Journey of a Restaurateur in China
Apologies for the long hiatus on the blog. Like most people, my life seems to be a perpetual cycle of calendar alerts and deadlines these days, but I thought it was a good time for an update. Last July, just before I turned 26, I quit my day job at one of the world's most innovative design firms to focus on figuring out what I really wanted to do with my time. I have been lucky in my career; I've traveled the world and worked with amazing people on interesting and impactful projects, but I couldn't escape the creeping sense of urgency to slow down and face the ambiguity this question brought up in my mind. I realized that I couldn't wait for the answer to just come to me; there's no moment of enlightenment when one just figures out what to do with their lives. I knew I owed myself the same dedication and time as I had given to my jobs in the past, but that the reward in this case would be infinitely greater. I can't believe its been 9 months now...time flies.
Since July, I've traveled through Ethiopia with two of my best friends, worked on a Vice documentary, explored the Tibetan plateau area of Western Sichuan, completed a major section of a large book on restaurants around the world being published in 2015, wrote freelance for many international publications, worked on an exciting PBS/BBC documentary on China coming out in 2016, and kept busy the rest of the time running a mildly-successful little operation on Airbnb.
Around December, a friend and I began discussing how we felt about the state of food in China. I've long talked about the lack of progress in contemporary Chinese cuisine; unlike the West, where fetishization of cooks and their place in popular culture borders on unhealthy, China hasn't yet gone through that period. Chefs hide behind the banner of a restaurant's name, and cooking schools remain a vocational fallback plan. As much as the Chinese love to eat and discuss what they're eating (Dianping, the Chinese user-generated restaurant review site destroys Yelp, with a single restaurant in Shanghai getting more reviews than the total number for some major US cities), cooking is still decidedly unglamorous, and coupled with the crushing costs of starting a restaurant in China, young people face endless obstacles getting into the field.
The result is an over-saturated market of mediocre chains, old school traditions, and massive restaurant groups squeezing out the independent operators. There's no new blood attempting to turn the system on its head, push the cuisine forward with the times, or even just to question the status quo. Combine this with the alarming numbers of food safety scandals China has seen over the last decade, which don't appear to be ceasing anytime soon, and it starts to look pretty bleak.
Shanghai is very atypical of a Chinese city. It is a hodge podge of cultures, blending East and West in undecipherable ways and offering a frenetic view into the future. The urban middle class swells in cosmopolitan centers like Shanghai, and of these, the younger generation is the first of a wave of hyper-connected, Western-influenced, sophisticated and discerning tastemakers. They can be found at artisanal bakeries in the French Concession, roaming glitzy Hong Kong malls like K11 and iAPM, shopping for organic produce, and making a personal statement with their fashion and brand choices. They embrace the contradiction that is modern China, and are overwhelmingly nationalistic, as evident in the rise of "Innovated/Designed/Created in China" movement, notably within the realms of tech and fashion. My friend and I share a lot of the same sentiment; despite having grown up in the West, we have fully formed identities in our Chinese cultural heritage. Having also had the privilege of a wealth of global experience, we saw the unfettered opportunity to bridge this gap in food.
As we both lead relatively busy lives, we were drawn to the idea of quick service food, convenient and handy, but that didn't come out of a bag and wasn't at one point goop. Existing options in the market include Western fast food (KFC, McDonalds), Chinese fast food (Uncle Fast Food, Kung Fu; underwhelming taste, fluorescent interiors, questionable quality), and upmarket, healthy eateries (mostly Western salads/sandwiches; more trustworthy, but generally 3-4x as expensive). As lifestyles get increasingly busy, eating most meals out is not uncommon in Shanghai, and the single most pressing issue on people's minds (above even abysmal pollution) is food safety. Yet clean and safe food is hard to come by; few restaurants are clear about where they source their ingredients, and the supply chain breaks down in so many places that it is often hard to even trace food safety scandals to their source.
We decided that what was missing is a restaurant concept that is convenient, contemporary (Chinese), affordable, and importantly- transparently sourced. The Chipotle model is obviously a great illustrator of the rewards of doing business with integrity. We wanted to create this for China; a holistic experience where the menu, service, interior, packaging, and user experience all add up to a brand identity that is greater than the sum of its parts. It seems misguided to accept that food safety is something the Chinese should just live without. Clean and wholesome food should be accessible to everyone, which is why affordability and accountability are key to our concept. Above all, we wanted to create a New China aesthetic and experience in food, one that a modern generation of Chinese can identify with as their own. And we wanted to make it scalable to reach across China, with the first store opening in Shanghai, where we live.
This is how Baoism was born. The name came from a business I wanted to start a long time ago taking people on food tours around Shanghai. Everyone loves baos, and the name I thought had an almost mystical quality to it. When we decided on the menu, naturally baos (Taiwanese style with various fillings) were on top of the list of items to serve that are tasty, convenient (hand-held) and versatile. I've also always loved the idea of a Chinese burrito, replacing the tortilla wrap with scallion oil pancakes that street vendors make here, so that was added to the menu. Lastly, after talking to numerous people in our target demographic (white-collar millennials) we knew we couldn't do without the perennially popular rice bowl.
We decided to work with a chef consultant to develop the menu, a good friend who has had years of experience cooking in the city's best Chinese and Western kitchens as well as operating his own successful lunch spot in a busy area of Shanghai. We wanted to create dishes with a modern interpretation of traditional Chinese food, borrowing from the best of global cooking techniques and using unexpected flavor pairings. For example, we are experimenting with sous vide to slow cook our pork belly to consistent perfection, and playing with flavors like coffee and tamarind in our otherwise traditional Chinese beef and fish dishes. The menu is slowly coming together, but that's just one small piece of the puzzle.
We've been on the lookout for our first location, and it is proving to be a challenge. Our criteria is to be close to office buildings for the lunch crowd, close to transport, with a neighborhood feel and good foot traffic into the nights and weekends. We didn't anticipate real estate to be quite so expensive in Shanghai and have had to increase our budget set aside for rent. As a startup with ambitious expansion goals, the high ratio of rent to revenue is worrying.
Sourcing is another major challenge. As the cornerstone of what our brand stands for, we have to be meticulous with sourcing, only working with partners who have similar high standards of quality and integrity, using technology to track and streamline the supply chain as much as we can. Mostly we just want to be honest with our customers and narrow the awareness gap of what people eat and where it comes from.
Branding identity, store design, customer flow, consistency, scalability, marketing, etc are all other massive tasks to tackle before our targeted opening date of October 2014. For the first two items, we are under discussions with progressive Chinese design talent that understand our vision of Baoism representing a flavor and aesthetic that is contemporary, yet rooted in the traditional.
This is all an exciting work in progress, and it feels really good to be bringing a vision to life. Stay tuned and follow me on Instagram/Twitter where I'm a bit more active as I continue on this journey to becoming a restaurateur in China.