Article by Christina R.Roca

What does it really mean to “boost” your career? Boosting your career is taking a leap forward and grabbing what you want for your next professional experience. Some people are lucky and have already started down their desired path and are pursuing their dream. Some did so by moving to China.

This month we spoke to Alex Zheng, a young businessman from Canada, about his restaurant, Caprice. He opened over a year ago in Qujiang, a district in southeast Xi’an.

CHR: Alex, thank you for taking the time to talk to our readers and share your experience with us. Let’s begin with your background.
ALEX: I should start by telling you that my parents are immigrants. I was raised in Canada, in a multi-cultural environment. With regards to my educational background, I have to say it is quite unusual for a restaurant owner: I studied towards my doctorate in neuroscience at UBC in Vancouver. Encouraged by my family, I realized I wanted to start working and joined a start-up biotech company specializing in gene therapy. After a few years, I was asked to move to Montreal to pursue research there but I refused and found myself pondering on my future career move. That was when my uncle reached out to me and I worked in his restaurant for three months. He told me: “Let’s open another restaurant together!” It all started like that!

CHR: A very original background indeed, what happened after that?
ALEX: I knew it was an idea I needed to look into but at the time, I was eager to do my own thing and travel. My best friend got married in Xi’an three years ago and I attended the wedding with no expectations about China. However, the minute I got here and visited the city, I thought to myself: “There is so much potential in Xi’an!”

CHR: What kind of potential?
ALEX: Well, first of all, I did not like the Western food available in Xi’an back then! [Laughs] But seriously, I knew I could serve better quality if I came to open my own place. The demand existed for a gastropub and I knew it; the district I chose to open my restaurant in was clear from the start: the new and dynamic Qujiang district was ideal and the middle- and upper-classes there would provide a good customer base for my menu’s price range and Western food concept. Opening a restaurant remains a challenge in any country but in China, it is still accessible because buying a place and renovating much more financially feasible than in Vancouver!

CHR: I can imagine! But let’s back-up a little: from neuroscience to opening a restaurant…It seems hard to imagine such shift in career paths!
ALEX: I did graduate in Science with a minor in Business (laughs). The funny thing is I always wanted to start my own business and my brother’s dream was to open a restaurant. We definitely complete each other. He is in the construction business and I am the science guy. Actually, I do have a scientific approach of my work. The qualities one uses in science are applicable if not necessary to develop a successful business. Undertaking research is failing and trying again, relentlessly. You have to have passion and be dedicated to your work if you want to succeed.
Working for this biotech company and with people who were ambitious and had a start-up mentality also inspired me and gave me good tools to jump-start my own business. It is important to have the right people by your side. I had my brother to help me and my uncle of course is a major contributor, having years of experience in the restaurant industry. I also found a wonderful support here in China and hired a Chinese assistant who has done an amazing job when it came to the administrative part and handling the construction of the restaurant.

CHR: So you wanted Western food, do you have any experience as a cook?
ALEX: Not professionally speaking, but I love food! (laughs) My first job was to find a cook, yes, with experience in cooking Western food. That was the most important thing. However, you can have really good cooks, but if the manager of the restaurant doesn’t know his stuff, the final product reflects that. The flavours of the dishes depend on the manager’s taste and experience with these flavours. I make the menu with my chef and we work together to bring the best authentic flavours. I found him in Shanghai thanks to a Chinese friend and the adventure only started then.

CHR: Establishing the restaurant in Shanghai was not an option?
ALEX: (laughs) No, of course not! Shanghai has a mature market and is super competitive!
A western restaurant like mine would not work as well as it does here because of the level of competition there…Xi’an has 9 million inhabitants, it is still a big city and it is still time to invest before the competition becomes too fierce!

CHR: Well noted! OK, so what kind of advice would you give to our readers?
ALEX: Be resilient and determined! Dealing with Chinese people for business is tough and you want to be on the look out and be prepared, at the beginning and after you open your doors! And one important aspect about business is being ready to question your success and improve it day by day. Xi’an does not have a settled market yet and you need to explore and learn about your evolving market constantly.

CHR: Nearly one year and a half and still doing great…what is the next move for Caprice?
ALEX: Well, we have been thinking about opening another restaurant in Gaoxin, where the main economic boom is happening…We are investigating on this and will keep you posted!