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The Charles Behind Charlie's

My name is Charles Zeng. I'm the founder of Charlie's Hospitality Group. We have eight restaurants now: six Charlie's and two Chinese restaurants. My dream is to make Charlie's the biggest fast casual restaurant in China.

I used to do finance, working at PwC, for about three years in New York. I did M&A consulting.

I came in 2011. My dad opened the first restaurant in 2009, Piro. He did it for two years, didn't do too well, so he told me to come back and sell the place. That was the plan. "You're so good at selling businesses, you should come back and sell mine."


The first time I came to Shanghai, I didn't even quit my job, I just took a leave of absence because I thought I was going to sell the place and go back. But nobody wanted to buy it. There was even a guy, he was like "You give me money, I'll run the restaurant for you" and I was like "I'm trying to sell it to you!" So I was like fuck it, I'm gonna run it.

At that time, I thought running a restaurant was going to be cake walk, and you get to drink with friends, party, what can be better? That was a mistake. It was definitely not easy. China is tough man. Not a lot of expats make it out here.

It's been eight years. The first few years was especially tough. I grew up in New York. I didn't know anything about F&B. I didn't speak Chinese. And culturally I was different. But what made it worse was that I look Chinese, people expect me to be Chinese but I was like, fuck, I have no idea what's going on. And I did get in trouble quite often back then.

Once was for arguing with a government official. One afternoon an air quality officer came into PiRO, measured the air and gave me a ticket for bad air. Apparently it was a thing. The doors were open, the windows were open, and he was like your air quality sucks.

I'm like, wtf, this is the same air as the air outside!

"You gotta pay me". I told him there's no way I'm going to pay you.

"You gotta pay me". I refused, I told him there's no way I'm going to pay him. Then it became a big deal. He shut down my restaurant, and in the end, I paid. I ended up paying a lot more than the original price.


There was also a time I fought a customer. I raised prices on a dish and a customer started bitching when he got the bill. I didn't want to argue so I just told him to pay me what he thought was reasonable, but there was an attitude in my tone and how I handled the situation must have made him lose face, a concept I didn't quite understand back then, the guy was dining with his coworkers. So on the way out, he knocked my POS machine off the counter and onto the ground. That was like 30k back then! So I beat him and had to go into the police station for that one... I was young and immature.


In terms of F&B, even though I have so many restaurants, I don't think I "got it" — I'm still learning every day. F&B is a different animal, man. Most people think it's easy. I have friends who ask me, oh, Charles, do you think I should open this restaurant? And I'm like, as your friend, you should NOT. It's mean, but most people should not open a restaurant. I tell them in their best interest. They think I'm being mean. But actually I'm giving you the truth: most people are not going to make it here. I would say in Shanghai you are straight up gambling. Your odds are very close to gambling.

If you gave me one restaurant right now, I think I could run it like a dream. Someone explained it to me this way: "It's the basics: you want to sell good food, you want to offer good customer service, and do it at a reasonable price." It sounds so easy but simple things are often the most difficult. But now I've got this sixth sense. Like the book Blink, after 10,000 hours, you get a feeling. When I go to new places, I can tell if they are going to succeed or not, but if you ask me how I know, I can't tell you, I give you these weird answers like the stairs are not right or those lights are too bright.


I'm always planning for the long term. I hope to be here in ten years. I think a lot of owners are very shortsighted. They want to make money right away. It's a cash grab. I plan everything long term. I don't need to be profitable today. For me, it's not about today. The city is so fast-paced, people think they have to operate that way.

Charlie's fucks up all the time. But as long as the customer knows we fuck up by accident and not on purpose, then people forgive you. I think that matters a lot. At least for me it matters a lot.

I gotta admit, when I first started expanding, it wasn't because I loved F&B but because I spend so much time learning the trade I felt like I must. The first 2-3 years, I worked 16 hours every day, no weekends, I didn't have friends. It was 100%. I was losing money. So I worked really hard.

After three years, you finally get it. But by that time, I had learned so much about F&B, the culture, doing business in China, I was like, do I just leave what I know? So then, "Ok, I'm going to open a second one, to get some of that investment of my time back." Then it's a third one and... you know...

To be frank, if I was wiser when I first arrived in China, I wouldn't have opened a burger joint. I opened Charlie's because I love burgers. But Chinese people do not LOVE burgers. They're O-KAY with burgers. But they do not love them.

They can eat Chinese food every day but burgers maybe once a week, but I didn't understand that back then. I was like, I'm going to sell burgers to Chinese people! I'm going to do it! They're going to love it! But it's been tough, although I do think I'm getting better at it.

When I first came I was all about the authentic burger, no way I was going to localize. Now it's more like, I want to make you a burger you like, and if you like different toppings, that's okay. I'll do different toppings for you.


Staying authentic doesn't make you better. I want a burger my customer enjoys. If you don't enjoy the food, I'm not doing a good job.

So Charlie's is changing. Before it was just a bacon cheeseburger, now I have a cha shu burger, I'm using more local ingredients. My mayo, I use a sweeter blend because Shanghainese people like the extra touch of sugar. The bun is a Hokkaido milk bun, not a brioche bun.

Even me, I've changed. When I came here, I could eat sandwiches all day. In the middle of winter, I would still eat a cold sandwich. Now I'm like, I'll take a hot noodle too. It's too cold, man, it's too cold for a cold sandwich!

I even caught myself, when I went back to New York during winter, and went out to a restaurant. The waitress asked me what I wanted to drink, and I said, oh, can I get a warm water please? She was like, what do you want? I was like, oh, ice water — ice water is good...

The restaurant business never gets easier — some days its still a shit show — but every time I see a customer smiling or nodding their head after taking the first bite of a Charlie's burger, or friends and families having a good time at Charlie's, it revitalizes me. Gives me the energy to keep going.

My dream for Charlie's is that one day, the kids having a burger at Charlie's now will one day bring their kids to Charlie's and have a burger together. We are here to stay.



[Shanghai Famous]:

Shanghai Famous is a SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city makin' the scene. They're out there around town, shaping Shanghai into what it is, creating the art, culture, and life around us. We asked them what's good in Shanghai. We asked them what's bad in Shanghai. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

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