“With the pandemic, a lot of people saw Asian Americans as the virus itself which hurts a lot because there’s hate,” said Mathew Wong, co-founder of Tea and Milk in New York City. “As an Asian-American business owner, it’s rough because we don’t know what’s going to happen to our staff and business. All we want is unity, love, respect, and happiness.”
Both COVID-19 and the recent surge of racially charged violence have taken a toll on the Asian-American community, on top of facing a long history of unique challenges stemming from systematic racism and discrimination. Despite these current and historical hurdles, Asian-American business owners continue to resiliently find ways to unite cultures, spread happiness, and march toward success. We spoke with four Asian-American entrepreneurs based in Chicago and New York, and they shared their advice on how to successfully start and navigate a business venture, even during these trying times.
Find a mentor. Finding a mentor or someone that is in the industry that can give you firsthand advice is very helpful. Going head-on, volunteering, interning at a spot that you’re interested in—whether it be as a contractor, a restaurant owner, or a buyer of some sort. Work firsthand on it, so you understand the struggles of it and know what you’re putting yourself into before you jump in.
If you are passionate about something and give 110%, everything is possible. And don’t give up.
Incorporate your background into your product
Sometimes when you grow up, you want to be as western as possible and try to westernize yourself, but I think you need to be proud of where you came from and make sure that you incorporate who you are into your food as well.
People will say occasionally, “Crab boil isn’t Vietnamese,” but the way we make it came from the Vietnamese community. If you go to Louisiana, Cajun seafood boil is simply seafood boil with dry rub. It becomes Viet-Cajun when you’re boiling it inside a bag of butter and stuff. It came from the Vietnamese community, and that’s what makes it Viet-Cajun.
Another Asian-influenced side is our popsicles. I try to put as much effort into putting flavors that are a reflection of the Asian community like pandan, Thai tea, Vietnamese coffee, etc.
We read every single review. We make sure that everyone understands what the review says. When we get a review, we share it with the team on a daily basis.
At first, I was very sensitive to the negative reviews. I thought to myself, “Oh no, I messed up. Maybe I’m not built for it.” But now I look at them, and if it’s constructive, I will take it to heart and figure out what has gone wrong that day. If something happened, was it a team effort? Find out from the bottom, and then work our way up to figure out what the problem was.
Embrace the journey despite the hardships
To start is easy—find a niche, and go at it—but to maintain and run a business, that is the long haul and the hardest thing you will do. Sleepless nights and sacrifices will have to be made because this is your dream, your business, and your life now.
You need to want to succeed because the hard work you put in is the time taken from something else you could be doing. Make sure you work hard for what you want and that what you are doing makes you happy because without hard work, you’re going to go in circles, and without being happy working, you’re going to go in circles as well.
Enjoy the journey as it comes. Every little step should be a learning curve. Obstacles now will look like a piece of cake when you endure and overcome them.
Chinese-American food is a cuisine and business model that evolved out of a specific diaspora. So I think it’s important for us to refer back to the generations and the people that came before us. A good friend of mine, or rather a coworker, grew up in Chinese-American restaurants. His father’s 90-something years old, can barely hear. And when we were developing our General Tso’s recipe, I was confused about what in the world General Tso’s actually was because every time I ate it, it was a little different.
And so we called him and said, ‘Hey, so what’s General Tso’s chicken?’ We called when we were developing our sesame chicken and said, ‘So what is sesame chicken?’ And the funny story is, at most Chinese-American restaurants, sesame chicken is General Tso’s chicken, but it has sesame seeds on top of it. It’s exactly the same sauce.
These things you would never learn and you would never know—you asked the OGs, you asked the legends that have been doing this their whole life and moved to this country to do this. Respecting tradition means involving the people that came before you into the business and into helping you, in my case as a chef, developing dishes, but also how do you run the restaurant? How do you keep food crispy? That sort of thing—a lot of that knowledge comes from the culture that precedes us, so it’s important to refer back to that.
Deliver great customer service and stay engaged online
Customer service is really important, and especially in the pandemic and digital world, a lot of that customer service extends beyond just the transaction of the meal itself. On top of in-person interaction within the store, a lot of the customer service happens in responding to reviews, engaging with people on Instagram, or making sure that our social media is answering people’s questions and showing people what’s happening inside the restaurant and the type of food that we’re serving.
You have to run a good operation. You have to understand the numbers and run everything well fundamentally. Without that, it doesn’t matter how good your food is, how good your concept is, or how much hyper buzz you get. If you can’t sustain a good business operation month over month, year over year, you’re most likely not going to make it.
Be authentic to your experiences
Try to be authentic—not in terms of being an Asian or your particular ethnicity per se—but to your own experiences, what you know, and what you grew up with. I think that is the most important thing. At least for us, it was. We weren’t just trying to run random Asian concepts or ingredients into menu items. It was a thoughtful process based on the kind of food we wanted to eat and grew up with and how we could reflect that experience most authentically.