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Bringing a taste of Italy to Yunnan: An interview with Diego Triboli

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Diego Triboli is from Italy, and has been working in China for more than 15 years. He first came to Yunnan in 2005, and now owns a group of restaurants and food distribution outlets based in Kunming. You may know him as the affable owner of Cantina • Wine and Chat, a stylish Italian bistro located near Kunming's old university district.

Our discussion below is the first of many with members of the Yunnan Foreign Business Club (YFBC). The group was established in 2015, with the intent of connecting foreigners interested in, or already involved with, doing business in Yunnan province.

Today, the club's membership sits at around 30 entrepreneurs from around the world. The association's plans for 2018 include expanding outreach work and growing the network further. Triboli is one of the YFBC's original members, and we sat down with him recently to find out how he ended up in Kunming, and what life is like for him as a businessman working South of the Clouds.

GoKunming: Why the food and beverage industry?

Diego Triboli: Since I was a kid I have always had an interest in cooking, inspired above all by my mother. She's a typical southern Italian mom, who filled me daily with all kinds of delicacies. Personally, I have always liked to cook for my friends, considering a good meal as the natural beginning to any proper party. The idea or dream of having a restaurant of my own became a life goal, similar to when people say, "Someday I will open a small bar somewhere on a beach in Mexico".

GK: Can you explain the primary scope of your business?

Triboli: I first came to China in 2002, as a technical engineer working for FAW-Volkswagen. I was responsible for car body component tooling. But now I am founder and owner of Sapore Italia, a company focused on imported food and beverage distribution all over Yunnan. Our operations include branches in Dali and Lijiang, and from those two places we are able to supply even distant areas in Yunnan like Shangri-la, Lugu Lake, Shaxi, Jinghong, Menghai, Honghe and many others. We currently supply hotels, supermarkets, shops, restaurants, bars and private customers. Our Kunming headquarters is also a mini-supermarket called Laowai's Paradise.

In Kunming I am also founder and owner of Cantina • Wine and Chat, which is the company's flagship store. We serve the most typical Italian family style foods, using, of course, Sapore Italia ingredients. For those of you who have been in Kunming for many years, you may also remember the old Box Bar on Wenhua Xiang, which was my first Kunming restaurant.

GK: What drew you to come to Yunnan and pursue your restaurant dream?

Triboli: While I was living and working in Shanghai for VW, I visited Lijiang for the first time in 2005. Lijiang is very similar to my hometown...a lot of rivers and mountains in a very natural setting — or at least it was at that time. So I liked it at first sight. In 2006, after some trips to Yunnan for the holidays, I discovered a very nice opportunity in Shuhe Old Town, nearby Lijiang. In 2007, VW was willing to give me a sabbatical year, which I dedicated to launching Mammamia Italian Restaurant in this very beautiful location.

GK: Was the food and beverage distribution company a natural outgrowth of the Shuhe restaurant?

Triboli: The idea for Sapore Italia came then because it was very difficult at that time to purchase good, legitimate ingredients outside of China's big cities. There were really a lot of troubles with logistics and deliveries. So in 2008, initially together with other partners, we founded Sapore Italia in Kunming, with me initially being in charge of the Lijiang branch.

GK: How did you juggle the corporate career and your sideline businesses?

Triboli: I decided to quit my engineering job not because of money — I left a very good salary — but because finally I had found a job which made me happy, in a place where I loved to be. I believe that anyone can find such a place, somewhere in the world. I was so lucky to have discovered Lijiang at that time of my life. Of course, the very good business level at the restaurant was helping a lot, so I decided to stay the course. Then, as Sapore Italia continued to grow, I left Mammamia in 2014 and moved to Kunming to open Cantina.

GK: What advice do you have for those considering doing business here in Yunnan?

Triboli: I don't really consider myself a businessman. My background is from a normal family of workers, and none of my close relatives have ever run a proper business. That's one of my limits, because sometimes I feel that I should focus more on the results, but for me the most important thing has been to keep enjoying what I do, keep having fun. Of course being serious about my responsibilities and creating the most pleasant ambience possible is the ultimate goal.

The most important quality to be successful here is to be able to quickly change and adapt your business and ideas according to how things changes and grow in terms of Chinese people's tastes. You have to move fast!

GK: What sort of overarching business philosophy have you developed during your time in Yunnan?

Triboli: I have always worked on trying to incorporate more quality into our products — everything from ingredients and food to my relationship with staff and customers. It's sometimes very hard to do that in Yunnan, where both locals and expats are not always seeking the highest quality stuff. Slowly, slowly, year by year, I can see some changes though, and that pushes me to keep doing my business.

I am sure in Kunming and Yunnan the expectation for quality will increase, step by step. By that time, my company and restaurant will already be well-trained and ready to give perfect service. I believe that cooperation is the key for a quality business, especially for expats in the Yunnan area, far away from China's big developed cities. Our value is to be the only alternative with a superior quality product.

GK: Thanks very much Diego. One last question: What was your motivation for joining the Yunnan Foreign Business Club?

Triboli: I felt that the YFBC could really be a place where a serious and useful cooperation among Yunnan's expat business community would start. That sort of cohesion was seriously lacking before the YFBC began. I'm always for cooperation, and this is a way to help build that community. It's more than just promoting a single business. It's a way to promote everyone together. The club is a great start in pursuing the goal of mutual advancement.

Editor's note: If you would like to contact Diego Triboli personally, get in touch by calling 18088271192. You can also connect with the Yunnan Foreign Business Club through their official Facebook page.

Images: Ray Denning

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Good interview, good place, good food, good folks.

Leaving a well paid job to do something you love is a good choice and can lead to success in more ways than one.

Unless you love doing evil things, I think it IS success. (Note: You will also need an income from somewhere).

@alienew Success can be reached through evil and success is possible without income. Not sure how your mind works Alien but I accept your opinion.

The equation 'evil' = 'success' is fake news: 'evil' = failure. Matter of perspective.
As for success without income, I doubt if it can last very long...well, perhaps if you have a large stock of peanut butter or something...well yeah but then, for those with memories, there's the famous Freak Brothers' maxim: certain things will often get you through times of no money than money will get you through times of....

That's "...times of no money better than money will..."

Great pictures!

I was first introduced to Cantina through a YFBC meeting (Jeff - thanks for the invite). Great place - great reminder to go find this place again! Phenomenal wine bar!

As I read in a novel. It is not being rich that is important, it is not being poor.

Always great food and company!

Best western restaurant in town

nice bloke

Delicious food - best pizza in town by far. I really appreciate a focus on quality over gimmicks, it's so rare in China.

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