Obsessed with Entrepreneurship
Jason Wang has brought renewed energy and killer business acumen to his father’s acclaimed Xi’an Famous Foods, a string of casual yet highly-regarded restaurants in NYC serving the authentic cuisine of China’s Shaanxi province. The family-run empire is a result of old world techniques (his father, David Shi, is an incredible chef who opened the first outpost in the Flushing Mall in 2005) combined with new world ambition, which is Jason’s drive to grow the company. Last year, he opened Biang!, a fancier sit-down restaurant in Flushing, as well as a commissary in Brooklyn. We talk with Jason about growth, success and what makes Xi’an cuisine so damn good.
AndrewZimmern.com: Tell us about your role with the Xi’an Famous Foods empire. What’s your typical day look like?
Jason Wang: I am responsible for directing a ship that has already set sail. My father founded the business, but the game has changed for the business since the founding days, and it’s my duty to make sure the ship keeps up with the times, the expansion, and at the same time, doesn’t lose its core values. My typical day varies. I have two types of workdays: in store and out of store. In store means I am in the restaurant, most likely the busiest one, training people and cooking. Out of store means I am at my computer catching up on my correspondence, making necessary calls that are business related, and doing the necessary administrative work. My life pretty much revolves around the business these days.
AZ.com: Not many twenty-somethings can say they run a successful restaurant business. Where did your passion, determination and expertise come from?
JW: My passion and determination are both driven by my semi-OCD personality. I believe that if I am doing something, I have to do it well, or else it’s just a waste of time and in the end I’d have nothing to show for it. My expertise in operating this business comes from many places. My father taught me about our cuisine, since he’s an expert in it, and has worked in various restaurants in the last decade before opening up Xi’an Famous Foods. I attribute my expertise in basic entrepreneurship to my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, as it taught me to think critically about many issues that I face these days. The rest of the knowledge I just pick up as I go along, as skills become needed to achieve certain goals. For example, if the cashier computer isn’t working, I better learn to fix it, or else we cannot operate!
AZ.com: The restaurant chain has expanded with great success. So what’s next?
JW: More expansion. Controlled expansion. With every store that we open, we learn a little bit from our mistakes. I feel that we are getting close to being able to do things more efficiently, and the expansion is just taking off.
AZ.com: Is there ever a clash of old world and new world thought between you and your father when it comes to how you run the business?
JW: Yes, the clash happens every day. Again, I want to go back to the fact that my father started the business, and I am expanding it. For example, he tends to focus on cost cutting, as our business started out in a hole-in-the-wall, and money was extremely tight. Now, I tend to focus more on spending the right amount money on the necessary things that will better our business, such as better equipment and more capable staff, and there are sometimes conflicts that arise from this.
AZ.com: What are the telltale characteristics of Xi’an cuisine? How does it differ from Cantonese or Sichuanese cuisine?
JW: Xi’an cuisine is very simple. It’s not usually served in large banquets, but rather as street foods. The characteristics of the cuisine are that it is usually spicy, and there are very traditional ways of making things that may seem simple but are actually quite complicated to make, such as the Liang Pi Cold-skin Noodles, which takes two days to make. Cantonese cuisine is usually seafood and more bland. Sichuan food is close to Xi’an food, but Sichuan food focuses mostly on the tingly type of spice with the Szechuan peppercorns, and tends to be more spicy.
AZ.com: Beyond your own restaurants, what are a few of your favorites in Flushing?
JW: I like the dumplings store run by the Korean-Chinese ladies on the ground level of the Flushing Mall on 39th Ave. in Flushing. The dumplings are simple, seafood and pork dumplings, and one can also order some cold-soba noodles among other northeastern Chinese/Korean snacks.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
JW: Not much right now, I’m afraid. I just had a housewarming party and had a fridge full of prosciutto, coppa, and sorpresata, but my friends finished it all. I do have a couple of cheeses left, but that’s about it.
Jason Wang, 25, President, Xi’an Famous Foods
Xi’an native Jason Wang grew up in New York City and attended college with plans to pursue a corporate career. When his father, a veteran of Chinese kitchens, opened the first Xi’an Famous Foods to sell dishes based on family recipes, Jason saw the potential of the business and was eager to help the restaurant grow, at one point experimenting with dishes in his dorm room while in college. Following a brief stint in the corporate world after college graduation, Jason decided to fully invest himself in Xi’an Famous Foods,learning every aspect of the business from the ground up. In the past four years, he has expanded the hole-in-the-wall chain to five locations in the New York City area and opened a sister restaurant, Biang!. Through these restaurants, Jason brings a dining experience that appeals to both Chinese families who come to eat expecting authenticity, to everyday Americans looking to explore flavors.
Photograph by Jessica Chou.