In the context of pizza ovens, the influence of Chinese design and manufacturing is impossible to ignore. At the high-end, both Ooni and Gozney ovens are designed in the UK, and made made in China. I’ve had the opportunity to see photos and videos of the Chinese factories that make massive numbers of Ooni ovens, and it can be overwhelming. Hundreds of white-gloved workers and thousand, upon thousands of metal parts stacked up toward the sky.

But, what does made in China really mean?

The first thing to know is that there’s a continuum of data points along a line of where the products are designed and who takes the lion’s share of the profits for products made in China. Take Apple as one extreme example. There’s a lot more to “Designed in California. Made in China” than you might think. Apple not only designs their products and closely oversees production done by their massive manufacturing partners, they design their own production equipment, and at times they own the production equipment their partners are using. Of course they need off-shore manufacturing—there are virtually high production zero machine tool experts in the US, virtually zero qualified component suppliers, and no US location would allow the massive complexes of building required to build 250 million phones per year.

Plus, Apple is working hard to decrease their reliance on China as a manufacturing hub, and it has been adding capacity in Vietnam, India and other locations. Their attempt at building large numbers of products in Brazil pretty much failed.

And of course Apple is famously profitable. The percentage of the cost of an iPhone to goes to China for manufacturing is very low.

But Apple is a data set of one. There’s nothing else even vaguely like them on the planet.

In the pizza oven world, Ooni and Gozney are two companies that most closely control their product designs while still using Chinese manufacturing. They own their own products and their own designs, and they contact with manufacturing companies to produce their products. A larger portion of the purchase price of an oven stays with the designer and owner of the brand. Both companies say very little about where their ovens are made, and they spend a massive amount of their marketing budgets establishing their designs and brands.

At the opposite end of the spectrum lies two different business models. The China direct to Amazon channel, and the US importer selling Alibaba products in the US.

You can’t miss the China direct to Amazon channel. It’s re-shaped the global economy, made Chinese factory owners rich, made Amazon even bigger than before, and it has further hollowed out US manufacturing and de-valued US brands. A $39 direct to Amazon kitchen faucet with free overnight shipping that has the same quality as a $129 faucet from an established US brand with Chinese manufacturing, along with thousands of 5-star reviews, is a real problem for the US brand. Despite the fact that their products are being made in China. Their China direct competitor has very low overheads, and very low profit margin requirements, and they’re very happy making enormous numbers of $39 faucets.

For non-complicated, easy to ship products, like kitchen faucets, the China direct to Amazon channel is obvious.

This phenomenon is a little less obvious for pizza ovens. There are a couple of companies trying to direct model, where they sell under their own brand, but the product is complicated, the sales volumes are not huge, and shipping is expensive—so they are not available in Amazon Prime. Which is deal killer for most consumers. Plus, the products are generally pretty terrible. By and large, the Chinese are simply copying existing designs, without really understanding how they work. After all, there isn’t a culture of Pizza Napoletana in China.

Which brings us to the US companies importing Chineses ovens designed and manufactured by the Chinese. Think of this as the Alibaba to the US channel. Again, it’s pretty obvious. There are a handful of qualified factories that design and produce pizza ovens—both refractory and steel, and US companies, including Chefman, Pizzello, WPPO, Big Horn, Empava, Ciao Bella, Kucht and others that simply buy them by the container load and sell them in the US and Canada. Of course the Chinese factories are happy to sell the exact same product to multiple US importers—that’s their fundamental business.

The larger Chinese factories get some safety certifications, such as CSA, which they can pass along to their US importers.

It’s a race to the bottom, where the Chinese factory is making the lion’s share of the profits, and the US and Canadian importers are fighting for table scraps. The quality of the ovens ranges from very bad to simply poor, and the prices are very low. The importer typically pays for free shipping in the US and Canada (that’s a price of being in business), and some even try to support a dealer network where they give a discount margin of 30% or so to the dealer.

At the end of the day, there is very little left for the importer.

Think of it this way. Pizzello is selling a $125 pellet-fired portable oven made by a company that is easily findable on Alibaba.com. Let’s analyze the cost of shipping an empty box from China, to you, for free. Here are the costs that box incurs:

  • The factory in China to their port
  • Port to port sea freight charges—take a $4,000 container fee and divide it by the number of boxes you can pack into a 40’HC container.
  • Clear that container through customers—divide the customs fee by the number of boxes you can pack into a 40’HC container.
  • Drive that container to the US warehouse—divide warehouse fee by the number of boxes you can pack into a 40’HC container.
  • Set the box on a shelf.
  • Print a UPS Ground shipping label.
  • Meet the UPS driver.
  • Pay for UPS Ground shipping.
  • Set aside an allowance for breakage and unhappy customer refunds and return.

Clearly Pizzello can’t afford to put this into Amazon Prime. They can’t afford to give up the margin to Amazon.

But, really? Is this a sustainable business?

Of course there are companies that design and manufacture pizza ovens in the US, and there are companies that design their own ovens and have them made in China.

More on that later.