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Chinese Restaurant Owners are a Tough Bunch January 17, 2014

Posted by hslu in Chinese, Chinese Food, Economics.
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A Chinese restaurant owner in the 7 corners area here in Northern Virginia once told me that it is difficult to be a Chinese restaurant owner because Chinese customers are so picky that it was impossible to please them.

In her words, she said that:

They want the prices low.

They want the quantity of the food huge.

The want the taste of their Chinese food authentic.

And they want their service at Chinese restaurant quick and snappy.

One thing they don’t care was the ambiance of the restaurant. They are generally rowdy. They might allow their kids running around. Some of them are sloppy and messy. And many leave little tips.

In the words of Chinese,  she told me, Chinese customers’ expectation for Chinese restaurant is  “又要马儿好,又要马儿不吃草;” they want their horses fast and speedy but they don’t want to feed them.

She sometimes talked to me about her business because my wife and I were one of a few customers at their restaurant the first week they opened for business. We frequently visited her restaurant and knew her well.

With the ubiquitous of Chinese restaurants and all-you-can-eat cheap buffets in many cities of the United States, they vote with their feet and the owners are one their toes to keep them happy and satisfied.

Inside the restaurant, chefs are difficult to deal with too. They may have good credentials from China and they may have official license from a local government but once they are in the US for a while, things are likely to change.

They want less work, i.e., not busy at the restaurant is good for them. They want salaries high. They pay attention to the classified section of the World Journal  because they want to see job availability near his home. They don’t want to do side jobs. They want to leave at the right time. Some of them don’t have the habit to help others. When something upsets them, argument with other chefs, too much work, not enough money, you name it, they vote with their feet and leave you behind in the cold as well.

When this happens, inevitably the tastes of their dishes change usually to the worse. Long term customers notice the change right away and business suffers as a result.

When you are doing great business because of good food, authentic tastes or whatever, other restaurants with similar dishes will creep up near you and take your business away. More often than not, a new restaurant with similar line of dishes appears a few blocks away. The competition is cut-throat, in her words.

If god forbid an All-You-Can-Eat buffet opens its door near you, your business will drop precipitously to the point of not able to break even in many cases.  Now they get stuck with a long term lease and a lousy, sometime, money losing business. They get sloppy on the salary to their workers. They slack on money to their suppliers.  And finally they can’t stay open anymore and have to sell the business for little money.

The cycle repeats at Chinese restaurants in many shopping centers all over the United States.

That’s why I call the Chinese restaurant owner a tough bunch.

Such is the life cycle of a dedicated Chinese restaurant owner.


My Life as a 炒鍋 “chao3 guo1” in a Chinese Restaurant August 29, 2009

Posted by hslu in Chinese Food, Food, Restaurants.
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My Life as a 炒鍋 “chao3 guo1”  in a Chinese Restaurant

To be a Chinese cook, the first thing I needed to learn was 翻鍋 “fan1 guo1”. It involved flipping whatever ingredients were in the hot wok in a more or less constant motion so that the food wouldn’t get burned. If sauce was added in the cooking process, 翻鍋 “fan1 guo1” would ensure that the ingredients were coated with the sauce evenly. Back then, no one would teach you cooking skill in a Chinese kitchen. Almost every cook started their career as a dishwasher. If he (there were practically no women working in a Chinese kitchen) worked hard and the head chef liked him enough, he would get promoted to a 油鍋 ”you2 guo1”; one who was in charge of deep fried orders. BTW, Xiaobao has worked as a part-time油鍋 ”you2 guo1” for a few weeks at my restaurant. In a year or two if our 油鍋 ”you2 guo1” could handle the job well; he would be promoted to a 炒鍋 “chao3 guo1” in another year or two. In that two or three year span, he would secretly watch what a油鍋 ”you guo” or 炒鍋 “chao2 guo1” did and picked up a point or two along the way if he was smart and willing to learn. Very seldom, a cook would be willing to teach a new comer any skill because he was afraid the new comer would take his position.

Another thing all Chinese cooks didn’t like was to have an owner working in the kitchen because they didn’t like to work under owner’s watchful eyes. At the time when I decided to become a炒鍋 “chao3 guo1”, I had worked as a dishwasher at an Italian deli in Silver Spring and at National Cathedral School for Girls in DC but had never learned to deep fry anything, had never operated a wok in a Chinese kitchen, and had never attempted to翻鍋 “fan1 guo1” or cook anything. Here I was the night before my official debut as a Chinese cook and I didn’t even know how to翻鍋 “fan1 guo1.” None of the cooks would volunteer to teach me and I wasn’t about to ask them either. I believed that they were waiting to see how I would make a fool out of myself and thinking that I couldn’t survive very long in a busy kitchen.

Well, I had to learn翻鍋 “fan1 guo1” first and learn it before 10 AM tomorrow. I remembered the night before I officially started being a炒鍋 “chao guo,” I waited until everyone left the restaurant, locked the front and back doors, turned on the lights in the kitchen and fans of the hood, stood in front of the big, long cooking station, took a steel brush, put it in the wok, and started to flip the hell out of it in the wok. It didn’t take long for me to get the hang of it once I figured out the trick. I went to bed confident with my翻鍋“fan1 guo1” skill and it thus landed me in the kitchen for almost a year and three months. I was a 炒鍋 “chao3 guo1” during the lunch time and dinning room manager in the evening. As a炒鍋 “chao3 guo1,” I also did whatever other 炒鍋 “chao3 guo1” did, namely cutting vegetables into the right sizes, dissecting thousands of whole chickens into chicken breast and leg meat without bones, making about 1,000 egg rolls every week from scratch, and preparing plain fried rice in huge woks before restaurant opened in the morning and after lunch crowd was over.

I vividly remembered, for about a year or so, I worked side by side with another炒鍋 “chao3 guo1” by the name of 小蔡 “xiao3 cai4” (蔡 “cai4” was his last name and小 “xiao3” kind implied that he was a young guy.) He was in his early 30’s, about 5’ and 3”, didn’t speak a lot and had been working as a炒鍋 “chao3 guo1” for a couple of years. He came to work for us because our head chef had worked with him in New York and liked his work. When another 炒鍋 “chao3 guo1” quitted his job at our restaurant, our head chef invited小蔡 “xiao3 cai4” to Rapid City and worked for us for a long time. 小蔡 “xiao3 cai4” was a good 炒鍋 “chao3 guo1”: he was quick with wok, he wasn’t sloppy at side jobs, and his刀功 “dao1 gong1” or cutting skill was first class. I often secretly watched him de-boned a whole chicken in less than 40 seconds with about 20 simple cuts as if it was done by a machine. Chicken after chicken, he would separate the breast and thigh meat from bones in recurrent motions. When he joined us, I had already worked in the kitchen for a while. I had de-boned hundreds if not thousands of chickens. I was quick with knife and I was good too because I was young and learned fast. But when I stood next to him; each using a corner of a commercial sink as support to our cutting boards and each with a Chinese cleaver in one hand and a chicken in the other, I would secretly compete with him and see if I could de-bone a chicken faster than he did. But I was no match to his cutting skill no matter how fast I tried. In the end, I always lost by at least a leg or half a leg. The secret cutting competition didn’t win me any rewards but it certainly provided a good training ground to hone my cutting skills or 刀功 “dao1 gong4.” It eventually led to faster preparation time when I had many guests coming over for dinner over the years in Carrollton and Plano, Texas; sometime as many as 30 or even 40 guests at a time.

Since I was new to cooking, I was assigned to be the fried rice and lo mian炒鍋 “chao3 guo1” because these dishes didn’t involved any delicate cooking skills and were relatively easy to make. I also helped out with 抓碼 “zhua1 ma3” which involved putting the right ingredients together in a small 6” steel bowl (for meat) and plastic plate (for vegetables) according to orders came in. I then handed the steel bowl and plate to the right炒鍋 “chao3 guo1” and he would cook the dish or dishes accordingly. One thing I never got used to was to prepare this dish on the fly which called for julienne cut of carrots and celery with shredded chicken. Celery was a little easier to cut but carrots were hard and difficult to get them nicely cut. Whenever this order was called, I would rush quickly to get celery sticks and carrots from the walking cooler, cut them according to specs, give them to炒鍋 “chao3 guo1”, and go back to take care of my orders of fried rices and lo mians. My cooking skill improved over time and by the time I stopped working as a half-time 炒鍋 “chao3 guo1”, I could cook 4 orders of fried rice or lo mian at the same time without spilling too much rice or noodles outside the wok. I also cooked other dishes when the work load became too much for the other炒鍋 “chao3 guo1” but couldn’t get the taste consistent from dish to dish.

Another important skill I learned was how to do things fast in a kitchen. I had to cut stuff fast, make egg rolls fast, cook fast and clean fast. No one had patient to wait for you when things were hectic during rush hours. The Kitchen was loud, hot, and humid. Customer orders came in fast and non-stop especially on evenings of Thursday through Sunday. Waiters yelled out new orders as they walk through the kitchen door and asked if their earlier orders were ready to go. I, as an owner, had to keep my cool, functioned as a part-time 抓碼 “zhua1 ma3” and took care of my cooking orders as they came in. As you can see, I had to act fast otherwise I’d lose face among other cooks and that’s not going to happen on me. I had to learn multi-taking especially when it was busy. All the training back then made me an efficient cook in the kitchen. When I could make thing happening fast, cooking wasn’t as painful as one might think.

After I left the restaurant and went back to finish my degree in Petroleum Engineering, I considered cooking a fun thing to do. After we had kids, I didn’t mind putting things together and making something good for them to enjoy. I often had guests and their kids coming to our house, enjoyed my cooking, drank wines, karaoke to 1 or 2 in the morning, and had a good time together. I’d wash dishes and cleaned the kitchen because I could do them fast and good at the same time. When I made something people like, I felt I had accomplished something. When things came out miserable, I felt sorry for the people who had to eat them.

This continued until now. Along the way, I became very picky on what I eat and I enjoy eating as much as I enjoy cooking.

And that’s the way it was!

Credit card terminal October 25, 2008

Posted by hslu in My Restaurant.
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Got a new credit card terminal from MerchantPRO on Wednesday, 10/22. The sales man was Eric and the guy  who installed the terminal was Gary. She is the manager of the company. Not sure what position Eric holds with the company though. When it was first set up, everything was okay. The new terminal was faster then what we had and should speed up the settlement process at the end of the day. In addition, I should be able to save about $120 – $150 per month. This doesn’t sound much but if we have to make this much money we have to do about $500 more business a month. In time like now (DOW has dropped 45% from recent high), $150 is $150.

On Wednesday evening after close, I tried to settle, called Batch with this terminal, but got disconnected after it tried to dial the server. I thought the server was busy and I tried again. It got disconnected again. I tried a few more times but they were all disconnedted.

I called the customer service right away but the guy wasn’t a lot of help and our phone connection was disconnected. Bad sign.

I called again and got this guy who wasn’t sure what the problem either but suspected that the data file was too large for the telephone line to handle. However, he was able to force settle for me on his end and suggested that I batch twice everyday.

Thursday morning, Raymond called and said that the terminal wasn’t able to carry out the credit card transactions. I asked him to call the service desk. I didn’t know whether he called or not but apparently the problem was fixed when Maria and I stopped by the restaurant around 2 that afternoon. Another bad sign.

I asked Raymond to do a batch job around 3PM and it and it was okay with 66 records. Around 9:40 PM, Raymond called again with a bad news: the batched job got disconnected again. I told him to let me taking care of the problem tomorrow.

I called the service desk and talked to a guy who said that the problem was with the splitter I had on the line (sharing the line with the fax machine.)  I took it out and the result was the same. He then said that the problem was with the phone line being a digital line (for Internet, DSL, etc.) and asked me to check with the phone company.

I called Eric and Gary but got a machine (sounds like a home phone.)

I called Verizon and got transferred from NJ to VA and got the answer: all three lines are analog. I called MerchantPRO again and got this lady on the phone: she wasn’t any help to me either and said that the terminal can only handle 50 transactions at a time. But I told her that I did 66 yesterday. Apparently she wasn’t smart/experienced enough to solve the problem. She was however able to give another phone number to reach the agent.

I called again and got Gary on the line. I told him that his terminal gave me nothing but trouble and I let him know that I wasn’t pleased at all. He said he’ll take care of the problem for me and will stop by with a new terminal on Monday.

In the mean time, I have to batch every 25 to 30 transactions just to prevent the problem from happenning again. I’ll wait until Monday.

Hope this is worthy of my pain and agony because I am supposed to go with them for 4 years.

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