Games whet caterer’s appetite for growth

Times Staff Writer

The athletes have checked out of the Olympic village, but Wang Gang and his wife, Liang Di, are still running around here serving Dongpo pork and other famous Chinese dishes to hundreds of Olympic staff. The couple’s work is only half done as Beijing prepares for the Paralympics next month, and they are relishing every moment.

When Wang first came to Beijing in 1984, he never could have imagined that he would one day be chosen as a vendor for one of China’s proudest occasions. He was a scrawny, dark-skinned 16-year-old with a ninth-grade education from Sichuan province, the son of a disabled soldier and peasant farmer, carrying an oversize bag stuffed with bedding and about a dollar in his pocket.

Today, Wang and Liang run a chain of 32 restaurants, one of the largest in the nation. Their Meizhou Dongpo company and Hormel Foods Corp. sell co-branded sausages at groceries in Beijing and Shanghai. Later this year, they expect to open their first restaurant outside China, in Cambridge, England. Wang wants to expand to the U.S. too.

Wang’s rise from migrant worker to Olympic caterer is in many ways a story of China itself. As with the nation’s economic ascendance, his restaurant fortune was built through hard work, market reforms and a little luck. And just as the Olympics seemed for many Chinese proof of the nation’s new stature in the world, the Games provided a measure of respectability to Wang that money couldn’t buy.


“The Olympics gave us confidence. It’s a huge encouragement for our brand,” said Wang, 40, who is chairman of privately held Meizhou Dongpo. The restaurant chain, he noted, was picked by the Beijing Olympic Committee after extensive testing of the safety and quality of its dishes.

An Olympic Committee director declined to comment on the competition for food suppliers, but it certainly had a lot of choices. There are nearly 40,000 government-registered restaurants in Beijing, a city of about 17 million. Above-scale restaurants, defined as those with at least 40 employees and $300,000 in annual revenue, numbered 2,728 in 2006, triple the figure in 2000, according to the China Cuisine Assn.

Liang, who manages Meizhou Dongpo’s books and the restaurants’ cold dishes, says the company grossed about $38 million last year, up 20% from 2006. Many of its restaurants are large, holding 1,000 or more customers in the main dining hall and numerous private rooms on two or three floors. The decor is traditional Song dynasty (960-1279), with plenty of porcelain, silk and Chinese brush art decorations. The price is mid-range to upscale, with the average tab per person about $9 to $12 -- on the high side in China.

Bai Wei, executive chairman of the Food Union, another industry group in Beijing, attributes Meizhou Dongpo’s rapid growth to several factors: the popularity of Sichuan food in northern China, rising incomes and increasingly hectic lifestyles, which have pushed more people to eat out.


What’s more, he says, all of Wang’s restaurants are owned by the company, not franchised, allowing managers to have greater control over quality and centralized operations, such as employee recruitment and training.

“Most importantly, his Dongpo pork is really delicious,” Bai added. “It’s hard for others to learn and copy it.”

During the Beijing Games, Wang served more than 500 varieties of foods, including 50 alone on the night of the closing ceremony, highlighted by “gold medal pork” braised in the spicy Sichuan style. He says he’s making no profit on the Olympic contract, possibly even taking a loss.

At age 16, Wang started out washing dishes and cutting vegetables for $25 a month at a Dongpo pork restaurant in west Beijing. It wasn’t long before he started learning how to cook the dish, made from a slab of pork belly that is stewed for a long time. Legend has it that Su Dongpo, a famous Song dynasty poet and artist, invented the fragrant meat dish accidentally by leaving it on the fire too long while engrossed in a game of chess.


Su was born in Wang’s birthplace, Meizhou, in Sichuan province, though he later moved to the eastern resort city of Hangzhou, which long ago claimed Dongpo pork as its local cuisine.

In June 1996, a dozen years after cooking for other businesses, Wang opened his first restaurant in north Beijing, across the street from the China-Japan Friendship Hospital. He and his wife, who is also from Meizhou, had married a year earlier.

Wang had only $1,200 in savings, so he borrowed $130,000 from more than 10 friends. Wang’s four sisters in Sichuan province kicked in several thousand more.

“It was so popular that people were waiting in line to get in,” Wang said, noting that the 3,200-square-foot restaurant generated about $2,000 in sales a day. He paid back the loans in six months, and in June 1997, opened a second restaurant on the eastern end of Beijing.


“After that it was like a rolling snowball,” he said of the company’s expansion. After launching their fifth restaurant, Wang says he and his wife realized that “diligence and hard work were not enough.” He enrolled at Peking University and she at Tsinghua University, the two best in China, and earned MBA degrees at the same time.

Wang says proudly that he lectures occasionally at Tsinghua. Yet when he applied for a visa to travel to the U.S. two years ago, Wang was turned down. He admitted that he was angry and that his pride was wounded, especially since he was a leader of a restaurateurs’ group wanting to visit the U.S.

Jamie Lee, head of the Los Angeles tourism office in Beijing, who helped Wang reapply and later secure a visa, says she wasn’t surprised Wang was rejected.

“By looking at him, you could think he was a farmer,” said Lee, recalling that Wang was wearing short pants with black shoes and white socks when they met. “I later found out that he was a very savvy businessman. He’s been around the block, a real go-getter.”


Wang says his 12-day U.S. visit, including stops in Los Angeles and New York, was revealing. He says he was surprised at the low quality and bad taste of Chinese food in the U.S.

“I think the Chinese restaurants there are lagging 10 to 20 years behind” those in China, he said.

For Wang, that spells opportunity. He is considering taking the company public. He plans to open another 10 restaurants during the next 16 months in several cities, including Shenzhen and Shanghai. He wants to have a role in the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010.

But Wang’s biggest goal, like many Chinese companies these days, is to build his company’s brand globally.


“My highest dream is to make food for the globe,” he said. “I want to open restaurants all over the world, just like McDonald’s.”