Michael Wang – Founder of Fóumami

[quote style=”boxed”]First, you have to take the leap and do it. Everyone has ideas, but only a few execute on them. If you really believe in your idea, you have to act on the business opportunity that you see.[/quote]

It took years to become an obvious career choice, but being a restauranteur comes as second nature to Michael Wang. Growing up in the kitchen of his father’s Chinese restaurant and stepping in as a part-time manager while pursuing a full-time career on Wall Street, Wang brings 20+ years of hands-on experience operating a restaurant and an MBA from Harvard Business School to the launch of Fóumami, an innovative fast-casual concept located in Boston’s Financial District.

As a third generation restauranteur, Wang continues a family tradition set forth by his grandfather, who founded Chew Young Roo, an upscale Chinese restaurant company in Asia in 1945. A family-owned and operated business for more than 50 years, Chew Young Roo was sold to a privately-held company in the late ’90s and is now publicly traded in the Asian markets. Wang’s father continued the family business Stateside with a trio of successful full-service Chinese restaurants in Illinois and New York City. It was in these restaurants that Wang learned the finer points of the family business—from de-boning whole chickens and bar-tending in his teens to managing the operations of a 120-seat restaurant in college and beyond.

After a successful career on Wall Street as a young analyst at Goldman, Sachs & Co.—and later careers that included raising money for a startup publishing company and spearheading a food service company’s retail initiative—Wang found himself at 28 years old, working full-time at his family’s restaurant and thinking about what his next step would be. With an entrepreneurial spirit, he set his sights on building a restaurant company from the ground up. He enrolled at Harvard Business School to obtain his MBA and quickly began work on a business plan that would become Fóumami, an Asian sandwich bar.

In the summer of 2010, Wang opened the doors of Fóumami in the heart of Boston’s bustling Financial District. An innovative concept that offers Asian flavors in an accessible sandwich format, Fóumami is an Asian sandwich bar serving unique items for both breakfast and lunch. At the heart of Fóumami is the “shao bing” bread on which the sandwiches are served. Crispy and flaky on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside, bing is a traditional style of Chinese bread. Tasty, flavorful meat and fresh vegetables are sliced to order and piled high on shao bing for each sandwich. Fóumami’s signature sandwiches are complemented by soups, salads and freshly brewed teas with distinctive Asian flavors and ingredients.

Uniting the traditional flavors of his Asian heritage and an innovative business savvy honed by his time at Harvard Business School, Fóumami is Michael Wang’s labor of love, more than 20 years in the making.

What are you working on right now?

My focus at the moment is on growing and expanding Fóumami from a single prototype location to a chain of multiple units. Right now, I’m working on opening second and third units in Boston.

Where did the idea for Fóumami come from?

I’m a third generation restauranteur. In the 1940s, my grandfather founded the famed Chew Young Roo chain of restaurants in Asia, which were known for water dumplings. My family ran that business for 50+ years.

I grew up working in my family’s restaurants, and I’ve always said to myself that I didn’t want to get into this business because I learned early on that owning a restaurant is an all-consuming lifestyle. So after graduating from New York University in 1993, I joined Goldman Sachs working in their fixed income division in New York. In the six years following, I held a varied series of jobs and eventually realized that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I also realized that my most valuable entrepreneurial assets were the knowledge and experiences to which I was born.

I applied and was accepted to the MBA program at Harvard Business School and utilized my two years there undertaking intense research on multiple aspects of the restaurant industry, which led to my fast-casual Asian sandwich bar concept.

What does your typical day look like?

Multitasking at its extreme is what I do each and every day. During the typical workday (I arrive by 6:30 a.m. and leave around 6:00 p.m.), I work with my staff to prep and cook food, serve breakfast, wash dishes, set up patio furniture in the warmer months, clean the restroom, update postings on Facebook and Twitter, take orders, field phone calls, bake our shao bing bread and scallion pancakes, serve lunch, check emails, take inventory, place orders with distributors, respond to customer feedback, address staffing issues and schedules, return phone calls and emails, run banking errands, do daily bookkeeping, clean up, squeeze in time to eat something, etc. I usually get home around 7:00 p.m. and might spend a couple hours after dinner on my computer finishing up the day’s work and preparing for the next. Then I watch some TV and go to bed by midnight.

How do you bring ideas to life?

First, you have to take the leap and do it. Everyone has ideas, but only a few execute on them. If you really believe in your idea, you have to act on the business opportunity that you see.

Second, you have to have a comfort level and tolerance for risk. Startups are risky. Being an entrepreneur is risky. If you don’t stomach risk well, it may be difficult for you to perform successfully in bringing an idea to life.

Third, you should feel passionate about your idea. In a startup, chances are that anything that can go wrong will probably go wrong, and then some. Your passion will get you through the hard times and keep you moving forward. Otherwise, you may give up on your idea.

Fourth, you need the support of your family, especially your significant other. You may not be able to take your wife on that Hawaii trip for a while or buy that new car this year. You may not be able to spend quality time the entire weekend with your family as you’d always done before. If your family can’t support and accept your new entrepreneurial lifestyle, you will surely face some obstacles in bringing any idea to life.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Asian cuisine has become mainstream in the U.S. and is evolving. This opens up a tremendous amount of opportunity for entrepreneurs in the restaurant business.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

I was VP of a consumer products company in New York City in charge of turning around one of two sub-performing product lines. I was responsible for deciding which product line was worthy of further investment and which to kill off. I decided to focus on product line A to turn around. After dedicating over seven months on this product, corporate decided to kill off product line A and told me to focus on product line B instead. I soon resigned my position because I didn’t agree with corporate and felt I wasted my time.

The lesson learned here is that in any team environment, big or small, the team must believe in what they’re doing. Otherwise, the team will break down. You can’t just dictate to the team in executing important tasks; it’s critical to get buy-in from the team and for the team to take ownership.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

As with all entrepreneurs, at business launch, it would have been less stressful if I had more money at my disposal. It took longer than expected to ramp up sales, so my working capital needs were greater than estimated. As the old saying goes, “It will be twice as hard, take twice as long, but if you can sustain and make it happen, your reward will be twice as big.”

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Everyone should make more time to “think” and not just “do.” Entrepreneurs are always so busy doing things—trying to get things executed, finished, done, crossed off the to-do list. Throughout the day (a minute here, a minute there) as I’m doing things, I make time to think over things (things I’ve done, things I’m doing and things I’m planning to do) and ask myself why and what’s better. This forces me to reflect on past business decisions, which helps me to make better future decisions.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Years before Fóumami was founded, I was involved in two other startups founded by other entrepreneurs. One was more successful than the other, but neither was amazingly successful. The less-successful venture, after two years, folded because it ran out of money. Although I dedicated two years to this startup, I didn’t experience any negative emotions when the business failed. I was actually full of energy and had a very positive mindset. I believe it was because my involvement in this startup made me realize that I loved being an entrepreneur. I simply moved on to do the next startup.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Mmm…I’m not sure if I have one to give away at the moment, but if you’re looking for a business idea, start thinking about what needs people have and how you can fulfill them, or what problems people have and how you can fix them.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

Respect, especially for other people. There needs to be more of it. People these days tend to think too inwardly—what they want, what they need, etc.—and couldn’t care less about the people around them. I see it every day—at the supermarket, on the freeway, at work, on the world scene, etc. I’m not sure exactly how to make this happen, but perhaps more education (and wider reach of education) may help. A more radical idea is to force people to do more social volunteer work.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources, and what do you love about them?

1.  Google Apps for Business is great. The use of these apps freed me from being tied to my computer.

2.  Carbonite saved me when my laptop crashed earlier this year. All my files were saved and accessible online using any computer.

3.  eFax allows me to receive faxes as emailed PDF docs. I know I won’t lose the important faxes sent to me.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I believe if you’re going to start a business, it should be disruptive. Read The Innovator’s Dilemma by renowned Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

1. Guy Kawasaki – Constantly broadcasts interesting pieces of information from the internet; very entertaining tweets.

2.  Cindy Ratzlaff – Gives advice on brand marketing.

3.  Richard Branson – I find his tweets inspirational.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

I have a very smart cat that looks like a cat but really acts a lot like a dog, and I believe she understands English. She amazes me every day with her behavior and interactions with me. She makes me laugh every time I play with her, which helps me relax after a day of work.

Who is your hero?

I’ve never really had a hero.

How do you recommend approaching a new business idea?

Even before opening Fóumami, all of my business decisions went toward achieving a particular end. Rather than getting lost in the day-to-day, it’s important to make strategic decisions to achieve an end goal.

Trend-spotting is also a crucial element of business development. To build the Fóumami concept, I spent years researching the restaurant industry extensively and noticed several resounding trends: a movement toward fast-casual as opposed to fast food, a focus on healthy, wholesome ingredients and growth in the specialty sandwiches sector.

Establishing and maintaining brand value is also key. In developing Fóumami as a brand, I keep an eye toward what larger companies want to buy, monitor where the industry is heading, maintain efficient restaurant operations and invest in tightly packaged branding (design, logo, packaging, signage, etc.). These elements need to be implemented at store number one to keep the formula consistent as the company grows.

Lastly, building a successful business takes more than just people liking the idea; they have to want to buy the product or service and choose it over competitors. You need a business concept that’s different, but one that has a demand.

Has owning your own business affected your personal life? How do you juggle it?

Yes, it has affected my personal life. I equate starting a new business to giving birth to a new baby. You have to give it your undivided attention and make it your priority. You have to nurture it, mold it, protect it, fix it when it’s sick, guide it, develop it, etc. You have to give it 200%.

All of this takes time and patience, and in most cases doesn’t leave much personal time for the entrepreneur, if at all. I don’t have much downtime away from the business, but I’d already accepted this fact going into the restaurant industry. Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle, not a job. If you want just a job, don’t launch a startup.


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