Chinese Immigrant Restaurateur Struggles with Culture Shock

Hongjun Yu, owner of Tang’s Noodle on Canal Street, at his restaurant. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

“I never thought it could be so difficult to open a Chinese restaurant in New York,” said Hongjun Yu, owner of Tang’s Noodle, a new restaurant in Chinatown. Yes, he is a new immigrant who arrived from China a year ago. But he is an experienced restaurateur who had been running a chain restaurant in China for years and has his own food service company there. He chose Chinatown to launch his new restaurant to avoid the language barrier that troubles many new immigrants. So everything should have gone smoothly, Yu thought. To his surprise, after opening the restaurant in February and offering a specialty of Chongqing-style spicy noodles, he ended up having to close it for an overhaul. Frustrated by culture shock, Yu is now seeking local partners to help him navigate the food industry in New York and take on the venture together.

Yu and his wife moved to New York in order to enroll their daughter in a high school on Long Island. After they settled down, Yu immediately began working on replicating his restaurant model, which had proved successful in China, in New York. He secured two locations in Chinatown on Canal Street and Forsyth Street and planned to win over New Yorkers with his popular spicy noodles. But he was inundated by culture shock from the beginning.

“In China, you can open a restaurant as quickly as within 16 days. In New York, I thought at most three months should be enough. But you have to go through so many government inspections, and each takes a few weeks to get an appointment,” said Yu. “It took me six months to pass all the inspections. During the period, I had no income but had to pay the rent.”

Then Yu was overwhelmed by New York’s rigid regulations covering food safety. He knew that it’s not possible for him to avoid violations only by studying the rules himself. He contacted the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) to seek help. The agency sent staff to Yu’s shop and taught him the relevant requirements and how to abide by them in great detail. “They really do this for free,” said Yu. “If it was in China, even when they say the services are free, the instructors would indicate that you give them an under-the-table ‘thank you’ tip.”

But it didn’t take long for Yu to realize that government inspectors also stick to the rules as firmly as the instructors. Right after Tang’s Noodle opened, Department of Health employees arrived at the store to do the inspection and issue a letter grade. “If it was in China, if you have ‘guanxi’ (a connection), you can just talk to someone over the phone for this kind of inspection. They’d give you a satisfactory grade without coming to your restaurant,” said Yu. “But the inspectors worked here for two hours. They didn’t take a free meal here, not even a cup of tea.” Finally, Tang’s Noodle passed the inspection and got an “A.”

“I wouldn’t have been able to get this grade without the instructions from SBS in advance,” said Yu.

But little did he know, government regulation was far from the toughest challenge he would face. After Tang’s Noodle celebrated its grand opening, Yu was hit by bad news from China. The chef he planned to bring to New York didn’t get his visa. The only way to deal with the trouble was to train local chefs to make the special cuisine from the Chongqing area. But this plan soon ran aground.

“People are so mobilized in New York. Chefs can quit immediately right after you train them. And you have to pay him the salary before he leaves. If it was in China, an employee has to tell the boss he plans to quit a month before he leaves. Otherwise, the boss can withhold his salary,” Yu said.

By now, Yu realized the experience he gained in China is not completely translatable. He decided to suspend operations at his restaurants to adjust the business model. He also invites people who are familiar with the New York restaurant industry to join him as partners. “Now I understand. In a restaurant in the U.S. the one who suffers the most from hard work is not the employee but the owner,” Yu said. Those who are interested in working with Yu can contact him via email:

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