California restaurateur rides wave of success in China

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 6, 2008 

BEIJING — Alan Wong still remembers the day back in 2000 when his father hit him up with that annoying question about his lack of gumption in finding a career.

"It was just kind of, 'What are you doing with your life?'" Wong recalls.

The 33-year-old Wong laughs off the question now. After all, he's tooling around Beijing in a red Ferrari 360 Modena sports car, one of his four vehicles. He recently doled out more than $700,000 for a custom-made wristwatch. He flies first class.

China's economy has boomed, and Wong has ridden along, becoming one of the most successful expatriate restaurant owners in the country. Wong now owns all or part of seven Japanese-themed restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai, and is set to open two more within months. Most cater to a swelling clientele of foreigners who reside in China's top two cities.

"The success has been overwhelming," Wong said. "Added to that is the fact that I'm not really that ambitious. I don't have that ambition to make millions and millions of dollars."

Wong retains a bit of surfer chic: He's as likely to talk about his passion for snowboarding or his childhood in California as he is to riff on what it takes to make it as a restaurateur in China.

School was never his thing. Wong went to Sacramento's Rio Americano High School, then on to California State University at Sacramento, majoring in philosophy.

"I wasn't very interested in school, just enough to get by and not look like an idiot."

Then came a series of odd jobs. He worked at a car wash for a couple of years, then at a surfing and skateboarding store. Finally came a stint at a Japanese fusion restaurant, where Wong developed a knack for observing what customers liked.

Wong's father moved to Beijing to seek his fortune in real estate, and by 2000 he called his son to offer a job as a go-fer, a glorified intern. Wong left behind a girlfriend and gave Beijing a try. He loved it. Within a year, he turned the tables on his dad, pestering him for a loan to start up a Japanese restaurant — one catering to Western expatriates flooding into Beijing.

At the time, Beijing had yet to see the explosion of eateries and Western chains that now serve the 300,000-plus foreigners estimated to live in the capital of 16 million.

"In Beijing back then, you could count on one or maybe two hands the number of restaurants that foreigners would want to go to, or really frequent," said Jerry Chan, editorial director of True Run Media, a company that publishes English-language magazines for expats in the capital.

Wong shunned what he called the "over the top, very gaudy" designs typical of restaurants in Beijing, preferring a space that would be at home in any big metropolitan area in North America. "To design a space for Californians, you have to be Californian," he said. It required incessant tinkering, though, especially with the menu.

"My spicy tuna, we tried 50 or 60 times to get the taste right," he said.

Within five months, Wong said, his Hatsune restaurant was in the black. It appeared to fill a niche that resident foreigners craved. So many Motorola employees came that a roll was named for them.

"I can't tell you how many times I would walk up, and they'd stand up and give me a big hug and say, 'This is just what we've been missing!'" Wong said.

Next came Kagen, a trendy hot pot and barbecue restaurant, and perhaps the only one that targets a Chinese clientele. Then came an exclusive Benihana-style grill that only has eight tables. By 2007, potential partners came knocking, hoping to grab some of Wong's magic. He relented when one agreed to finance three restaurants in Shanghai if Wong would come up with the concepts, the designs and the food. He did, and the restaurants flourish. A year ago, he's opened a seventh restaurant, Block 8, an upscale sushi venture.

All told, he's got some 400 employees working for him, and he credits a softhearted management style — akin to teacher and student — for building intense employee loyalty.

"You spend a lot of time with them. The gratitude you got in return is No. 1 in loyalty and No. 2 in hard work," Wong said. "I have my cell phone on 24 hours a day. I'm readily available to anyone on my staff."

It all might seem too easy, but it isn't. Foreign-operated restaurants rise and fall quickly in China's big cities, said Chan, whose magazines carry listings and advertising from businesses catering to foreigners, including Wong's restaurants.

"There are a lot of flashes in the pan. The pattern here is that you open up. The owner pays a lot of attention at first. Then things just really deteriorate," Chan said. But Wong practically lives in his restaurants, regularly tweaking the menus and changing the decor.

"He knows how to surround himself with good people," said Sebastian Noat, a Frenchman who's managed restaurants around the world and is one of Wong's closest friends. "He has this very California approach to business. He's very casual. He knows most of his customers by name."

But the pace of running the growing restaurant empire takes its toll.

"His phone rings about 45 times every hour," Noat said.

Wong has pulled back. In the wintertime, he said he escapes around four times a week to practice the jumps, rails and "acrobatic stuff" he likes to do on his snowboard at slopes near the Great Wall that are powdered with artificial snow.

Beijing's smog gets to him, and it makes him wax about California's beauty. "I've been living in the most polluted city in the world for eight years," Wong said.

It is a momentary melancholy, and his eyes light up again thinking about his next future endeavor. Soon, he'll open a Beijing restaurant serving spicy food from Hunan province, but marketed strictly to foreigners.

"We omit all the weird stuff, the guts and brains and eyeballs and stuff. The menu's only in English," Wong said, mentally plotting new moves for his expanding restaurant kingdom.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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