Life & Art
International restaurateurs make Taiwan home
Despite facing difficulties such as language barriers, high staff turnover, problems with landlords and importing ingredients, many foreign restauranteurs enjoy great success in Taiwan
By Douglas Habecker
Simon Habran from La Bodega
Photo by Douglas Habecker
They came to Taiwan from every corner of the world for a variety of reasons and ended up staying to open their own restaurants. Some were highly trained, experienced culinary experts when they got here while others had absolutely no professional kitchen experience. Their businesses range from fine dining to the simplest of handheld light meals. While some have already expanded to become nationally recognised brands, chains and franchises, others are happy to maintain a single establishment or two.
Regardless of their similarities or differences they might have, these foreign restaurateurs are arguably Taiwan’s most visible international entrepreneurs, coming into daily close contact with everyday people, employing hundreds of Taiwanese and enriching the nation’s dining scene with a hearty helping of fresh flavors and perspectives seasoned with a pinch of passion and international inspiration. Success for non-Taiwanese owners is by no means a foregone conclusion with a broad range of unique challenges to overcome. However, many have survived to enjoy a measure of longevity and stability in an ever-changing market.
Taichung: Microcosm of Taiwan’s foreign restaurant owners
Home to a large international community and relatively cosmopolitan population, Taichung has long hosted a significant number of foreign-owned restaurants, many drawn by a combination of these factors and other attributes, such as available space and lower costs. This makes the city a good representation of this sector’s diversity.
New Zealander Dereke Bruce is generally acknowledged as the first among his peers when he opened a small business whose best-known offering was his homemade ice cream back in 1993. Just a couple years earlier, Bruce had been an executive sous chef at Shanghai Sheraton when he came on board as executive chef at Taipei’s Fortuna Hotel, where he served for a year before joining the Ploughman Group, overseeing that company’s many restaurants. That job led him to Taichung to open the group’s Pig & Whistle pub and restaurant. A year later, he had an epiphany late one night—while making instant popcorn and watching his pregnant Taiwanese wife dealing with a drunken customer disputing a bill—that it was time to strike out on his own. He opened Finga’s Ice Cream the same year his son Adam was born and followed up a year later with Finga’s Italian Restaurant and Finga’s Deli.
Finga's Dereke Bruce with wife Lily and son Adam
Photo by Douglas Habecker
At various times over the next 15 years, he would go on to open four different Finga’s restaurants, as well as other ventures at department stores and hotels. However, last year he shuttered his Finga’s Fine Foods restaurant and—partnered with Adam and other family members—consolidated at his central kitchen to focus on his deli shop and food supply business, providing a wide range of breads and pastries to hotels, restaurants, and other customers across Taiwan.
Probably the most publicly recognisable foreign restaurant owner in the city is Ugo Ortolano, whose image is often displayed prominently over his Pizza Rock branches. In December, 2011, the Quebec native and his Taiwanese wife launched their first Pizza Rock in Taichung and this month will open their 28th branch in Kaohsiung. With no prior restaurant background, his main inspiration was growing up in an Italian family and enjoying food and friends at his grandmother and parent’s houses. To prepare for his new venture, he and his wife traveled to Italy and spent time examining everything from open kitchens to flour before returning to Taiwan to begin over a year of experimentation that resulted in a cross between “neo-Neapolitan” style pizza, about half-way between Roma and Neapolitan styles, and a current 23 topping options.
The Pizza Rock concept brought together his passions of cooking, rock music and inviting friends over and he came up with its bold black, white and yellow logo in 10 minutes. Although he says his expansion has never been rushed, he signed lease contracts for his third and fourth stores within 24 hours of each other and his fifth store in Changhua was his first franchise business. Today, he owns nine of his branches and the others are franchises, stretching between Kenting and Taipei.
Minesh Valand came to Taichung as a yoga instructor in 2009 and originally had no restaurant industry ambitions. However, he says that he found most local Indian restaurants were run by non-Indians and were serving items like beef, so he decided to open his first Chillies Indian Restaurant (later renamed Chilliesine) in 2015 to introduce both authentic cuisine “based on what I cook at home” and culture from his country. This was followed by a second Taichung branch two years later, a Jhubei branch in 2018 and two more Taichung branches in 2019, all ranging in size from about 60-plus to 240 seats and featuring striking décor that includes Indian wooden dining tables and chairs that he custom makes in India. One of his more recent achievements was making it onto the Michelin’s new Taichung list of recommended Bib Gourmand eateries.
BeMo’s is named after Canadian Ben Bartlett and his Taiwanese wife Monica. Ben was teaching English in Taichung and had no cooking or restaurant background but his entrepreneurial streak led him to launch this small eatery in 2012, focusing on what he felt was a niche for convenient, but healthy, food. Months of experimentation led him to open with a variety of wraps, stuffed with rice and a cornucopia of global flavors and ingredients, from Greek to Thai. Today, he offers six standard varieties and four premium wraps (the Acapulco wrap being a recent addition), plus quesadillas, nachos and salads. He says his goal has always been creating a franchise and he is taking a big step in that direction in the next couple months as he opens a second branch with a central kitchen.
Taiwanese-American LA native Daniel Yang came to Taiwan to work for a friend’s business. However, when his friends moved to China, he had no desire to leave Taiwan, which led him to open Just Diner in 2014, using his US experience working at a Japanese fusion restaurant. After successfully running his original modestly-sized restaurant on a small alley, he relocated just a couple months ago to a much larger, very high profile corner location selling a broad menu of American-style favorites. Located just behind Taichung’s Sogo Department Store, his new place cannot be missed, thanks to an enormous traditional American marquee-style sign that he had discuss with five different local sign companies before finding a maker.
Daniel Yang of Just Diner
Photo by Douglas Habecker
On another corner just a few stores down from Just Diner sits The Uptowner, which was also opened in 2014 by three foreign friends. Ben Tacheny had been working in the CNC manufacturing business in Taichung for an American firm for over three years. In an echo of Yang’s story, Tacheny’s company wanted to move him to China but he wasn’t interested and didn’t want to leave Taichung. He had previously worked as a cook at Uptowner restaurant branches in Minnesota and Chicago run by his friend and former boss, Kyle McCarty, who had visited Taiwan twice and loved it. Therefore, Tacheny went home for 10 months, drew up a business plan with McCarty to open an Uptowner in Taichung, and enlisted the partnership of Canadian friend Nick Alvarez, a chef consultant for The Landis Hotel Group and former executive sous chef of the group’s Hotel ONE in Taichung. After selling all-day American-style breakfasts, brunches and other dishes at their original location for five years, they had an “amicable breakup” with their landlord and moved Uptowner to its currently higher-visibility location in 2019. Since then, Uptowner has been setting new records for business, even during the Covid-19 period, with August last year and 2020 respectively being its best-ever month and year for business.
Italian winemaker Valerio Franchi came to Taiwan six years ago and says its friendly people, beautiful scenery and corruption-free environment led him to set up a business importing Italian wines and other products. In part to help market his wines and supplement his income, he decided to open Bella Roma Italian restaurant in June, 2017. Although he hadn’t run or worked in a restaurant before, he says that the skills were “in the blood”, as he had been cooking at his family’s home in Rome from the age of 17. In January, 2020, he relocated to his current location, where he has continued to expand his menu and food-and-wine promotions.
Another person whose affection for Taiwan eventually led to a more recent introduction to restaurant ownership is Belgian Simon Habran, who arrived here in his early 20s and decided to stay and open a Belgian waffle business, followed soon after by a Belgian beer distributorship. These two businesses brought him into contact with Laurent Rubio, the French owner of La Bodega, a popular Taichung Spanish bar and restaurant open since 2001. As a long-time customer and supplier of La Bodega, Habran says he saw its potential and discussions with Rubio led the Belgian to take full control on 1 January this year. Although he has lowered many of the prices, the menu remains mostly the same and he retains the kitchen skills of French chef Philippe Rouchet, himself the former owner of a local French restaurant.
Overcoming unique and common hurdles
Foreigners taking the plunge in Taiwan to open a restaurant often encounter a range of challenges that range from those common to owners the world over to some that are unique to the situation here, with language/communication barriers, high staff turnover, sourcing or importation of foreign ingredients, different local palates, and some government regulations and restrictions being more commonly cited difficulties.
Ortolano, who has about 100 direct employees, notes that language barriers are a frequent barrier for foreigners when it comes to everything from government documentation to management and communication with staff. “For a new foreigner opening a restaurant, language is the biggest headache by far for staff, suppliers, accountants, construction workers, training. My advice is even if your Chinese is okay, you have to become good at delegating and surrounding yourself with people who understand your message and carry it out for you…and recognizing who can be a good communicator for what area,” he says, adding that cultural and generational differences add further complexity to communication.
“Unless your Chinese is of a native Taiwanese level, you’re only going to be given reports and never going to have the whole picture, which can mean not being fully involved while having to make decisions. Instead, you’re given options. I’ve also seen foreigners try and open restaurants but because of language problems they’re never ever able to expand and end up doing everything themselves.”
Franchi says that language difficulties have been a big headache for him, particularly as he runs the business on his own without the help of a Taiwanese spouse or business partner. In particular, his efforts to handle paperwork with local city labor authorities have been a frustrating, time-consuming exercise, as he didn’t know who to talk to and was directed to many different people who were not able to speak English. Thus, it is no wonder he believes the government should create a specialized office or window to help foreign businesspeople like himself who, he points out, invest in Taiwan, employ Taiwanese and pay taxes.
Finding and keeping good employees, from wait staff to chefs, is a perennial and arguably the biggest challenge for owners. Tacheny says that he estimates that Uptowner has had over 100 employees in its history to date. However, he feels he’s been fortunate to find more stable core personnel for kitchen and day/night manager positions. Perhaps helping in this area, he says his attitude as a manager has also evolved and “chilled out” over the years. “Instead of saying, ‘Why can’t you do this perfectly?’, it’s more like, ‘I’m here to help you do your job better’ instead,” he says. “It can be intimidating for someone to work a restaurant where the boss is a foreigner. It should be a fun atmosphere. The key is just recognizing the best people and getting them to buy into the business.”
Allowing promising employees to literally buy into his business is Ortolano’s number-one strategy to keep staff, which now includes managers who have been with him for up to six years. Keeping their loyalty goes beyond salaries to making them shareholders with a stake in the business. He implemented this into his system three years ago and says it has solved many problems, keeping high-quality people who know that they will be rewarded if they work harder. Nevertheless, staffing remains his biggest challenge, a difficulty accentuated in recent years by the explosion of food delivery services: “We used to get a lot of resumes. However, now these people aren’t in a kitchen; they’re now working for Uber and FoodPanda. Half the people who would have worked in a kitchen are now on a scooter.”
Currently employing about a dozen people and seeking more full-time workers, Bartlett agrees that finding the right people is essential. He believes that this has been a strength of BeMo’s, thanks to efforts to keep them happy, show appreciation and respect, and use the right management style. He adds that he has extended this mentality to building positive relationships with his local suppliers: “I treat them well and they treat me well.”
When he took over La Bodega in January, Habran said that finding staff to replace some departing employees was a long process that took him about a month, made more difficult because of the evening hours he needed workers for. In the end, he found his best option was hiring international university students, who are legally allowed to work parttime and seemed to be well-suited to working in his foreigner-heavy environment.
The Indian owner of Taichung’s Mr. India Restaurant says that his biggest challenge since taking over 18 months ago has been getting the right staff. Although he notes he is a “polite boss” that doesn’t shout at staff, he says turnover among Taiwanese wait staff can be high. “If they want to quit, they just quit and it’s not necessarily to move to a higher-paying job,” he notes, adding that communication differences can add to the challenge. “Taiwanese won’t tell you what they’re thinking. They’re very sweet and won’t tell you why they’re leaving. In India, they’ll tell you if you ask them.”
By contrast, Finga’s Bruce says that he enjoyed a great, consistent staff during his first 10-15 years of business, although he acknowledges the past 5-6 years have been more difficult. One advantage he has had is the close involvement in the business of his wife Lily and her five sisters, which he refers to by number. For example, while Lily handles accounting, “No. 1” handles sales, “No. 5” is his baker and “No. 3” “knows everything and does everything”. Bruce also takes a slightly more positive view of his Taiwanese chefs who have left to start their own restaurants, adding that he even encourages it and promotes his former protégés’ businesses. He notes that low salaries push cooks to venture out on their own and he has been happy to keep in touch with over 20 former employees and students from his teaching days at Kaohsiung Hospitality College who now work elsewhere.
A related challenge is bringing foreign chefs into Taiwan. Although he currently employs 26 Indian chefs and other staff, Chilliesine’s Valand says that starting out was tough, as Taiwanese regulations initially only allowed him to bring in a single Indian chef. To bring in more, annual business has to exceed NT$10 million or registered capital needs to be at least NT$5 million. Mr. India’s owner echoes this observation, noting that under an initial NT$500,000 company registration he only was allowed a visa for a foreign manager and not a chef. He adds that the government also officially classifies foreign chefs as white-collar workers and requires higher commensurate salaries.
Minesh Valand, founder of Chilliesine
Photo by Douglas Habecker
Franchi points out that staffing challenges often go beyond employees who don’t stay long to a perennial difficulty finding people with a proper service mentality and/or professional skills. He has been frustrated with situations where he has had to let employees go after a short time because of these issues, only to find himself entangled in disputes and legal challenges over compensation and related issues. In such cases, local government authorities always side with employees over employers, he believes.
Although Yang speaks Chinese fluently, he notes there are differences between working with Taiwanese employees and those in America: “Taiwanese are not used to the way we do it in the US, the way we communicate, how we make our products, and the way we want them to approach customers and communicate. It’s kind of a challenge.”
Franchi, Bruce and Tacheny have also all had to deal with other touch situations related to their rented venues. These have arisen because of landlord disputes, unfriendly building management or neighbours, or anonymous public complaints to authorities which can come from neighbors or, it is sometimes suspected, simply those wishing to harass them. Tacheny and his partners have probably faced the most extreme issues. A month after opening at their original location, the police showed up at 1pm on a fully-packed Sunday and informed them that the neighbours had filed a noise complaint. The officers acknowledged that the complaint was “ridiculous” but said they were legally bound to come. “It was something we didn’t think about when we rented this spot,” says Tacheny. Later, the original landlord sold the venue to a new landlord who wanted to use it for his own purposes, despite the three-year lease Uptowner had signed. Fortunately, the two sides were able to reach an agreement and Tacheny says his new landlord has been very friendly and reasonable.
However, he, McCarty and another partner had a less-happy ending when they opened a large, two-floor sports bar called Bootleggers in a high-profile location on Taiwan Boulevard in February, 2018. Legal issues arose after local authorities disputed the owners’ designation of the business as a bar, calling it a nightclub instead. Tacheny belatedly also discovered that their location had originally been two storefronts merged into one venue without proper government registration. Although their construction contractors said that they would handle zoning issues, the foreign owners discovered the fine print on the contract said the contractors were not responsible. Less than a year later, in January, 2019, Tacheny and his partners gave up and closed Bootleggers.
“I take full responsibility. We just didn’t do enough due diligence and made mistakes,” he says, noting that for Uptowner’s new location, he has been much more careful about zoning and other issues.
There were no significant complaints from anyone about Taiwanese regulations governing restaurants, with Franchi crediting local authorities who inspected his premises as being very friendly, helpful and giving him time to correct any shortcomings. Pointing out that American health and safety standards are much stricter than Taiwan’s, Yang says that while Taiwan has similar laws, there are very few specific guidelines given to owners to follow. He believes it would be helpful if local authorities could draft a guideline checklist governing everything from oil filter sizes and ventilation systems to signage and fire safety equipment.
Given the fact that these establishments all aim to offer authentic international cuisine, sourcing proper ingredients can present hurdles. Having never done business in Taiwan before, Yang says that it was quite challenging and took a lot of research to find vendors selling spices and other ingredients, while Tacheny agrees that many foreigners don’t initially have local contacts to source products. Having experienced hotel chef Alvarez as a partner was a big help in opening doors to suppliers and Tacheny says that today he is always happy to help fellow foreign restaurateurs with this need. Ortolano notes that rising food costs are his second-biggest headache, along with supply chain stability and availability for imported items. The more exotic nature of their ingredients means the owners of Chilliesine and Mr. India seem to face bigger issues in this area, with Valand recounting numerous run-ins with Taiwan customs over his Indian food and beverage imports that sometimes led to translation hassles, rejected cargoes, delays, spoilage and additional payments to destroy expired products. Despite this, he continues to import Indian items to ensure authentic cuisine and flavours.
Other more mundane issues noted by the foreign restaurateurs include different Taiwanese opinions about what authentic international cuisine should taste like with Franchi, for example, recounting his discussions with local diners who complained that al dente pasta was “too hard”. However, none of the owners said that they believed in changing or compromising their cooking for local tastes, with Valand saying that doing so—beyond reducing salt and strong spices for health reasons—would remove one of the key attributes differentiating Chillliesine from other restaurants.
“We don’t tweak our flavours [to meet local tastes],” says Bartlett. “That’s where people get into trouble and end up making something customers can get cheaper down the street.”
Over the many years he has run restaurants in Taiwan, Bruce says that a key challenge, and recipe for success, is to keep coming up with products that the locals can get excited about, adding that he thinks Taiwanese chefs are better able to bring international and local influences together to achieve this. One evolution among local diners he is currently catering to, particularly through his bread, is a focus on healthier fare. “You can get the hardware right but at the end of the day you need enough energy each day to put something on that’s new, that’s unique,” he says.
There are differing perspectives regarding the impact of food delivery services on the restaurant business. Bruce believes that charging restaurants 30-35% basically makes such services into a “huge restaurant” without the need for skills, production and other costs, turning them into competitors. A restaurant can accept having up to 25-30% of business handled by food delivery services but anything above that means “you’re working for Uber Eats”, he says, adding that these services also complicate staffing during a restaurant’s slower periods.
By contrast, Ortolano credits Uber Eats for making Pizza Rock famous nationally, in part because his distinctive logo stood out on the app. However, he still maintains one or two delivery scooters at each branch because there are still older customers who may not have the apps and order delivery directly from his restaurants. Depending on the branch and even time of the year, 20% to 60% of his business is delivery and take-out.
One issue that has not been a significant problem for most of the owners interviewed was Covid-19. As noted above, Uptowner actually set new business records in 2020, while Bruce pointed out that his annual business for cooked take-out turkeys in November and December last year saw revenues double from previous years. Valand remembers that business was down 20-30% in the first three months of the pandemic but says things are now back to normal. “Somehow, Covid has been good for us, and I hate to say that when many other stores are suffering,” says Ortolano.
“Not only did the economy stay open, but people used their [international] travel budgets on the domestic market and so many overseas Taiwanese came back here,” remarks Uptowner’s owner. “I feel bad saying it, but we are really lucky to be here.”
Opportunities and directions for success
Despite what might seem like a long list of daunting difficulties and issues, none of these foreign restaurateurs has expressed any regret about their choices to set up shop in Taiwan. Most of them expressed great optimism and plans for future development.
At Chilliesine, Valand says that “hard work and good service” have been keys to his profitability, together with a proper standard operating procedure (SOP) to guarantee that his customers enjoy consistent quality and quantity at all his branches. His long-term ambition is to open three more restaurants in other parts of Taiwan—outside of Taipei—where there is an open niche for Indian dining. Mr. India’s boss says that his growth focus is offering affordable Indian dining with expansions into food courts in universities and companies, like his recent partnerships to open at TSMC in Hsinchu and on National Chung Hsing University’s campus.
From the beginning, Pizza Rock’s owner has seen franchising as his main goal for success and expansion. After spending his first year working in his original location, he worked full-time his second year reading through all American franchise guides, studying various models and writing his own operation manual. He has chosen to make his income off franchise royalties and not on food sales like many other Taiwanese franchises do, noting that the latter approach was “completely wrong” as it meant the franchise was making money regardless of whether the franchisee was profitable or not.
Ugo Ortolano from Pizza Rock
Photo by Douglas Habecker
Adding that his company is growing organically and that a fast expansion has never been his goal, he says that he refuses 90-95% of the monthly franchise inquiries he gets, instead looking for special connection and understanding that will see the partnership through inevitable problems. Other keys to his success is an “anti-franchise” system that sees branch staff hand prepping and making everything from minestrone and bread to alfredo and marinara sauces with fresh ingredients. There is also his formula for a good location that balances rent, space and visibility: “If you can’t see a McDonald’s or Starbucks from that spot, I won’t open. I feel that if local customers can afford a five-dollar coffee, they can afford our pizza. And trust me, sacrifice space and go for location.” He adds that starting out in Taichung was ideal, as it provided a geographically central base of operations for Pizza Rock.
BeMo’s boss sees his soon-to-open central kitchen as leading in the near future to a third branch, with a five-year ambition of having up to 10 branches, including department store locations. Like Pizza Rock, he hopes to achieve this largely through franchising, which he is currently focused on launching and developing a kitchen SOP for. One of the most crucial challenges he is facing is maintaining food quality while boosting preparation speed, as “people want us to be like McDonald’s”. He also continues to introduce new products, like a salad-based “BeMo’s Box” and packaging his proprietary sauces with chips for takeaway. However, eight years of hard work that saw him go back to teaching to supplement his income has him cautioning potential restaurant owners about what’s in store: “People shouldn’t kid themselves. You have to have the right amount of capital and believe you’ll probably have no salary for two years. I really think the restaurant business is one of the hardest businesses. In the beginning, I did everything.”
“You see restaurants open and close all the time and one problem a lot of business owners face is that people don’t realize how much hard work goes into it,” comments Tacheny, noting that he worked at Uptowner daily and didn’t leave Taiwan for the restaurant’s first three years, and didn’t take a paycheck for the first 18-24 months. “The first couple years, you’re not making any money and may be in debt. I was lucky to have two business partners who understand this industry. You cannot get down after one bad day. You have to keep a long-term focus and keep grinding away. Being able to step back and focus on the business is also the crux of the matter.”
Despite these cautions, he is very positive about his business choices. He is looking to expand, perhaps with a second Uptowner restaurant in Taichung: “I love it. I’ve been in Taiwan for 13 years and had a lot of opportunities to leave and do something else, but I’m happy to stay here. This was my plan, to do something that serves others. It’s a good life and I don’t regret anything I’ve done.”
Douglas Habecker is a writer, Compass Magazine co-publisher and current Taichung AmCham chairman