The other night, while wandering the bustling streets of Barranco, my adopted neighborhood in Lima, Peru, I walked into a Chinese restaurant called Chifa Hong Fu. [1]

I was struggling with the Spanish-only menu and was attempting to ask the waitress what was in the various dishes, when this woman popped out from the back and asked me

Ni hui shou zhong wen ma?” (Can you speak Chinese?) My Mandarin is passable so I said I could.

She started explaining the menu to me and I asked her if this was her restaurant. She said it was. And thus began one of the most fascinating and inspiring stories of entrepreneurship I’ve learned in a long time.

Huang: The Relentless Chinese-Peruvian Restaurant Entrepreneur

Chifa Hong Fu was founded in 2009 by Huang’s nephew [1] and she bought him out in 2012 to become the sole proprietor when her nephew decided to move back to China. Before that, she was helping her younger brother run another restaurant for about eight years. Chifa Hong Fu has about 15 tables and I’d guess her dishes average out to about 14 Peruvian soles (equivalent to $5.2 USD) a plate.

The restaurant business in the United States operates on notoriously thin margins (on the order of 3%) but here in Lima, Peru, Huang is able to send back $3,000 – $5,000 USD per month in remittances to her two daughters and husband in China. [2] That’s after cost of goods, labor, rent, taxes, and her own living expenses, which, if you estimate is at least as much as what she’s sending back, means the restaurant serves around ~50 people a day. In fact, on my last day, I noticed she had around 30 people inside for lunch, so I suspect the daily customer number is closer to 100.

At $4,000 USD, she’s pulling in over 5x the average pre-tax monthly salary for workers of Beijing, the highest-earning city in China.

Now that is hustling.

No Advantage Except The Ability to Endure Hardship

There’s a phrase we have in Chinese: chi ku, which literally means to “eat bitterness” but basically means the ability to endure hardship.

Throughout her startup journey, Huang has epotomized this concept.

The front of the shop

She moved to Lima, Peru in 2004 in her early forties. She didn’t have a college degree, didn’t speak Spanish, and didn’t know how to really cook or run a restaurant. She had worked in a dam or something related to hydroelectrity before dropping out of the workforce to raise her two daughters.

When she arrived in Lima, Huang joined her younger brother, who had moved to Lima ten years prior to help him run his Chinese restaurant.

Three months in, Huang’s younger brother wanted to go back to China for a while and Huang had to step up and run the shop. She told me that even thought she knew she wasn’t well educated, she could chi ku, and pushed through a lot of tough stuff to make it through.

This reminds me of a quote from a book I read recently:

“Education and psychological bravery are somewhat interchangeable. If you don’t have much of one, you can compensate with a lot of the other.”

The Time They Almost Had to Shut Down

A look inside the shop

While traveling in Peru, I’ve often been worried that I will be stuck in a place where I can’t communicate with the local population because my Spanish was not sufficient and they didn’t speak English. Fortunately, most of my travels have been through tourist-friendly places where it hasn’t been an issue.

Running a business in a country where you struggle with the official language, and you don’t speak English, is a different story. At one point, a bunch of police officers, inspectors and reporters all showed up at the old restaurant, wanting to commander her equipment and demanding that she close down. Apparently she hadn’t filled out the correct forms for insurance or some sort of certification, because she didn’t know she was supposed to and no one told her about it.

People are waving things in her face, in a language she’s still struggling to master and Huang started weeping, knowing this could totally ruin the business. Who wants to eat somewhere that’s “not certified” and had been swarming with cops? I have to believe this must have been much more stressful than any startup’s “trough of sorrow”.

All this commotion caught the attention of the locals nearby, many of whom were customers, and they started defending Huang, and accusing the police of bullying this poor foreign woman just trying to run an honest business. They actually pushed the cops out of the place and in a stroke of great generosity, helped Huang figure out the necessary paperwork to stay in business.

Lessons Learned

(My meal that night: combination stir-fry noodles)

There’s of course so much more to the story, but let me see if I can embed them into some ideas for your own entrepreneurial journey.

You don’t have to have it all figured out before you get started. Again, not to harp on this point, but if (No Spanish) + (No Restaurant Experience) + (No College Degree) = (Successful Business) for Huang, imagine what you could do with all the advantages you have.

Don’t let anyone try to take advantage of you. Huang says that on a fairly regular basis, customers try to cheat her of money by giving her a ten and claiming they gave a fifty. She immediately calls them out on it and kicks them out of the restaurant.

“If you let them do it once,” she said, “they’ll just come back tomorrow and do it again.”

Take care of your people and they’ll be loyal to you. Huang has several staff members who have been working for her for 6+ years, starting sometimes from when they were 14 years old.

“Because we open so early,” Huang said, “there often aren’t any places to get food so we try to have breakfast ready for them at the shop. Sometimes I advance them their salary if they need the money, and in the hot summer months I’ll go out and get cold fruit for them.”

You have to learn to delegate. After staying in Lima for four straight years, she was able to take a six month hiatus by having some other family members run the shop, as she once did for her younger brother. She’s still trying trying to find a good full-time manager though – and other Chinese entrepreneurs have opened dozens of restaurants around Lima staffed all with local people.

“It’s still hard, but now the business is at the place where I do six months here and six months at home. I get to see my husband and my two daughters,” said Huang.

I hope you enjoyed this story of Huang’s startup journey. She was grateful with her time and didn’t even let me pay for my meal, despite my protests, saying it was just a treat to speak with someone in her native tongue. She was both flattered about my interest in her business and humble about her success, saying “I didn’t have any special talent. Any smart young person could have come here and succeeded, as long as they were willing to chi ku.”

But they didn’t. And she did. And sometimes, that makes all the difference.

Footnotes

[1] Before I left for Peru, my foodie friend Zoe told me to “check out Chinese-Peruvian food – they’ve got their own take on it.”

She was right. The Wikipedia article on “Chifa” is a fascinating exploration of the development of Peruvian-Chinese cuisine, which began developing back in the 1920’s.

[2] Estimates for Chinese in Peru vary (seriously, I spent like an hour Googling this shit) The natioanl survey of Peru in 2007 includes only “Other” which includes Moche, Japanese and Chinese at 6.7% (see page 5 of that link). The CIA World Fact Sheet on Peru groups blacks, Chinese and Japanese at 3% on an undated estimate.

[X] Just for fun, here are the other titles I was thinking about for this article

  • 10 Things I Learned About Entrepreneurship in Peru
  • This Chinese-Peruvian Mom/Founder is  My New Hero
  • The Inspiring Startup Story of a Chinese-Peruvian Mom
  • Could You Run a Restaurant in an Foreign Country With No Language or Cooking Skills?
  • My Unexpected Encounter with a Startup Mom in Peru
  • The Story of This Entrepreneur Mom in Peru is the Most Inspiring Thing You’ll Read All Day
  • Think Your Startup Life is Tough? Try Stepping in This Peruvian Entrepreneur’s Shoes
  • When I Start My Next Company, I’m Going to Remember This Peruvian Entrepreneur
  • The Powerful Story of a Mom-Turned-Entrepreneur in Peru
  • I Met a Mom Entrepreneur in Peru That I Have to Tell You About

Published by Jason