Building that Burger Empire

For the last few decades, China has been the new frontier for entrepreneurs from all over the world, all with different backgrounds and stories. Getting a piece of the fast-growing, dynamic market is the El Dorado of the 21st century. Not all succeed, but then, those who do, make it at a high cost. There are many things to admire from a successful, self-made businessman, but nothing more admirable than staying humble.

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The typical American burger was not what Chinese people wanted to eat. Adapting something as simple as a burger was the answer.

This is the story of Charles (Charlie) Zeng. Founder of Charlie’s Burger and CEO of Charlie’s Hospitality Group. Operating five restaurants, Charlie is a trendsetter, an innovator. His key to success has been staying honest. “It was going to be a one-year thing,” he remembers. The New Yorker left his consulting job to open a bar, Piro, in Shanghai. “It was terrible,” he says without hesitation, “Everybody tells you opening a restaurant is really hard, but you don’t believe it, you think it’s so easy.” 

Without any background in F&B, Charlie soon realized the hospitality industry was long hours and unimaginable stress. Seven years later, Charlie has learned the ropes. 

Understanding the Chinese ways took some time, he wanted to do business the American way, but China’s bureaucratic system is a hard-chew. “China’s law is not like the US law. It’s always wrong if it’s not their way.”

The first thing Charlie did was learning to control his temper. “Don’t get mad, just chill,” sneers Charles, “In the industry, if you’re hot-tempered, you’re not going to live long.”

“Everybody tells you opening a restaurant is really hard, but you don’t believe it, you think it’s so easy.” 
— Charles Zheng

Eventually, he understood that he had to blend in. Charlie built his super fun and hip food empire around Charlie’s Burger, where he realized that to succeed he had to know his customers. The typical American burger was not what Chinese people wanted to eat. Adapting something as simple as a burger was the answer. Adding a little sugar to the bun, umami taste to mayo, and other small tweaks did the trick, big time.

Charlie has not only succeeded in making delicious burgers catered to the Chinese palate, but he has also assimilated Chinese food and made it his own. 

The entrepreneur found himself selling jianbing, one of the most famous Chinese street food items, mainly because he used to spend lots of morning hours scouting for the best examples in the city for his girlfriend. He knew that quality could improve. So, from then on, from 8:30 to 10:30 he sells what he calls westernized jianbings. 

Another success. Charlie made jianbings with real bacon, Parma ham, avocado, homemade sausages, and even truffle oil in a clean kitchen, by professional cooks. Jianbings, by the way, are becoming the next big thing. A store in San Francisco sells the crepe-like treat for $15 USD. 

Charlie doesn’t seem to run out of ideas. He has two chubby dogs, and he was frustrated by the lack of pet-friendly restaurants in Shanghai. Of course, he started selling dog treats, and you know he tastes everything he sells, “It’s good, you should try it!”, he testifies enthusiastically.

There are few entrepreneurs like Charlie. A real inspiration. What’s his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs wanting to get into hospitality? “Don’t do it, just don’t do it” raves Charlie laughing.

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Author: Franco Salzillo, Certified Somm & Wine Writer