In Sunset Park, Pizza Rolls and Light Bulb Drinks

Libin Zheng (third from left) (Photo by Yiyi Huang  via World Journal)

Libin Zheng (third from left) (Photo by Yiyi Huang via World Journal)

“In my father’s generation, many immigrants from Fuzhou borrowed a lot of money to come to the U.S. With the debts, they were not able to take any risk in business. Our generation is different. We don’t want to do what other people are doing. We want to explore our own business model,” said Libin Zheng, a 28-year-old immigrant from Fuzhou, China.

To put his words into practice, Zheng brought Taiwanese-style pizza rolls and light bulb beverages to Sunset Park. His newly opened shop Viiza, at the intersection of 8th Avenue and 54th Street, has become so popular that it not only attracts customers standing in the long queue but also close to 20 other shop owners looking for franchising opportunities.

Born in 1988, Zheng immigrated to the U.S. when he was 14, sponsored by his parents who arrived earlier. He enrolled in high school in the U.S. Facing language and cultural barriers, his academic performance was average. But his business intuition shined immediately. “When I found that many of my classmates liked Jordan sneakers but not all could afford a pair, I started to sell sneakers at school. With the income, I didn’t have to have my family support me financially any more,” said Zheng.

After graduation, Zheng took the advice of his parents and started to learn culinary skills in Italian pastries and Japanese cuisine. “That was a time when Japanese cuisine became very popular in the U.S. All Japanese restaurants enjoyed robust business. Many people in my generation were sent to learn about Japanese food by their families,” he said.

After the training, Zheng and two friends pooled together $100,000 and opened a Japanese restaurant in Florida. “We didn’t think much. We just heard that was a good location and good business was a guarantee. And we rolled up our sleeves and started working.”

But without any experience, Zheng worked hard but made little money. A year later, he sold the restaurant and moved back to New York to open a Kung Fu Tea, a bubble tea shop beside New York University. At the same time, he didn’t want to give up on Japanese food, so he opened a small Japanese restaurant nearby. But this endeavor completely turned off his interest in the business. “We didn’t have much money to invest in a high-end restaurant. And it was hard for our small restaurant to compete with the big ones. I realized Japanese restaurants are no longer easy business,” Zheng said.

Zheng started to travel around looking for inspiration for a new business. In Taiwan, he discovered pizza rolls, a unique local snack that combined the Taiwanese culinary culture with the popular fast food style in the U.S. Soon, he discovered the light bulb drink. “Cold beverages are ubiquitous. All the shops try to make their beverages more special. But it’s not easy. The light bulb drink not only tastes different but also attracts eyeballs. After you finish the drink, the container can be used as a flower pot or in home décor,” said Zheng.

So three months ago Zheng and two friends opened Viiza, which sells both pizza rolls and beverages in light bulbs. The light bulb containers are imported and they take a long time at customs inspections. For the light bulbs to arrive in time, Zheng had to get them delivered by air, which was costlier. The drink sells for $4 each, of which $3 is the cost of the container.

Since Viiza opened, queues have formed in front of the shop every day. The first group of 50,000 light bulb containers has almost sold out now.

“People in my generation don’t want to work in a conventional restaurant for our whole lives just like our parents. We want something different. But other than ideas, we need more actions,” said Zheng. “Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, said many people have hundreds of thousands of ideas in their minds. But everyday they still follow the routine. I hope immigrants in my generation can turn our ideas into reality.”

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