Business owner 1 on 1: Chef Ming Tsai's keys to success

Chef Ming Tsai is the Emmy award-winning host of the public television cooking show Simply Ming and owner of the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, MA, which is celebrating 13 years of success.  Chef Tsai is also an online businessman, with a thriving ecommerce site, mingspantry.com, built on the Yahoo! Small Business ecommerce platform. Chef Tsai has also had several products featured on Oprah’s Favorite Things and is a curator on OpenSky. 

We asked Chef Tsai about his experience starting a business and the keys to his success. Here’s what he had to share.

Chef Ming Tsai's Blue Ginger Restaurant

What inspired you to start your own business?
When I started off as a chef, it was always my dream to own my own restaurant. First I needed to open restaurants and hotels for other people because you learn so much from that. But when you open your own restaurant, there’s more pressure–all eyes are on you, you have to open on time, and your name and personal reputation are on the line. That is the time when the cream rises to the top, because only the most well-prepared business owners–ones who have done their research and had experience from other openings–truly succeed.

Also, when you own your own restaurant, you get the last say about what goes on and you’re not having other people make decisions for you, which is rewarding. When you look at the greatest chefs in the country, they are all chef/owners.

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What were some of your biggest challenges?
There were many. What I learned from other opening experiences is that many restaurants don’t open on time and are over budget. I swore to myself that Blue Ginger would open on time and within budget. What I did to ensure that was to open with three months cash flow so regardless of the initial success, I could still pay salaries and expenses. I was setting myself up for success.

Also, I also wasn’t well known in the community at that time and had to rely on word of mouth, which is the best marketing there is. So I was generous if there were any mistakes–if the food wasn’t hot or took too long to prepare, I’d crack open a bottle of champagne for the guests. Positive word of mouth is great, but negative word of mouth is more harmful.

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Did you look to any mentors for advice?
I looked to Mario Batali, Todd English and Bobby Flay, who were all friends of mine and owned successful restaurants.

Another thing I did was demographic research. I checked out the neighborhood where I was looking to open Blue Ginger and saw what kind of people lived there, what their income was, if they were well-traveled (which usually means they appreciate good food and wine). I also researched what other types of restaurants were there and saw that I was doing a unique style of food. Gut feeling is important, but you must do research to back it up.

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Explain how you promoted your business at launch.
There were several ways I did this. After signing the lease, I contacted local newspapers and magazines letting them see the opening menu and that I wanted to talk to them. I got some media hits which started the buzz. Then I had two pre-opening parties to really drive word of mouth with my network of family and friends, which is the strongest tactic, especially in a small town. That’s why Twitter is really important too – even though it’s online, it’s really word of mouth.

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Share the biggest mistake that you made in starting your business.
I didn’t really have any huge mistake when I opened Blue Ginger because I had learned how to avoid many of them with opening restaurants for other people. One mistake I made when I previously opened a restaurant was buying $100,000 worth of wine–just because I could. Some of those bottles of wine are probably still there! When I opened Blue Ginger, I only bought $5,000 in wine because I didn’t want to tie up the money in wine inventory.

If I could change one thing, I’d probably buy the real estate because even though Wellesley has been great to me, I haven’t been able to benefit from the appreciation of the land itself.

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Describe the moment that you knew your business would become successful.
I remember exactly when it was. It was the first Saturday after the restaurant opened–food was coming out hot, waiters were opening wine, and the GM was running around. The place was open and busy, which is what I hoped for. But things don’t always work out perfectly and you have to be patient. You can make all the plans you want, but at the end of the day, people are human, make mistakes and things go wrong–but how you handle it when things go wrong is what makes all the difference in the world.

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How did you transition from the restaurant to your TV show, Simply Ming?
It wasn’t really related to opening Blue Ginger, although being a chef/owner helps legitimize you. I was named the top chef in the U.S. by Esquire Magazine and had participated in several shows on the Food Network including Dining Around and Chef Du Jour. It turns out that Dining Around was also a talent search, and when I was on it, I was just myself. I cracked jokes, and the crowd responded to it. After being on several shows, it was suggested that I get media training to show TV execs that I could really deliver, which I did. They gave me my own show, East Meets West with Ming Tsai and I won an Emmy. I haven't looked back since. Now I’m the host and executive producer of Simply Ming on public television.

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Share your main piece of advice for aspiring business owners.
You have to let your staff know that you care and you need them. You don’t want people to feel that they are just workers–you want them to feel like a family. In fact, there are many marriages and children that have been a product of Blue Ginger! If you don’t care about your staff, they won’t care how they treat the customers. As soon as you become bigger than your staff, that is poison. That’s why my door is always open and if there’s an issue, I tell my people to come to me.

Chef Ming’s Top 5 Tips for Business Success
  • Always keep your door open to staff and treat them like family
  • Do demographic research to help select the location of a brick and mortar business and ensure you’re reaching the right audience
  • Be present–literally–Know what is happening with all aspects of your business
  • Set yourself up for success before launch–have the ability to pay for expenses for several months, even with no profit
  • Don’t underestimate the power of word of mouth

You can learn more about Chef Ming Tsai, his restaurant, TV show, and other endeavors at ming.com or follow him on Twitter @chefmingtsai. You can also follow Tsai's restaurant and television show, Simply Ming, on Twitter: @blue_ginger and @SimplyMingTV.

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