Josh Sharkey [00:04:28]:
Tim Ma [00:04:29]:
I'm a sucker for sandwiches. You know, there's a really, really good Italian shop here in Arlington, Virginia called the Italian Store, which has been here as long as I've been here. And really it was to take like, I love a good Italian sub, but then I added on like a steak and cheese marinated mushroom. It was just a way to make more interesting sandwiches. Actually there was a good one in New York. I don't know if it's there still, but Number Seven Sub was a really good guiding light for this. Love sandwiches. It did very well when I opened it in the past, and so I decided to do it again here.
Josh Sharkey [00:05:10]:
Sandwiches typically, you know, I have opened a couple sandwich shops myself and we opened one called Make in New York. They're really difficult to get right because you have to sort of over season things, but it's usually like the bread is one of the most important things. Do you have a spec for the bread? What are you using for bread?
Tim Ma [00:05:23]:
It's a pretty important thing. And it's actually the most expensive piece of the entire sandwich, right? And like, you know, we do it where we dig out the middle little bit and then stuff the sandwich, so your bread is half of the cost of the sandwich, but yeah, we have a good local purveyor that a lot of fine dining restaurants use here.
We use a white roll for most of the sandwiches and then multi-grain for the sliced bread parts. And that's what we have for now. But when I originally opened it, we had like five or six different bread types. So that gets pretty unsustainable after a while.
Josh Sharkey [00:05:53]:
Yeah, especially if you don't use it by the end of the day. And you gotta figure out these breadcrumbs and things. Toasted untoasted, warmed?
Tim Ma [00:06:02]:
So in this version of the sandwich shop, it's untoasted. We don't have a kitchen, which is an interesting experiment. So the previous iteration had a full scale rush kitchen, like double decker convection grill, flat top, all that stuff. This one is a jewel box, which is interesting. So there's nothing. It’s kind of a test to see what we can do and not a real kitchen. So a fun experiment.
Josh Sharkey [00:06:20]:
Do you have induction burners and things?
Tim Ma [00:06:21]:
One induction burner. Everything else is cold or prepped offsite
Josh Sharkey [00:06:23]:
I'm always curious. When I learned that you were an electrical engineer, cause I don't know of any other chefs that were electrical engineers. Do you have a special relationship with induction given what you learned? Electrical engineering, with Faraday's law and all that jazz?
Tim Ma [00:06:29]:
I do. Obviously fascinated by that stuff, but you know, cooking, when I got into cooking,I dove in head first and tried to take it in for what it was and not crossover, but it's been interesting. Some of the best supporters of mine are like Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins. Like recently we got to cook for the vice president and actually Introduce the vice president as a function of the nonprofit. And when I put that online, the first people to amplify that were Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins.
And for them to amplify somebody who just essentially discarded their engineering degrees. It was interesting for them to put me in the spotlight as an alumni. So, but it's interesting, yeah, to be an engineer, some of the things are very good in terms of just how robotic some of this stuff is in cooking. But it's also interesting that cooking's like a little bit of an art, which is like the exact opposite of what engineering is.
Josh Sharkey [00:07:40]:
Yeah. I was hoping maybe a little later, but we can dig in a little bit. Recently you were at the White House. What was that like? What was the most unexpected thing about being there and cooking for the president?
Tim Ma [00:07:49]:
So it was actually an interesting week. It was in honor of the Lunar New Year. And myself and my co-founder of the nonprofit, Kevin Tien, also another chef here in DC, were invited to the White House for the first ever Lunar New Year celebration that was with Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden. So that was kinda awesome.
That was just a celebration in the White House and to be part of the first ever Lunar New Year Celebration was actually an honor. So we got to be guests of that. And then four days later we were invited, me and Kevin, to be actually the first outside chefs to cook within the Vice President's residence. And that was an honor of the Lunar New Year Celebration too.
And then we nervously and so graciously got the honor to introduce the vice president while we were there. So kinda a big honor for us, and we were very just lucky to be part of it.
Josh Sharkey [00:08:42]:
Cool, man.I got to ask. Do they inspect the food before you serve? Like how, how does that work? The security, you know, with all the security.
Tim Ma [00:08:52]:
I didn't even think about that. The fact that you thought about that was interesting. So when we got there, they had like in the basement, like this full blown commercial kitchen with, you know, double decker, all stuff, like a very commercial kitchen in the basement of the vice president’s residence. It's not a bad gig, but in the basement there is like this whole operation of naval chefs.
And so the naval chefs had to be onsite next to us while we were cooking to inspect what we were doing. And then, It was a very calculated celebration operation, which was expected, but also unexpected. Right? Like when they're like, you know, write a speech to introduce the vice president. And they're like, here are the five speech writers that you can work with to write it from my two minute bit. It was very interesting. We were handled the entire night.
Josh Sharkey [00:09:38]:
That's awesome, man. Are you gonna go back? Did they talk about the next one?
Tim Ma [00:09:41]:
There is conversation about us going to cook at the White House next, so we'll see what happens in May.
Josh Sharkey [00:09:44]:
It's amazing, man. Yeah, I bet you didn't think you're going to be there when you were studying about Faraday's law.
Tim Ma [00:09:53]:
Yeah, I thought,you know, electrical engineer and like I went very deep into the DoD as another electrical engineer back in, you know, I graduated in around 2000, 2001 when it was very hard to get a security clearance and I actually got one, and I thought that would be my path to meeting the president and not cooking, but I’ll take it.
Josh Sharkey [00:10:12]:
The other thing I found really cool that I learned about you was apparently your family was honored by the Smithsonian, some sort of ongoing exhibit? What was that all about?.
Tim Ma [00:10:35]
Yeah, so I guess I speak about being an engineer and then going into cooking and trying to be like, there's no relation, but obviously my family were immigrants that came over from China over the course of like the sixties and seventies. And then like most immigrants that come here and the thing that they know how to do is cook. So my uncles, my parents all opened restaurants at some period of time, all in the seventies and eighties.
And my uncle's restaurant, which was in Yorktown Heights, New York, in the suburbs of New York or of the suburbs of White Plains or something, has remained a restaurant all these years. So his restaurant was, I would say, of note during the time and really he just took home family recipes and figured out a way to commercialize them into a restaurant environment.
And with that, you know, clean cooking in terms like, traditionally Chinese food is perceived as quote-on-quote “dirty”, but you know, he cooked without MSG and all these things and very home style. So the restaurant became notable and I'd like to think that he played a role in how Chinese food became what it's in America today.
And so over time, his restaurant was very notable. He collected all these heirlooms. And then somewhere around 2014 or 15, he started to distribute these heirlooms from the restaurants to family members. And I received some, and I put some of them up in my first restaurant in DC. The Smithsonian curators noticed it and asked if it was authentic and about the history and I started to tell them about the history.
They started to do research on my uncle over the course of, I think it was three years with many, many visits to a lot of my family's houses and inspecting all the heirlooms, we had an exhibit open in the Smithsonian American History Museum that had our family heirlooms. And you know, there's a tiny, tiny picture of me and my uncle and kind of the history of what he played in restaurants and Chinese food and I guess my role in restaurants here in DC. And we have a small exhibit there, which is really cool, which is like, you walk in, you see Julia Child's kitchen, a picture of Jose Andres, and then like this very tiny picture of us, which is awesome.
Josh Sharkey [00:12:54]:
So when you say heirloom, what's an example?
Tim Ma [00:12:56]:
So my uncle had this thing called “Dine and Learn,” which was like the beginning pieces of a kind of tasting menu. And so he would have a group of whatever, 15 guests that could reserve and they'd come to the show kitchen, think of like Bennihana or something like that. And he would take people around the regions of China and cook these dishes and teach them about the food in the regions of China. And it was a very exclusive thing that he did, aside from the restaurant that he also had downstairs.
And so this “Dine and Learn” series became like this thing. He only did it like every so often, like once a month or something, but he had like a four year wait list at one point. So people would wait years, they would just reserve “I'll take the next one” and the next one would be like four years down the line, which is kinda unheard of back then.
But as a side note, one of the most funny stories that he ever told us was that Dan Rather’s people like Dan Rather like the news big time back then. His people called and were like we keep hearing about this. We want to come. And he was like, sure. Like the next date was like two years. And they were like, you know, what the hell?
Two years and like this was Dan Rather. My uncle who was like, you know, kind of like a Soupnazi, like, I don't know your friend Dan Rather. And I don't, you know, this is the next time that he can come and you know, you either take it or you don't. They're like, no, it's Dan Rather. And he just hung up. And then later on somebody told him who Dan Rather was and he squeezed him in.
But anyway, so like a lot of the artifacts that are in there are like the book from the Dine and Learn is in there, like some of the old cleavers, some of the ceramics from the restaurants are all in there. There's a bunch of stuff that are on exhibit, but then they carried a bunch of stuff into the archives, which is really cool. So my uncle's recipe book with. Soy sauce and shit all over. It is in the archives, which is really, really dope.
Josh Sharkey [00:14:52]:
That is so cool, man. Yeah. Well, speaking of your uncle and just generally your family, I'd love to, you know, talk a little bit about you growing up in Arkansas. I heard a story that, well, among other things, you were probably one of the only Asian families in the town that you grew up in. So I want to talk a little about that and probably some racism that you experienced there. But before that, just generally your family had a restaurant as well, right? In Arkansas?
And I think there was a chef, like a really talented chef that they had, and then he left, right? So maybe talk a little bit about that and how that impacted you. It sounded like, from what I heard, it had a pretty big impact on you, and I'd love to hear how that impacted you as a chef, an entrepreneur, and maybe just some backstory, you know, for the audience.
From what I understand, if he left. And it had a pretty severe impact on the success of the restaurant because he was sort of, you know, the anchor of what was working in the restaurant. So yeah, maybe we could chat a little about that.
Tim Ma [00:15:54]:
It was really interesting and I think a lot of people will have childhood memories that have a profound effect on their lives and they just don't even realize it. So like what you're talking about had a very profound effect on the way I navigated my career. So my parents had a restaurant in a very small town. It was the first Chinese restaurant. They had a Chinese chef. I don't know where he came from, but he was very talented. He was great. And when the restaurant opened, it was just like very new for Arkansas, or the town that we were in in Arkansas.
And so the restaurant was a success and my parents were the entrepreneurs and the chef was the chef. And my parents were also working other jobs. My dad worked in the hospital and my mom was teaching at the university and also trying to run this restaurant so the chef really would hold it down. But the chefs saw the success of the restaurant and went literally across the street and opened the second Chinese restaurant in this town.
And like we all know, to this day, people will follow the food for the most part. I guess times are changing a little bit, but they follow the food first. And so that's what happened and it decimated my parents' restaurant and my dad and mom are really good home cooks. But as we all know, home cooking and professional cooking are two different industries.
And so my dad tried to get in the kitchen while raising two kids and working at a hospital and trying to learn how to do professional cooking without any formal training. It just didn't go well. It just went downhill very quickly and my parents' restaurant ended up closing. They sold it to another Chinese chef that ran it for 30 years.
And so fast forward to like 26 years old, I decided that I wanted to open a restaurant. At 30 years old is when I went to culinary school. And those four years, I decided that what happened to my parents would not happen to me. Not that I wanted to become a chef, but that in case my chef left, I would at least know my way around a professional.
Regardless. I think it's a little naive now, but like thinking that, you know, I could at least hold down the fort until the next chef came in. And that is why I went to culinary school, not to become a chef, but to prevent what happened to my parents. And obviously as I got into professional cooking, I found that I loved it. I didn't grow up cooking at home.
I didn't even know how to hold a knife when I got to culinary school. But I did find that I enjoyed professional cooking much more than I enjoyed home cooking. That stays true to this day. And I ended up going down the chef route more so than the entrepreneur route, but now I'm straddling the line. But yeah, it had a very profound effect on my path.
Josh Sharkey [00:18:39]:
Yeah, it sounded like it was a lesson there for you. It was to make sure that you understand the fundamentals of the type of business you're running, you know? How does it make you think about employee retention? Obviously you don't want anybody to leave and start a competing business, but does it make you think at all about how that chef could have stayed at the restaurant? What would you have done? Obviously you're opening a lot of businesses now you're going to have people running them. Do you think about how to make sure that they stay happy and don't want to leave?
Tim Ma [00:19:05]:
My attitude changed over time, I think. I've opened a lot of restaurants, but I've also closed a lot of restaurants and I've learned every closing is like the most valuable business lesson that you've ever had. And what I've learned over time was that like you think when you start opening restaurants, that it's about serving the guests, at least as the entrepreneur, right? As an entrepreneur, you think that you're there to serve the guests. But what I've learned over time as you grow and open more and more and your footprint enlarges, is that you're really there as the entrepreneur to serve the staff.
And the staff's job is to serve the guests. And that's ever so prevalent now than ever in the past, like 14, 15 years that I've been doing this, is that my customer is my staff. And so that has been a very hard and valuable lesson to learn over time and that like, you know, especially as a chef and owner, is that like who you're serving has, or who I figured out I'm serving has changed over time. And I think it's more valuable when you figure out who you're serving. And now it's really like that where I interact with guests as the chef and the most important person is the person that works with me.
Josh Sharkey [00:19:45]:
Yeah. It's so interesting and I can relate so much. Obviously as a chef, we cook, right? So we want to cook and we want to make delicious food. And then you realize, okay, now I'm running a business and I have a team that's going to cook. They need to make delicious food. And I'm experiencing even more and more now running a tech company where not only am I not writing the code for this, I need to make sure, obviously there's a very clear vision.
But to your point, we need to make sure that we're mentoring and empowering and inspiring our team. And that there's a clear vision that they believe in, that they can go and do. Iit is a big paradigm shift when you shift from like the doer to the leader. And a lot of people don't get there. It sounds like you're embracing that, which is awesome.
Tim Ma [00:21:06]:
I think the moment that I really learned it was when I had 5 full service, upscale dining restaurants out across a geographical region of like 20 miles. And in DC that became like an hour between each one. And what I found out was that when I had one restaurant and I was the chef of just that one restaurant, I was able to be in there and like, you know, I could make the changes to make the experience better for the guests.
Tim Ma [00:21:31]:
But when I got to five, I was depending on so many people, like I didn't have that direct line to the guest anymore because that was just spread out so far. That you really are relying on your staff to convey what experience that you wanna have. And if you don't have staff members that like to buy into that, that are inspired, that are motivated by the right things, it can fall apart very quickly which it did for me. And it's just like a good lesson to learn and like it was that moment I was like, yeah I messed up.
Josh Sharkey [00:21:59]:
It's important as long as you're learning, But yeah man, you have a lot going on. You got Lucky Danger, Laoban Dumplings, Chefs Stopping AAPI hate. You're doing all these consultings. You just opened up a sandwich shop. I'm going to read a quote that you said, and I wanna kind of get your thoughts on it. You said professional cooking is consistency, efficiency, cleanliness, and it's all about the process of things.
So how are you maintaining consistency and controlling quality across all these disparate businesses that you have now that you do have so many of them? How do you maintain that consistency? Are there systems or processes or tools that help you? Does the engineering background help? I'd love to hear a little bit about that because it's hard.
Tim Ma [00:22:48]:
This is where I think the engineer started to kick. Like again, post all those restaurants, like, you know, I went dormant for a while cause I was just like, what am I doing? You know, there's a consideration to go back to engineering. There is, you know, consideration just to stay a consultant or just be happy with what I accomplished and move on to the next phase. And I think a lot of people come to those terms when they go through something like that. Yeah, engineering started to kick in. I think when I said those things like efficiency and cleanliness and all those things, it's just like I was thinking more about my mind, right?
It's just like if your mind is like clutter, then it's just unorganized. How are you supposed to be creative when you have a platform that's just all jumbled? And so over time, I figured out, and again, like being spread out so far and over the years I'm slowly spreading back out just cause I know how quickly I spread out because how I spread out before was very damaging for everything.
But it's when the engineer started to kick, it's just like, you know, you can, this is going to be nerdy as hell, but like you can write a computer program, right? And a computer is great at just doing those things over and over and over because it has code that tells it exactly what to do. And over time, like you can just repeat that code. And so essentially people have done this for years, so you write systems, so everything's exact and then people are quote unquote robotically going over this code over and over and over. And that's how you can maintain consistency. Whether that's, you know, this is the cleaning thing or this is how you build a sandwich or this is how you food or this is you greet the customer and stuff like that, we're still figuring all of it.
The more you systemize that and the more that you adhere to that, and then the more that you have to go back and check on the adherence to that. The QA more and more this becomes systemic, and that's the engineering side of it. But humans are not computer programs. So it's an interesting thing.
So as we flip, like Lucky Danger is a great example of that, we're trying to roll this out to many places. And the first thing we have to do is like, Chinese cooking is such an art. Cooking is an art in general. And like, how do you systemize something like that? And so it's become a problem to solve, which is interesting because like my uncle who is still alive and lives here in Virginia, he's like, you're not going to be able to do that because you need a Chinese chef in every restaurant. And that's just not how you expand this. And that's just not how you expand this.
Josh Sharkey [00:25:15]:
Why is that? What's one of those sorts of problems that you can't operationalize how to execute American Chinese food the way that you want?
Tim Ma [00:25:20]:
It's really in building the dish in the wok and building the sauce, which has become the most interesting problem to solve. Like if you ever look at a Chinese chef cook, he has a matrix of sauces and sugar, juice and salt next to the wok station and you see this big spoon and the chef is dipping into these sauces and building sauce for some dishes that are on any Chinese menu. And that's an art. This chef needs to be doing this over years.
That's why a lot of Chinese chefs are valued when they have cooked for more than 10 years because then it becomes second nature to them. How do you systemize that? So like a 15 or 16 year old kid can do it because you're not going to be able to, to roll this out over like a hundred locations with a hundred Chinese chefs, like that’s just not feasible. And some people have figured that out over time. But if you look at the American Chinese food landscape, there's not a ton of players in it, maybe because I think that's a very hard thing to figure out.
Josh Sharkey [00:26:25]:
So what are you doing today to sort of codify that or sort of change the way it works? I know using that big spoon is really tough to get the portion control if you're using just the tiniest amount of this type of soy or ginger or whatever. Like what, what are you doing today to sort of codify what is working or change it so that it can work for the 16 year old kid?
Tim Ma [00:26:42]:
This is where a chef and engineer kind of like intersected a little bit. Like you know, first off it was to get the recipes correct. That big spoon, you're right, is impossible to measure exactly over time, over and over and over. And consistency just goes by the wayside when you're trying to do that with a big spoon. So it was to nail down the recipes and then to extract out.
This is really nerdy, but to extract out and find out the common denominators in every sauce and then build mother sauces. This is like French cooking, right? French cooking has the five mother sauces that you build all the other sauces off of. So it was to figure out, you know, what are the common denominators of these sauces and how do I build mother sauces, right?
So like general tso, sesame, orange are all kind of the same base and then the aromatics change or the thing that flips it. Sesame, orange juice, spice are the things that just make those sauces different, but the base of it's the same. And then it was, ok, what things can you pull into a mother sauce without jeopardizing the quality?
Like, you know, in Chinese cooking, they're doing it in a specific order, right? Shaoxing doesn't hit the ingredients, shaoxing hits the wok, and that's where you start to get the essence of it. You know, sesame oil comes at the end, you know, sugar is caramelized in the wok. So I started to like, you know, lay all these things out and build these mother sauces to try and do it without compromising quality, but do it in a way that, again, like I'm thinking of a kid can do still in a wok or maybe in like a big steel pot or something like that. And so like, how do I extract all these things out, put it back together, and then still get the same quality. So it was somewhat of an engineering slash French cooking slash Chinese cooking problem.
That sounds fun though. I mean, once you get it right. You have to cook off the shaoxing wine if you're going to use that. If you add sugar, you need to caramelize, but I imagine all those things can be sort of reverse engineered, where if you have a base that needs shaoxing and sugar and things like that, you can cook off the shaoxing and maybe make it better. Because you can fortify it with ginger and garlic and strain it off and then you can even create a net new flavor. So it sounds super interesting, but not easy.
Tim Ma [00:28:53]:
It is a fun thing to figure out. It wasn't easy at first, but I think we are at a system that we're happy with today.
Josh Sharkey [00:28:59]:
Well, let's talk a little bit more about Lucky Danger. For you, what is American Chinese food? You know, we're in America and we say Chinese food, which is not Chinese food, but what it sounds like you are trying to, not necessarily redefine, but take American Chinese food and make it better. So what is American Chinese food to you?
Tim Ma [00:29:22]:
I go into like deep rabbit holes with this just because it's like the history of it was very important for my family. But like, you know, American Chinese food wasn't something that was created. It was something that was morphed into based on Chinese food that came over like a long time ago and originated on the west coast.
And all the dishes that we see now, minus something like crab rangoon or something like that, are based on dishes that came over from China. But they were so polarizing to people because foreign flavors, foreign spices. Szechuan peppercorn is such a weird thing that is very unique to Chinese cooking, but like Kung Pao chicken or general Tso's are all dishes that Chinese dishes morphed into American Chinese dishes.
And a lot of that is based on the availability of ingredients in America. And then sugar in general, like the American palette, is sweeter. And so to me, American Chinese food is the Americanization of Chinese dishes. And so when we started to look at the landscape of what Chinese food was in America, you have these two separate sides.
And it's kinda like when you walk into a Chinese restaurant, you have two different menus, right? And this is what I think is the dichotomy of Chinese food in America, is that you have these traditional Chinese dishes that like I grew up eating and that I still enjoy eating that may not be appealing to the American consumer.
So there's this other menu that's like, you know, the things that you see in the Chinese takeout on every corner in America, and they're rooted in the same thing that they just took different paths, right? And so Lucky Danger became this exploration of that. And so we kinda took the two sides of the menu and tried to put them together.
And I think this is something that will happen over time. There are a number of Chinese American chefs around the country that are exploring this like what is the next kung pao chicken, right? Like, let's take the dishes that we grew up eating and see how we can quote unquote, like Americanize them or put them closer to like a normalized line of, of what people eat in America.
And it's interesting because you know, some of those flavors will take time for people to get used to like sour cabbage, like szechuan peppercorn. So Lucky Danger is trying to ride that line a little bit to see where it can go or introduce the next set of dishes. AndI just think we're at an inflection point for that.
Josh Sharkey [00:31:50]:
What is it for you? Do you have something in mind or something that you're working on that could move that line?
Tim Ma [00:31:55]:
There is a Chinese dish where it was flounder with sour cabbage and chili, which is just kind of like my go-to. I still order it maybe once a week from the “real” Chinese restaurant in town. So that was like a jumping off point. I don't think you could put this on a Panda Express menu.
But like how do you get to that? And so it's a dish that we have tried to figure out how to put into regular rotation, but it's, you know, even when I do have it on, it's still the lowest seller. But that doesn't mean that's a bad thing, right? It's just another problem to solve.
Josh Sharkey [00:32:30]:
So how do you make it better?
Tim Ma [00:32:31]:
You know, the version that I get is actually very inconsistent as well. And so it's like sometimes it's super sweet and sometimes it's very sour. I think we try to figure out, you know, just like any dish in French cooking, you're trying to balance the five different flavors that we can taste, right?
So it's like how do we pull different levers on that dish to get it to a point where people just order it more? And it's just a hard thing to do. Cause you're relying on feedback, you're relying on sales as a measure of is it working or not? And it's really just a lot of trial and error over time. And I think we have some runway to figure that out.
Josh Sharkey [00:33:08]:
I'm always curious how, not just chefs, but anybody really that's innovating, thinks about iteration and you know, when something feels done. Like how do you iterate on a dish and how do you collect feedback and when does something feel, you know, done for you?
Tim Ma [00:33:32]:
I guess the standard answer for that is like, these things are never done, but I'd like to think that we can get it to a point where it's never going to compete like general chicken is gonna be 50% of all Chinese food sales in America for some time to come. But it's like, I guess it's really just setting a benchmark. Being like flounder with sour cabbage has gone from 0.1 to 0.2% of sales. Or, you know, you measure, like we have all different kinds of metrics now to go off of, like the number of thumbs up that you get in Uber Eats when people order it. All these little things I think are ways to measure. I just don't know how to say something's done. Right.
Josh Sharkey [00:33:58]:
Do you have sort of a process that you use for how you're sort of iterating? So like you put something on the menu or maybe you don't put it on the menu, but you start to tweak it and you're tasting it. Is that a short process? Is it long? Are you just trying to get it out there as quickly as you can to get feedback?
Tim Ma [00:34:10]:
I think all of that is the right answer. So we do monitor feedback meticulously, right? So it's always a weekly thing where we print all the reviews that come out about Lucky Danger over every platform. We actually have an aggregator that does that for us, but then also like we'll go like what I just said, we go and on Uber Eats and look at all the thumbs up thumbs on every dish, and then you monitor sales according to your menu mix. So those are the three big things. But then we have this like subscription program within Lucky Danger that it's just a monthly subscription and that is our playground.
So we'll put out dishes that, again, some of them are really, really Chinese. For example, I put out like a cucumber agar salad, which some people got and were like this is delicious. Some people got it and said what is this plastic in there? I was like, that's actually the agar. Sorry. That's just something that we eat.
And so the direct feedback helps. But also like even with the subscription services, we can see, you know, how many people subscribe and how many people unsubscribe based on the week to week or the month to month meal that we send on. So that's so interesting.
Josh Sharkey [00:35:24]:
So you subscribe and then every week you get new dishes from Lucky Danger.
Tim Ma [00:35:28]:
Yeah, every month you get a new package and within that package some things are just like, okay, these are the things that we want you to try and these are the things that are like the greatest hits type of things. It's a fun thing that we do and it's a very small subset of the business that we do, but it's important.
Josh Sharkey [00:36:00]:
You started all these disparate businesses, right. That definitely feels somewhat similar. And of course it's the surface level, like you have a Chinese American background. So there's that thread there. But on top of that, I feel like there's another common thread of why you've launched these businesses. Because, you know, something I'm also really fascinated about is the idea of executing on ideas.
Because we all have ideas, but very few people will actually manifest them into reality, into businesses. And you've done that many times over and you know, we've talked about your background growing up in Arkansas. We talked about the racism you experienced a little bit. I know, you know, there's things like bricks being thrown through your windows that I'm sure sort of sparked some sort of catalyst for Chefs Stopping AAPI hate like that. But is there any sort of common thread that is one of the drivers behind why you keep building all these businesses? Because it's not easy and you could easily just pick two, but you keep going.
Tim Ma [00:36:50]:
It's like a Dr. Jack and Mr. Hyde type of thing where you know, there's a bad side of me. I'm excited by new things, right? So creating something new and concept and business development are very, very fun for me. Right? I enjoy that. And so I think that's where you see all these concepts come out of. It's just like, ok, the next one, there's this other side of that. Does love the quote before, like the consistency of just doing things over and over and over.
You do reach a bandwidth problem at some point. And so like, sometimes I sit in one of my businesses, whatever you want to call it, are ideas. And I just like to iterate those things. Like the sauce thing with Lucky Danger, right? I sat there and I did that for weeks, right? Or there'll be times where like, you know, when I was in a hotel every day creating a new concept because there were seven food and beverage concepts within that hotel. And so it's really just all about, you know, scratching the right itches at the right time. And so I think I've figured out some balance of that. There's never balance, but you know, I think that explains a little bit about what goes on in my head and how I get some of this stuff done.
And then again, I've started to figure out now it is like I am servicing the staff that is executing these on the ground level and interfacing with the guests. So now it's about doing what we were building, handing it off in a responsible manner and having them execute it. And then for me then it's just my iterations are checking in on the adherence to that system and opening restaurants. And the food business is a little bit, you know, like an art, there's no formula for it, but there are guidelines that are very similar for each business. And so kind of like now that we have a jump off point, it's much easier to get these things off the ground.
Josh Sharkey [00:38:45]:
Well you also have CPG and nonprofits and I'm a huge fan of the book War of Art, Stephen Presfield, I don’t know if you've ever read it. Basically, you know, just getting through that sort of threshold of yep, you have an idea or you have something you want to do, but sort of getting past that to actually doing and continuing to do, you do that often. And I'm just curious, why do you keep doing this?
Tim Ma [00:39:08]:
I just have conversations and I try to help as many people who are trying to get started as I can. And the common thread that I see is that people are just so intimidated by the gap between having a business started and having your plan and all your systems in place, and that gap to taking the leap and the risk to get something open.
It's huge for a lot of people. And a lot of that's just based on what people hear, like the fear of failure that, you know, whatever the metrics are. I don't even know what's real anymore, but like, you know, 60% of restaurants fail. And that's what you hear first. But like, that's always the common thread.
[00:39:50] So like, for the most part, what I try to do is just push people out and just be like, if you're going to do it, you're going to do it now. Because when you get to my age, like that energy's not there. And that's what we did. Like, it was very naive, but I was just like, you know, I bought my first restaurant off Craigslist on a credit card.
I signed my life away and I had no idea how to receive an order, but it didn't really matter. And like, there's something to say that you almost have to have like, no shame either, right? Like people were looking at me and just making fun of me. I had people come to the front door of the restaurant being like, you have no idea what you're doing now.
I was like, you're absolutely right. No idea. But some people would be shamed by that. I was just like, you know, you're right. But it doesn't mean that I'm going to fail. Obviously, I had some failures, but it didn't stop me. So I typically just like to push people responsibly. Don't risk your livelihood like I did.
But there's something to say. It's just like, you know, you just have to dig in and do it, and like, not be ashamed if you failed. Because you're going to, and if you don't then you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.
Josh Sharkey [00:40:53]:
There's nothing that makes you more humble than starting your first business or your second or your third.
Tim Ma [00:40:59]:
Yeah, for sure. It's all still very humbling. Like we opened yesterday and I'm still scared out of my mind. You're always fearful that you're going to fail.
Josh Sharkey [00:41:05]:
Maybe we'll sort of divert for a minute from the restaurants and talk about Laoban You rolled out in Whole Foods. Congrats, by the way. That's awesome. CPG is funny. It's one of those very nebulous things. I get questions all the time from chefs like, you know, how do you get started? Where do you find a co-packer? There's so much to learn and it's such a process of, you know, from, you know, production all the way through distribution and finding retailers and the pricing model. I'm curious, you know, before we get into what Laoban is, what do you know today about the CPG world that you wish you knew, like when you first started working on it?
Tim Ma [00:41:39]:
I think the thing that I take away from it every day is that now I know why food is so expensive, right? Like food is expensive, like from what gets produced or what gets grown to what gets produced to what you buy. The reason it's so expensive is just the way that, you know, CPG works. Some of it is necessary, some of it that I may not understand. So I, you know, when you don't understand something, you're just like, that's unnecessary. I see the layers now of how food ends up in your refrigerator or your freezer.
It blows my mind. Like I enjoy what we're doing with Laoban so much, just because it's such a learning process. And maybe that's the engineer's side. It's just like learning this has been freaking fascinating just because it's not restaurants.
Josh Sharkey [00:42:30]:
And you're not cooking the food every day. And the person that is cooking it did it a long time ago in a really large batch. And you have to control that.
Tim Ma [00:42:37]:
CCP is not even about food anymore. You know, I rarely touch the food at this point.
Josh Sharkey [00:42:40]:
When you're sort of talking about why food is so expensive, are you referring to the logistics of distribution from seed to the next warehouse, to the next warehouse, to the production facility, to the next production facility, to the retailer, to the other distributor?
Tim Ma [00:42:56]:
Yeah. And like distribution and logistics is one side of it. And then just like the sales, marketing, brokerage part of it is a whole nother world. There's one thing to say that like, so we launched nationally through Whole Foods, right? So that means we are in like 98% of the Whole Foods.
So that is a much different launch than just launching like within your local Whole Foods. And so just to get to that was just, you know, it wasn't just going to the store and being like to the general manager and being like, oh, do you have a local program? Can I get into it? It was, you know, going down to Austin and coordinating a nationwide launch.
Josh Sharkey [00:43:37]:
What was the hardest or most surprising thing about that process of getting into Whole Foods nationally?
Tim Ma [00:43:39]:
I'm not really sure. I think one thing that surprised me is how small Whole Foods operates, which is interesting to me, even though it's big, like 500 some stores, that's a lot of grocery stores there.I guess the biggest natural grocer. But you know, they still operate like a small company in some respects, I guess. And then even like my local Whole Foods, I didn't realize how small the frozen section is, so how competitive it is to get onto the shelf. So like, you know, we have three SKUs that will be four soon, which takes up a shelf, but like that real estate is so valuable. So that was pretty shocking to me.
Josh Sharkey [00:44:19]:
How long did that take? How long was that process when you started, when you decided let's go national with Whole Foods. How long of a process was that to get it done?
Tim Ma [00:44:25]:
It's funny because we've only been doing CPG since 2021, so we're less than two years into this game. So all of it's surprising, like it's not just Whole Foods, just everywhere that we end up. Even before Whole Foods, we were 800 doors ish, 35 states. And that was just like, kind of like grassroots, like individually selling to each of these markets. And so the speed is all surprising to me. I don't really know when the first conversation went. I feel like it was fall of 2021, so not that long ago.
Josh Sharkey [00:45:04]:
Say I'm at a restaurant, a restaurant group, or maybe we make our own ssamjang, or where we make our own pasta and we want to sell it to Whole Foods. What advice would you give?
Tim Ma [00:45:14]:
Our process is very scientific. We don't even call them recipes. They're formulas. So we dialed these formulas in. We had our own tiny production facility, which we still operate to this day. Just because we have to supplement. Our co-pack can't even produce enough right now. So it was really dialing in that formula so exact and then taking that formula and you give it to somebody else and then you have to work with that person that co-packer to dial that formula in.
Josh Sharkey [00:45:45]:
Because what they use and what they do is going to be different. Because again, like, you know, even switching the product of what they use for pork belly has shifted. So to this day, we still go up there like every two weeks, we produce in New York. We still go up every two weeks.
We're continually checking that the formula is being adhered to very much like the systems that I talked about in the restaurants, and have all that dialed in before you even like, start to have that conversation. Because if you can't fulfill an order and you aren't ready, like they're gonna replace you quickly.
There's so many brands out there. It's such a competitive space and it's such a small shelf. But then the other thing is, you know, just don't be shy, kind of like opening a restaurant. No shame. You know, just get in front of as many people as you can. Make sure what you're putting in front of people is good at least, or how you perceive it as good. And then it's, you know, we talk to so many people and yeah, again, that's why food is so expensive. Because there's so many people to talk to you about just getting your dumpling on a shelf.
Josh Sharkey [00:46:36]:
It's so ironic. I get asked so often from, you know, chefs or restaurant owners about how to scale their business from one restaurant to two to three. And I've scaled a lot in my day, and this is a bit of a shameless plug for my company meez just because it's a big reason why we built it. But problems scale and so you say formulas and I think there's definitely an underestimation of the importance of really dialing in a recipe if you're going to scale it.
Because if one out of 10 times it's too sweet or it's too salty, or it burns because of the oven, the water pressure in your comp is X, Y, z, all those things matter. And if you scale before you figure that out, it's going to compound those problems and it seems like there's a really nice correlation or just it's analogous to CPG.
If you have something that you make, make sure that you know that that thing can be made the same way every single time. Because I'm sure, hopefully it's probably not gonna be super stoked about a product that tastes different, you know, one week from the next.
Tim Ma [00:47:46]:
Yeah, I think that's a very, very solid point. Because we've seen when a problem has scaled and gone back, when you start to talk about big business, like Whole Foods or something like that, forgiveness isn't easy. And it's not just the food or the formulas, it's like logistics, right? So it's like you can produce all the food and then if you can't get it to them in time or you don't get it to them, like especially with the frozen product, right? Like if it's not frozen when it gets there, you know, when you do it at a clip of a million dumplings at a time, that's not a cheap problem to solve or an easy problem to solve.
Josh Sharkey [00:48:14]:
Well, we're coming up on time soon. I'm going to jump around a little bit because there's a couple of questionsI want to make sure we ask just real quick, just so everybody's aware. Can we talk a little bit about Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate, mainly why did you start it and what's the goal?
Tim Ma [00:48:35]:
It’s a nonprofit started in 2021, Kevin, and it was in response to the anti-Asian incidents and rhetoric that was happening at the time. That was very alarming and it affected the Asian American community as a whole greatly. And we saw that there were a lot of people trying to do a lot of things to combat it.
And so one of the things that we wanted to do was help and we tried to help through food and it's something that I think we figured out and using our skills as chefs and entrepreneurs, to be honest, to affect change through food. And a lot of that became kinda the business that we're in is using food to make money.
So why not use food to raise money? And we did that and just began donating to those on the front lines of fighting anti-Asian hate. And that could be in legislation that could just be in support for victims. And that's how the nonprofit started and started steamroll.
Josh Sharkey [00:49:32]:
And where's it today?
Tim Ma [00:49:32]:
This started in 2021 and it was just in the middle of the pandemic. It became a takeout dinner series that we started in DC. At first it was just five chefs, one dinner, and then me and Kevin were like, well, let's make it bigger. So overnight it became 45 DC chefs at nine dinners. And then we were like, okay, let's go bigger. So it became over a hundred chefs and four cities, New York, Detroit, and San Francisco.
And then it went from just like one dinner per city to like, you know, every city was doing four weeks of these to-go dinners. And it ended up raising $150,000 and we just started donating, right? We took the money and the proceeds for one and we reimbursed the chefs and restaurants.
So that gave them a way to keep their business going. And then we took the rest of the money and donated to these anti-Asian hate nonprofits because funding is such a hard thing. We continued to do that, not just for the Asian American community, but in response to our allies.
So when the Ukraine War started, Jose of World Central Kitchen went on the front lines in Ukraine to feed the refugees. They actually reached out to us and they're like, you know, hey, this is going on. How can we partner? We're like, it’s simple. We'll collect a bunch of chefs in DC and we're going to do one huge dinner, which we did.
And that dinner ended up raising close to a quarter million dollars in one night that was donated to Jose's nonprofit. It's very expensive to feed that many people, you know, even though it's an anti-Asian hate nonprofit, we want to make sure that we're supporting our allies. Because you know, when we needed help, our allies were there to support us.
Josh Sharkey [00:51:24]:
Are there any events coming up?
Tim Ma [00:51:28]:
We literally just had one. So when the shootings happened in Monterey Park, we mobilized quickly. Initially, we had a dinner already planned to support Grace Young and James Beard Foundation for their support of Chinatown's initiative. So we had this dinner planned around Lunar New Year and then like, you know, those shootings happened right before Lunar New Year.
And immediately Grace called us and was like, I appreciate the support but let’s pivot and donate this money to the victims and the victim's family. And so we quickly pivoted dinner and donated that money, some of it to help DC's Chinatown, and then the rest of it to help the families of the victims at Monterey Park.
I guess our specialty has been really being able to quickly mobilize when something like this happens so that you know, as time goes on, you become less effective. So we mobilize so quickly to raise money and that's just kinda been our specialty and hopefully has created the most impact.
Josh Sharkey [00:52:26]:
What, I'm gonna guess, there's gonna be a bunch of chefs and restaurant owners that are listening here. What can chefs and restaurant owners do right now to help or to get involved with chefs stopping AAPI hate?
Tim Ma [00:52:34]:
Really, it's just connecting. Like if there's something that we can help with or there's something that's important in your community, we're here to support just because we have a little bit of infrastructure because we've done this. Or, you know, we can provide the model, provide connections, really when we announce that we're doing anything, sponsorship money helps so much and so a lot of the time the sponsors will come in and just be like, how can we help? And like some of it's based on what kind of infrastructure they can help us with or sometimes it's just like, you know, just hard cash because that's what people need sometimes.
Josh Sharkey [00:53:11]:
We'll put something in the show notes for sure.
Tim Ma [00:53:13]:
One of the things is that, like I do when your community is affected and you're a leader in that community, sometimes chefs are now looked upon as leaders. Like there is almost a responsibility to step up when something happens in your community like that.
And your community can be whatever. It can be the one block that you're on where your restaurant is, or you know your community as Asian American throughout the United States, whatever it's, I always implore people to accept that responsibility that you get with the success of where you're at. And so hopefully that inspires people.
Josh Sharkey [00:53:48]:
I couldn't agree more. Well, wrapping up here, a few more fun questions. I think I ask myself this all the time, but I also ask my friends that are also entrepreneurs or just creators. If money and time was not a constraint, you didn't have to worry about how much time it would take to create the thing or the product or the business, and money was not any object what would you build today?
And that could be something that you do, you know, as part of something that's already existing in one of your businesses or something new. But you know, creativity, innovation are bound by time and money. If we were outside that box, what would you do today?
Tim Ma [00:54:29]:
I think my answer changes every period. It's that period being a year, a decade, a career. But I think that's something that's been like a common thread has always been to help people in the area that you're in right now. So like, you know, now that I'm much older, right? Like I've spent like two careers at this point and like over a decade in my career, I'd wanna have whatever it is to help people take that leap that we talked about earlier.
I enjoy watching people do that and succeed or at least chase their dream. Because that's what I did. Right? Like I do to this day, like my parents will sometimes make me feel bad about it, but like, you know, chasing the dream is something that I hope everybody gets to do at some point. And like I know that some people don't have the means to do so, but I think that's something that would be of interest to me is providing a platform for people to be able to chase their dream, whatever that is.
But specifically in the industry, within the expertise I've gained, experienced from failures, I do that. And you know, you see that in certain organizations today and I think that would be something interesting to me if I had those names.
Josh Sharkey [00:55:50]:
Well, if we just look at pattern recognition, I have a pretty good sense that you're probably gonna do that at some point anyways. Who's the biggest influence in your life?
Tim Ma [00:55:58]:
Again, I think that changes over a period of time. Well, I guess piggybacking off the question that we just had, like Grace Young has been a guiding, an inspiration at this point, right? For one has propelled Chinese cuisine through her cookbooks very positively, and spreading the awareness of culture and where these things come from and then pivoted that towards philanthropy. So truly admire how she's pivoted and just like thrown all her support to saving our culture and our culture being ingrained in Chinatowns across the United States.
Josh Sharkey [00:56:24]:
And it sounds like you're already working with her, you know, at least from time to time.
Tim Ma [00:56:28]:
Yeah, for sure. Like always in touch with her to be, okay, this is what we're doing. What are you doing? How can we partner? How can we support each other? I really love that. And I, I. You asked a question on if I had the means to do it, but I think you could also do it without the means, right? Just in whatever way you can. We're trying to do it. We spend as much time on the nonprofit as we do in our businesses sometimes.
And again, that goes back to that responsibility.
Josh Sharkey [00:56:59]:
I love that notion too. I think, you know, there's an exercise that the founders of Airbnb did called the 11 Star experience, and it always really resonated with me when they were thinking through the product they were building with Airbnb. And it's where this question sort of, you know, almost a, a lot of the genesis for it was they thought through what would an 11 star experience of booking Airbnb look like, right?
You decide where you want to go, a private jet picks you up, there's a parade with elephants, upon your arrival they take you to your favorite restaurant. And, you know, and, and that thought process of, if there were no boundaries, what would I do? That usually ends up teasing out the thing. You're probably still going to do it and then you can slowly start to remove some of those boundaries.
Josh Sharkey [00:57:41]:
And I'm pretty sure you'll probably do what you're talking about much sooner than later. If that was like one question that you'd wanna shout out to your colleagues or your friends or your investors or anybody today?
Tim Ma [00:58:04]
I have found over time that like the people that you surround yourself with should be people that you'd want to be friends with. And there are many times that's not always the case just because of the way business is. So obviously I'd like to shout out everybody that I've partnered with over time, just cause that's an important thing, especially right now and then, yeah, for anybody who's ever wanted to know anything about what we've done or any help that we can provide, like just reach out.
Josh Sharkey [00:58:23]:
You know, we're just starting this podcast, but you know, my goal is to really talk to as many innovators that are shifting the paradigm in the food world or executing at a level that helps us move forward as an industry and as people. Is there anybody else you think that we should have on the show that resonates with you?
Tim Ma [00:58:41]:
I love that because I think about impact now, right? Just like my uncle had an impact on the industry, or at least in Chinese food. And I think that's where kinda like my head shifting a little bit is like how do you leave an impact after you leave the industry? I think you should talk to Grace Young for sure.
Josh Sharkey [00:58:56]:
I love that, that notion of impact. We're around the same age, I think, you know, in our, in our forties. Yeah. And we do things for different reasons and you know, legacy is sometimes a bad word, but impact isn't. And yeah, I think one of the best drivers for doing anything is doing it because you want to impact the people that impacted you that gave you what you have. And you know, that's what we're trying to do at meez for the industry that gave me everything that I have. And it's clearly what you're trying to do. So the more people that we can learn from that are doing. Tim, this was awesome. We haven't gotten to catch up on a call in a while. Usually we're talking about raising capital or some other event. But glad we got to catch up today. Thanks for being on the pod, man.
Thanks for tuning into The meez Podcast. The music from the show is a remix of the Song Art Mirror by an old friend, hip hop artist, Fresh Daily. For show notes and more, visit www.getmeez.com/podcast. That's G E T M E E Z dot com forward slash podcast. If you enjoyed the show, I'd love it if you can share it with your fellow entrepreneurs and culinary pros and give us a five star rating wherever you listen to your podcasts.
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