Business & Real Estate

Sacramento native builds restaurant empire in China with California-inflected cuisine

Alan Wong, 40, stands outside his Hatsune restaurant in the Taikoo Li mall of Beijing, China on Feb. 24, 2016. This Hatsune is one of 12 restaurants that Wong, a Sacramento native, owns in Beijing and Shanghai.
Alan Wong, 40, stands outside his Hatsune restaurant in the Taikoo Li mall of Beijing, China on Feb. 24, 2016. This Hatsune is one of 12 restaurants that Wong, a Sacramento native, owns in Beijing and Shanghai. Yuyang Liu

Alan Wong strolls into a branch of his Hatsune restaurant chain in Beijing’s swank Taikoo Li mall, dressed in a knit cap, red vest, jacket and distressed blue jeans. He looks more like a Sacramento snowboarder than a Chinese restaurant magnate. He’s, in fact, a hybrid of the two.

Over the last 15 years, Wong has become one of China’s most successful foreign restauranteurs, introducing tens of thousands of diners to his brand of California-style sushi. He runs 12 restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai, and in June he’s scheduled to open another at the new Shanghai Disneyland. At that point, he estimates his workforce will grow to nearly 800 employees.

“It is pretty crazy,” said Wong, while taking a break in the Beijing restaurant on a recent afternoon. “Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘What are you doing? How are you managing all these people?’ ”

Wong is a self-described ABC – American-born Chinese – and part of a wave of ABC entrepreneurs who’ve moved to China in recent decades to tap into the world’s second largest consumer market. Some, such as Wong, have made China their home away from home – starting families and immersing themselves in the language and culture.

Wong, who is 40, says he still loves the energy and bustle of Beijing. But he also waxes nostalgic about what he’s left behind in Sacramento.

“I miss people walking by you and saying, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ I miss the air.”

With 22 million people, Beijing is home to thousands of eateries, ranging from swank French bistros to street stalls selling baozi, or steamed buns. It’s known as a notoriously cutthroat city for the culinary arts, littered with breakthroughs and broken dreams.

Wong has thrived partly because his timing was good – he arrived in 2001, when the city’s restaurant scene was just taking off. He quickly spotted what was missing – the sushi he grew up eating at Mikuni and other Sacramento restaurants. Wong was the first in China’s capital to popularize spicy tuna rolls, soft shell crab concoctions and that ultimate Golden State heresy – California rolls, tuna with avocado.

Even after 15 years, he pays close attention to detail when visiting one of his restaurants. Why is that light bulb out? Do you have the temperature right on that sushi rice? Don’t forget to shout out irasshaimase! – Japanese for “welcome!” – to each customer who enters.

Partly because of that personal touch, Chinese eaters and foreign visitors continue to flock to Wong’s restaurants. This month, readers of the Beijinger magazine named Hatsune the city’s best Japanese restaurant for the 13th year in a row. They also named Wong “restaurant personality of the year.”

Luís Pina de Puig, one of Hatsune’s seafood suppliers, said Wong has succeeded because he is strategic about how to allocate his time, knowing when to leave decisions to his managers and chefs.

“He’s a really busy person, but also very humble,” said Pina de Puig, a native of Spain. “He doesn’t delegate (duties) always, like some restaurant owners do. He has a passion for good food and wants to be involved with all of his restaurants. He is very focused.”

Growing up in Sacramento, Wong recalls being a loner and unexceptional student, first at Rio Americano High School and then as a philosophy major at California State University, Sacramento. Wong’s parents, immigrants from Taiwan, wondered if their son was adrift as he spent his spare time snowboarding and working odd jobs.

One of those gigs was at Tokyo Sushi, a Japanese restaurant that has operated in Folsom since 1985. Owner Linda Han recalls Wong as “a hard worker, very smart.” Little did she know he was picking up pointers for a career in restaurants.

“I am so proud of him,” she said by telephone. “He is so successful. He is doing much better than me!”

After Wong graduated from Sacramento State, he wasn’t sure about what to do next. Should he go to law school? Keep working old jobs? His father, Steve Wong, had other ideas. He invited his son to join him in the Beijing real estate business where he was working at the time. Wong accepted.

It was a mistake. Wong had visited Beijing before, and the city intrigued him, but real estate did not. He pondered returning to California, but his father argued he would miss out on opportunities. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll stay, but only if I do my own thing,’” recalled Wong. “So I borrowed money from his company and opened up the first Hatsune.”

The restaurant wasn’t an immediate hit, but by month six, Wong said, he was packing them in. Several other ventures soon followed. One of his 12 restaurants, Karaiya, was inspired by the spicy food Wong sampled when visiting the Hunan province town of his future wife, Xiao Hui.

The two met during Hatsune’s early days, when Wong hired her for the restaurant. They started dating years later and married in 2009. Friends say Xiao Hui is an essential partner, helping Wong navigate China’s complex bureaucracy and ways of doing business. The couple now live with their two young sons in a Beijing apartment decorated like a Tahoe ski lodge, with Wong’s snowboards on the walls.

Wong keeps a busy schedule. On a recent Wednesday, he woke up at 6:30 a.m., roused his two sons for school and then had time to “chill” and watch a favorite TV show, “Mr. Robot.” He was at work by 10 a.m. to observe a tryout for two prospective chefs at Kagen, his teppanyaki restaurant. He then met with a design team to discuss the look of his Shanghai Disneyland restaurant. He finished his afternoon by meeting with his financial team in a backroom at the Kerry Center Hatsune.

Wong rotates eating at his restaurants nearly every day, which gives him a chance to confer with staff and greet regular customers. To further that personal connection, Wong holds special prix fixe dinners where customers can learn how to make sushi by hand or become sake connoisseurs.

On Wednesday evening, he sat down at a back table with Hatsune’s executive chef, Bruce Yan, to taste samples that Pina de Puig, the seafood purveyor, had brought by.

Every 15 minutes or so, Yan would return to the kitchen, and come back with dishes made from the samples of king crab, shrimp or squid. Speaking in Chinese, Wong and Yan conferred on what they liked or how they might tweak a dish, in either the flavors or presentation.

“It’s too dry,” Wong said about a salt-baked fish. Then his eyes lit up when Yan brought out a king crab smothered in one of his spicy sauces. “Look at these spikes!” he said. “This is crazy looking.”

As each customer came through the doors, the Hatsune staff yelled “irasshaimase!” By the time Wong departed at 8 p.m., the dining room was packed and an overflow crowd was waiting outside.

Since 2008, another Sacramento transplant has helped Wong build the Hatsune brand. Kristen Lum, a fellow Rio Americano grad, moved to Beijing in 2006 for a language internship. She then started an event-planning business and for the last seven years has worked as Hatsune’s marketing and events manager.

Lum said Wong’s restaurants have succeeded largely because of the food – but also the vibe. At his Hatsune at the Kerry Center, drawings of sumo wrestlers adorn the walls. At the Taikoo Li Hatsune, a mobile of swirling fish hangs above the dining room.

“A lot of restaurants in China take themselves too seriously,” said Lum, 31, who writes a popular food blog in Beijing – “That is one thing that has set Alan apart. When people walk in, the chefs are shouting and there’s music and really good cocktails. It is all meant for you to have fun.”

Wong’s career has been written up in expat publications, and they generally make it sound like he’s jumped from one win to another. But Wong acknowledges a few setbacks. He helped launch a Singapore-style chili crab restaurant in Shanghai that failed a few years ago. He invested in a Beijing bar that went bust when the owner, a friend, suddenly skipped town.

China can also be a capricious place to do business. In 2012, Chinese nationalists started boycotting anything related to Japan because of a territorial dispute in the East China Sea. Wong watched as his business dropped sharply, only recovering after a long four months.

These days, Wong’s biggest challenge is retaining chefs and servers. “Back when we started, China had a labor surplus. Now it has a labor shortage,” he said. “That has changed everything.”

Wong has visions of one day returning to Sacramento with his family. But for now, China continues to capture his imagination. When not working, he hits the slopes outside of Beijing with his snowboard, and also has taken up motorcycle racing.

Asked why his downtime doesn’t include more relaxing pursuits, he waved the question away. “I am totally into adrenaline.”