admits to dithering over two other unusual and yet-to-be-sampled creations on the menu — one seaweed and calamari, the other smoked cheese seafood in spicy tomato sauce.
“If you take a look on social media, you’ll see a lot of people calling this the Japanese pizza place,” says Bao, as Ey glances down at the open-plan kitchen below, where a team of chefs are busy twirling dough and shoveling mouth-watering creations in and out of three wood-burning ovens with long-handled peels. “That’s a bit misleading — it’s a unique fusion. There’s really nothing else like it.”
Items on the menu provide a clue as to where that netizen-inspired sobriquet originated. In addition to sashimi pizza, there’s salmon miso-cream pizza, Japanese ginger-pork pizza, and other items with more than just a whiff of the Japanese about them.
Then, there’s the restaurant’s charismatic CEO, Tokyo-born Yosuke Masuko, a self-confessed “pizza maniac” whose dreams of becoming a big cheese in the world of pizza are proving to be anything but pie in the sky.
Today, there are eight Pizza 4P’s outlets in Vietnam — five of them in Ho Chi Minh City, including the company’s flagship store, which opened in 2012, just off Le Thanh Ton in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s main business district.
Two more can be found in Hanoi and another in the central-east coast city of Danang. And there’s more in the pipeline.
“Things have happened so quickly,” says Masuko, 38, who started Pizza 4P’s with his wife, Sanae, two of his junior high school friends and $100,000 of his own savings.
“In no time we had knocked through on either side of the first store and increased the seat count from 35 to 120. Around two-thirds of our customers are Vietnamese and I think that’s largely due to the Japan influence. Japan and things Japanese are really admired here.”
The seeds for the popular pizzeria, however, were sown 12 years ago in Tokyo, or to be more precise, in the backyard of Masuko’s home in Kichijoji, Musashino.
There, he and another pizza-nut friend Takaaki Yoshikawa spent six months building a wood-burning pizza oven, their efforts aided by YouTube. Once completed, Masuko started to host weekend pizza parties where, unconsciously, the Pizza 4P’s concept was incubated.
“Pretty much none of the people we invited knew one another, but through pizza, they became close,” says Masuko, adding that participants were encouraged to try their hand at creating “wow factor” pizza and share it with others who congregated there, forging friendships along the way.
“Before long we had created a kind of community, where even those who were tired or down when they arrived went home with a smile on their face.”
Those gatherings were curtailed when a public development project spelled the end for both home and pizza oven and Masuko embarked on a career in trade and finance.
His first employment after graduating was at a company specializing in seafood imports, a job that took him to various countries for overseas business trips. During those expeditions he continued his pizza education, fervently seeking out the regional varieties on offer.
However, it was during his next employment, at venture capital outfit CyberAgent Ventures, that he started to hanker for independency and yearned for a project that he could truly call his own.
Searching for a way to improve his business acumen, he approached CyberAgent, which specializes in investments in Internet-related start-ups, about opening a branch in Hanoi. In 2008, he moved to the Vietnamese capital as country director of the Tokyo-headquartered firm.
“I soon realized the huge potential here, plus I really liked the Vietnamese people,” says Masuko. “But I still wanted to be independent and run my own business so I started thinking about what I could do.”
Interestingly, at about the same time Yoshikawa, with whom he had studied from junior high right through university — where they both studied film production — had recently quit his job.
“He had quit his job as a commercial film director to become … a pizza chef,” Masuko says. “He came to visit me in Vietnam and that’s when we started making concrete plans toward starting a pizza business.”
There have been challenges. First was the entire absence of any supplier of fresh mozzarella cheese, a crucial pizza ingredient. They sent out letters to dozens of cheese craftsmen, and when none responded, they once more turned to YouTube in the hope of learning how to make it themselves.
“A key ingredient is milk, so we biked around the countryside for weeks knocking on doors of farms and returning home with containers of fresh milk,” Masuko says, adding that they experimented making the cheese in his cramped bedroom.
Masuko explains that they tried making mozzarella at least 50 times, testing more than 25 different milks before coming up with something good — so good, in fact, that when some of the local hotels heard about it, they started placing orders.
Today, mozzarella and the notoriously difficult to perfect burrata are two of eight cheeses made by Pizza 4P’s — all now produced at a company-run farm 300 kilometers northeast of Ho Chi Minh City in the highlands of Dalat.
“In hindsight, that difficult start, that weakness, turned out to be our strength,” he says, adding that cheese sales account for over 10 percent of the business.
Another challenge came from a less expected source — his wife’s parents.
“When I told them we had decided to open a pizza restaurant, they said they would sever relations with me,” Masuko explains. “They are ancestors of Shinsaku Takasugi, a famous samurai, and said the restaurant trade was too low.”
Attempts at placating them included calling the restaurant “Pizza Takasugi,” which was immediately shouted down due to a somewhat comical homophone (using different characters, “takasugi” can also mean “too expensive.”)
Next, he employed the family crest into the company logo. After the restaurant opened, his parents-in-law were among the first customers. “They finally understood how serious we are and now we have a good relationship. They liked the logo.”
It’s a logo that will soon be seen outside of Vietnam, with Masuko planning to open in Bangkok later this year. He also plans to open up branches in the U.S. and other parts of Asia, including Japan, where he hopes to develop a pizza theme park.
But wherever the pizza adventure takes them, the basic concept will remain the same. “Our mission is ‘delivering wow and sharing happiness’ and through that to make people smile for peace,” he says, highlighting the correct pronunciation of his chain: “Pizza For Peace.”
“That’s our vision. It has its roots in that pizza oven we built in the garden all those years ago — it, too, delivered wow and shared happiness through making and eating pizza. Our goal is to spread that idea around the globe.”
Name: Yosuke Masuko
Profession: Founder, CEO of Pizza 4P’s
Key moments in career:
2005 — Builds pizza oven in garden of home in Kichijoji
2008 — Goes to Vietnam as country director of a company financing internet-related venture companies
2012 — Opens first branch of Pizza 4P’s in Ho Chi Minh City
Words to live by: “In order to succeed you need an objective and purpose.”
Things I miss about Japan: “Nothing in particular.”