How an American makes culinary success in China

Alan Wong of Sacramento, Calif., is the most successful American restaurant owner in China. In an interview with McClatchy Beijing Bureau Chief Tim Johnson, Wong tells some secrets.

Q: By the end of the year, you will have nine restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing. What are the concepts?

A: The concepts aren't exclusively sushi restaurants. I have three or four restaurants that are sushi restaurants. I have a couple of hot pot and barbecue, and a couple of teppanyaki restaurants as well.

Q: What does it take to be a successful American businessman in China?

A: You have to adjust yourself to the business environment in China. You have to know all the idiosyncrasies of doing business here, including this whole relationship factor. Sometimes the relationships that you make with various entities and organizations are actually even more important than your ability to perform. . . .

My success is dependent very much on who I know. For example, not only the people who can get things done with regards to the registrations, licenses and this kind of thing but also the influential people who are making my business very successful, the people who are connectors between everyone else. They go out and find their friends and everybody. And it's all through word-of-mouth advertising and it's made my place very successful. So I'd say it's all about whom I know.

Q: What's your management style?

A: In my company, I try to manage very much like a training ground, or like a volleyball team, or you know, sort of like a sports team, or even if you take a closer look at it, even much more like a classroom scenario. And so if there's a student or like a staff member with problems, I don't dismiss them right away. I don't fire them. I work with them and build them up. It's a very different environment than what they are used to.

Q: Is there a lot of new competition as foreign investment into China grows?

A: I would say that's definitely a factor. There are more people with the skills and know how to create a better product, so then you have automatic competition. I wouldn't say that we're really affected so much right now. But we do keep a very dynamic atmosphere in my restaurant company, which means that we're always changing things about the restaurant. This redecoration right now that you're looking at just got finished two months ago. We re-renovate every three years or so.

Q: What kind of atmosphere do you go for?

A: We don't really actually go for a high-class atmosphere. We're very much a casual-dining atmosphere. However, we do like to focus on little details — little chopstick holders, tiny little flower pots, all this dishware. Most of the dishware we actually design and make ourselves in southern China. . . . A dish like this would probably cost $5 in the States and it costs me about 10 kuai, which is about $1 and something. I go often to southern China to design and produce.

Q: Where did you learn your restaurant skills?

A: I got most of my skills, including management and some of my preparation skills as far as the kitchen, my design skills I learned all in Beijing. I learned a lot of stuff I know actually from my staff, who've had experience working in other restaurants or other people. I'm sort of like a sponge absorbing a lot of information. Whenever I go out to a restaurant, I would see what's good about that restaurant and would try to see if there's any way I could bring it home.


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