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[Lil’Laoban]: Camden Hauge of Egg

"Shanghai was the first place that I went where I was so inspired by everybody that I met..."
2022-09-23 12:00:00
Lil’Laoban is a column series that shines the spotlight on independent entrepreneurs in Shanghai. We’re talking to them about their journey, wildest ambitions and how they’ve carved their niche in this city. The Lil’Laoban series is part of SHANG!, a grass-roots initiative founded by friends and businesses to celebrate the always-looking-up spirit of the city and everyone that calls Shanghai home.

Egg is an all-day breakfast diner and cafe that is your home away from home and your home away from your other home, which is actually your office. Opened seven years ago as a precursor to the Big Shanghai Cafe Explosion of 2020, Egg specializes in a globally observant but creatively personal vision of American breakfast staples: various delicious things on toasts, various delicious things in buns, good coffee, interesting juices, some boozy options. It was opened by American Camden Hauge, who is easily in the top 3 for Most Busy Person in Shanghai. She's since opened another Egg in the Jing'an district, La Matcha, sister venues Bird and Bitter (which finished their run last year), Lucky Mart, and is the host and organizer of some of Shanghai's favorite food and bev events under the banner of Social Supply, like the Shanghai Supperclub and FEAST, among others.

SmartShanghai had a zoom call with Camden talk about all things Egg, the importance of breakfast, and what she likes about Shanghai.

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SmSh: Okay, so can you introduce yourself? Where are you from? How long have you lived in China? And what brought you here?

Camden: Sure. So, I'm American. I actually arrived in Shanghai via the UK, where I went to university, and then worked for an advertising company. And after two years of working in advertising in London, which I loved, they offered to send me to one of their other offices. And I was lucky, it was a big company, and they had offices all over the world. And one of the places that they offered to send me was Shanghai. So, of the choices of let's say, like European countries, Australia, and China, in my mind, I thought, ‘you know, there's no way in hell I'd be living in China otherwise.'

It was just supposed to be three months, six months on the outside, which, as you all know, is the common story. So, I absolutely adored the city. I think that I've been lucky enough to have international travel experience having been in the UK and then, you know, lived a few other places... but Shanghai was the first place that I went where I was so inspired by everybody that I met.

I think I was just surrounded by the most incredible cross-section of people and everyone had their own projects, in addition to their jobs. There was so much energy, so many gaps in the market. It was just such an amazing time — this was 10 years ago now, in 2012. It was such a great time to arrive... I'm really dating myself.

SmSh: The glory days. You went from advertising into food and beverage?

Camden: When I came over, I had always always been interested in food and beverage. I've always wanted to do restaurants and cook. But being in and around New York, and then in and around London, those two markets are just so insanely competitive, right? You have to so much experience so much cash to back yourself when you're opening. And I never thought that I could do anything in those two spaces.

So, being in Shanghai, I think that it felt like it was easier to get in — easier to make a few mistakes, learn a lot, and come back from them. Especially at that moment. Getting into it, I realized that a lot of the things that I personally missed from living in London or living in the US were also missing in this market. So, I started with the Shanghai Supperclub, just to get my feet wet and meet people, and create a community. Also, to ask chefs annoying questions...

And people were incredibly generous with their time and their knowledge. And because you're working together, I got to know them as people and learn a lot. Like, what's the cost of this? How can I source this ingredient?

The first concept that I worked to open was Egg because the thing that I missed the most was this kind of all-day dining concept. A combination of good coffee, good food, good service. You know, at the time, in 2012 and 2013, I think, there were only three locations that had an espresso coffee machine...

SmSh: Yeah, that was in the pre-cafe era.

Camden: Yeah. Which is so shocking to think about now. There were some places that were serving amazing quality coffee. But none of them were doing full-scale service for food. And none of them had table service. And anything that was a little bit more relationship-focused with a diner or drinker.

So, the idea was to open something that was casual and relationship-focused. A "third space", almost. So, you have your home and your office. And then this is the third place that you go to either meet friends, or do a little bit of work, hang out on the weekend, that feels super homey.

So, that's what I was working towards opening in 2014.

SmSh: And now we're here in 2022, how has it evolved over the years?

Camden: That's a great question and, I think that, in many ways, it has stayed the same. Because the customers change so much but we stay consistent. Yeah, we have waves of regulars who come through. And I think whether they're foreign and local — I usually refer to our customers as 'international' because it's a mix of foreign people, Chinese people who are raised overseas and came back, or locals who are more interested in international lifestyles.

We just get people who come solidly for a year, year and a half. And then, you know, they move locations, they move their apartment, they move cities, they went back to their home country. We have such a transient customer base. But I think that we remain the same in response to that. So you'll have a similar experience when you come back.

Hopefully, it's just gotten better and more perfected...

Speaking to the menu, we change about two-thirds of the menu every season. And then one-third remains the same which are fan favorites.

SmSh: How does the menu come into being? Do you have like a few menu items that you can highlight that are particularly wonderful... and tell us about them?

Camden: So, when when we first opened, it was meant to be kind of a global take on breakfast. So we're on all-day dining, but mostly focused on breakfast food, because to me, you know, the American diner, it's such a great format for all-day eating. And most of those things are breakfast focused because who doesn't love breakfast.

Embarrassingly, I want to claim that we are the first to put avocado on toast in Shanghai.

SmSh: Is that true!

Camden: I don't know but I believe so. It's not great...

SmSh: Sure it is. This is history documented. That's an accomplishment, though. I mean, you should lead with that!

Camden: Oh God. Well, it was the one dish that was kind of taking London by storm in 2010. It was kind of a no-brainer to bring over. So, that's one thing that does not change. It remains our best-seller.

SmSh: Yeah, I've definitely had that at Egg...

Camden: I guess it's a staple by this point. Then we have a few other formats that we play with and try to add international flavor to. We always have some variation of a waffle. It can be anything from a waffled carrot cake to anything else... Then we also have breakfast sandwich. Our Classic is the bacon, egg, and cheese on a pretzel bun, which is another best-seller. So it's kind of a more American version. We've also, in the past, added Middle Eastern flavors.

So, basically taking similar formats, and then playing with the flavors a little bit. Because I think you really shouldn't mess with people's breakfasts too much. Like, it's a vulnerable time of day. Like you come in, you haven't had your coffee yet, you just want to order something that's a little bit familiar, maybe there's a little bit of interest, but you don't want to be smashed across the face with endless flavor. So, keeping it fairly simple and familiar, recognizable, but just getting a little interesting.

SmSh: Can you introduce the team behind the counter? Seems like a tight-knit group... Like a classic diner sort of operation...

Camden: I'm actually incredibly, incredibly lucky. I know that most venues in Shanghai have crazy attrition and turnover. With Egg, I've actually had three guys who've been with me since we opened. So that's amazing. Our sous chef, Jason — he's the head guy in the kitchen. I've gotten to the point with Jason, I can draw a picture of what I want, and just list out the key ingredients and make a demo and he can take it from there. He's super, super talented.

SmSh: At the venue, you also do art shows, chef's tables, and other community events. Can you pick out a few highlights from over the years that you've done?

Camden: Yeah, I've always tried to focus on community events and trying to let people make it their own. So, in addition to us hosting our own events, we also, if any customer ever wants to do their own thing, they're welcome to...

But the first thing I had started was the Chef's Table series. We started running Chef's Tables at night because we were closed at night. So, it'd be a Thursday, three times a month. And I asked chefs to come in, or chefs would come up and ask us to come in. And they would cook a creative menu. It was something that I noticed that a lot of chefs were either looking for a space or were between spaces. Or they were just super passionate home cooks, and they wanted to cook for their friends in a professional environment.

Or it was a lot of, you know, our friends who had restaurants and wanted to do something very different. So, let's just kind of create a space for that and a platform for people to showcase their skills and creativity. And it was so much fun. And we had everyone from big names to home chefs to really talented young local kids...

I actually found my chef for Bird because this really sweet guy came in and he said, "you know, my name is Chris. I just graduated from Cordon Bleu. I used to be a surgeon but I left everything to become a chef because I really wanted to cook. May I please do a Chef's Table dinner."

And he just blew my mind, like his talent and his style. And so I ended up opening Bird with him as part of the opening team. So, it accidentally helped being a great talent recruiter and incubator as well.

Things got a bit iffy with lockdown but I hope we can bring those back soon... maybe after September.

SmSh: How do you like Xiangyang Lu? How do you like the street and the neighborhood?

Camden: I love it. I think we're really fortunate to have found that location. I think my favorite thing about the street is the fact that we're doing breakfast, and then slightly south of us is that whole famous breakfast corner at Xiangyang and Changle Lu. It's like the last holdout in Shanghai, which I think is so incredibly special. When we first opened, it also saved my life, because I could eat there every morning.

SmSh: How are you dealing with the pandemic lockdown stuff? What's your outlook these days?

Camden: I think we were lucky to I mean, first very lucky to open again, a lot of people have not been able to... But we have the team, the team is back, which is great.

It just feels a little bit off. It's not back to where it was. So, I'm just hoping that things remain stable. And that we don't have another issue. If we have if we go into another lockdown, then we will have to close. We just can't support it. It's already so delicate. I mean food and beverage is such a small margin as it is, right.

The timing was actually the worst part because January and February are traditionally slow. When you start to think you have five profit months of the whole calendar year — it's like mid March to mid June if you're lucky — and then you can't open...

I mean, it's not, it's definitely not the rosiest of times. But I hope that the city will bounce back. I mean, there's so much amazing energy in the city and seeing some friends opening new places right now is really giving me a positive spin. Seeing the amount of people who are so super bullish on Shanghai. Shanghai will always sell stock. It's just, are you still relevant?

Yeah, I'm hoping that we will still be the central place in some people's lives that we have been...

SmSh: Okay, the last question: what's your favorite thing about living in Shanghai?

Camden: Let's see, I think my favorite thing is, it's a double edged sword. The pace of life is such that you can do anything you want, as long as you work hard, and just make it happen. And that is so special. And that's been so core to what I've been doing the past few years. I think I've had so much fun just experimenting with different projects, and bringing things to life. I think it can also be super, super exhausting. And that's really tough. Because if you're not careful with yourself, and with your own boundaries and your own energy, it can really steamroll you...

I think there's that mentality that you can make anything happen at any time of day. And there's so much energy and verve and innovation because of that. And so that's I think the best thing about living in the city...

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