Fresh Off the Boat's Eddie Huang on Keeping It Real
Eddie Huang has, at different times in his life, been an attorney, a drug dealer, sneaker salesman, a TV host, a streetwear clothing designer, and blogger. Today, at 30 years old, he is a bestselling author and the chef and co-owner of BaoHaus, a popular New York City restaurant featuring Taiwanese-Chinese sandwiches, or bao. His partner is one of his younger brothers, Evan. The tiny 475-square-foot shop brings in a million dollars a year selling $3 bao and, says Huang, his own blend of Asian-American culture and hip hop.
Huang's memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, recently hit the New York Times bestseller list, while more than a million people have viewed his Fresh Off the Boat show on Vice.com, which explores food, subcultures, and identity politics. He embodies a new generation of young entrepreneur: unapologetic, unconventional and fiercely unique.
"There's a false choice between getting money and keeping it real," he says. "But keeping it real can be your business. If you have a story to tell, tell it."
Edited interview excerpts follow.
Entrepreneur: You say your business is a vehicle for your message and your culture. What do you mean by that?
Huang: BaoHaus is about owning your identity and dictating the messaging of who you are, where you're from, and what you represent. I saw an opportunity to use a restaurant to identify a lot of my issues and concerns with being an immigrant in America, and Asian in America, and a young person in America. I wanted to inspire people not to work under a bamboo ceiling. Whatever you are -- yellow, black, white, brown -- you don't have to allow your skin to define who you are or how you operate your business. There's not one face to anything.
Entrepreneur: You grew up in your family's restaurant business, yet you started a clothing business and pursued law. Why did it take you so long to open BaoHaus?
Huang: I didn't understand identity for a long time. I didn't want to do things that stereotypical Asians do, like drycleaning or restaurants. And I cut off a lot of the world to myself. But there's Asians in mountains, there's Asians in lakes, there's Asians flying planes. The world really is your garden to cultivate, to quote Voltaire. Don't let somebody keep you out of something by shaming you. I was ashamed of being an Asian in a restaurant cooking Chinese food. People would tell dog meat jokes. But there's no one way to do things. BaoHaus is idiosyncratic, creative, and artistic. My restaurant doesn't look like a Taiwanese restaurant. I wrote "dericious" on the walls. We pump hip hop super loud all day long. Our drinks are called "FOB" drinks. If I parody your racism, I pull the chair out from underneath what you're doing and you have no power. And that's a lot what BaoHaus is about, too. It turns stereotypes on their head.
Entrepreneur: How do you know if an opportunity is worth pursuing?
Huang: I get calls all the time, and I get excited about every opportunity. The third meeting is always the make or break. Do I want to hang out with this person? Do I culturally get along with them? That's [one] reason we don't have investors. Because there's not many people I've met that I want to spend time with.
Entrepreneur: People often use the word "hustler" to describe you and your antics. What does that mean to you?
Huang: Nothing other than just working hard. I always work hard. Before this interview I was looking at the rough cut for my show; then I met my trainer; I have this interview, then another at the restaurant, then I need to go over new equipment. If I'm not working I'm teaching. I have a lot of trouble when I'm not doing something.
Entrepreneur: What's your weakness as an entrepreneur?
Huang: I want everybody to run at the same speed as me. But some people are more conscientious, they think more and they plan more. And they're more careful. As a manager you benefit from having people around you that are very different.
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Entrepreneur: Is that especially true for minority entrepreneurs?
Huang: My restaurant in the larger sense is about my community. This is a Taiwanese Chinese American business -- no ifs, ands or buts about it. It's very important for minorities to develop businesses that buy from each other and support each other. As an American immigrant you have a duty to share your story with America. We definitely have it harder as entrepreneurs because the dominant culture here is what it is. And when I talk about dominant culture it's not just white, but people of a certain socioeconomic class and cultural allegiance. There's much more of that dollar out there to get. So when you have a business that is targeted toward [the] immigrant palate and immigrant experience, there's a smaller piece of the pie available to you. A lot of people don't like that we have so many cultural attachments to a $3 sandwich. But that's what we're about.
Entrepreneur: For a minority in a broader sense -- somebody who is on the fringe of society or the economy or just doesn't fit in -- is being an entrepreneur a better choice than having a traditional job?
Huang: Oh absolutely. Because if you try to go through the Ivory Tower, you go through the man's house. They will sterilize you. There are so many insidious ways of culturally cleansing you, so you fit what they want. If you're a person who doesn't fit into dominant culture -- absolutely, entrepreneurship is a good thing. You want to know the enemy and go peep it out and experience it. But ultimately remember who you are and know who you are. Do your own thing and create a place for other people like you. Life's too short to live your life for other people.