At 26, Jason Wang, co-owner of Xi’an Famous Foods, has already experienced the kind of success that most restaurateurs can only dream about. From its humble beginnings in the basement of a Flushing, New York, mall, the Xi'an Famous Foods has expanded dramatically in only a few short years, thanks to a combination of hard work, luck, business savvy—and, oh yes, a secret sauce.
“We started as a hole in the wall,” Wang says. “Now our biggest challenge is meeting the demand from our customers.”
It's a challenge he's definitely up for. Wang was lucky enough to be born into a business-minded family. When he was 8 years old, his family moved to the United States from Xi’an, the capital of China’s Shaanxi province, dreaming of American prosperity and educational opportunity. But once they got to the States, they also found themselves dreaming of Xi'an's flavorful dishes—Wang and his father, David Shi, used his grandfather's secret recipes to recreate the tastes of home in America.
Shi opened a bubble tea shop in 2005, but found that the Xi'an food he sold was outselling his bubble tea. That realization led to the first Xi'an Famous Foods opening later that year. The restaurant became a must-stop for foodies, even attracting TV personalities like Anthony Bourdain for its unique flavors at an affordable price. Wang joined the family business in 2009 after graduating from Washington University with a business degree. His arrival took Xi'an Famous Food from an insider's best-kept secret to a fast-growing food chain.
A Recipe for Success
“There have been a lot of factors that had the power to make or break our business," Wang says now. "Luck. Timing. If the Olympics hadn’t been in China, it never would have raised awareness of Chinese food. If the recession hadn’t happened, people wouldn’t have been so budget-conscious.”
Pausing over his piping hot bowl of aromatic noodles, Wang continues. “The question is, what happens when that moment comes to you? Are you going to let it slip by? You have to be ready to play the good cards when you’re dealt them.” As a testimony to how well he’s played those cards, the walls of Xi’an Famous Foods are adorned with framed magazine covers featuring himself and his growing restaurant empire—he's “The Noodle King of Queens” in the New York Post, one of "New York's Rising Stars" in Crain’s “40 Under 40” issue, and was recently named one of Forbes' "30 Under 30."
Xi’an Famous Foods' ascent can be credited to a variety of factors, the main one being likeability. Xi’an storefronts are bright, welcoming and approachable, with unassuming décor and lively music. (“Hip-hop music pumps me up. It’s in all of our stores,” Wang says with a grin. “People say, ‘Why don’t you play some serene Chinese music?’ I say, ‘If you want that, go to one of the older Chinese restaurants. We keep things moving here.’”) A mosaic of pictures on the wall depicts hearty meals at extremely reasonable prices, usually between $3 and $10. When the food arrives—and it arrives fast—it's warm, filling and delicious. In a complicated and expensive city, this is a straightforward bargain that’s hard to resist.
In fact, there is usually a line inside Xi’an’s Famous Foods—and often outside as well. Patrons wait patiently for signature dishes like piquant and flavorful noodles, generous dumplings and spicy lamb burgers. The family’s “secret sauce,” a recipe that combines 30 or more spices in a reddish, oily broth, gives most of Xian’s food its distinctive taste. But most popular of all are Xi’an’s noodles. Individually hand-pulled and "hand-ripped," this regional specialty has a soft and chewy texture that, when combined with its sweet, spicy taste, will quiet any skeptic who wonders why this restaurant chain has taken New York by storm.
Growing the Family Business
Xi'an Famous Foods also benefits from Wang and Shi's leadership. The generational and educational differences between them have proved to be an advantage. Shi's hard work established the foundation of the company, while Wang's vision is largely responsible for its rapid expansion and multicultural outlook. Ultimately, their combined sensibilities have made the business stronger.
“We’re always at odds with each other about how the business is run,” Wang admits. “But lately he’s become more receptive to my suggestions. We’re very similar because neither of us can sleep until everything is done correctly.
“I’m not a risk taker, but I tend to take more risks than my father does,” he continues. “We’ve both made mistakes. But we’ve always remained thirsty for success. We view mistakes as tuition. Life is a school.”
Looking ahead, Wang hopes to expand Xi'an’s Famous Foods into a national, even international, chain. But right now, his biggest challenge is keeping up with the demand that’s already been created. And that’s a tall order. Though Xi'an now has seven locations in New York, Shi still personally mixes up each batch of their signature sauce. Wang, meanwhile, spends six days a week traveling from store to store, keeping a close eye on operations and overseeing construction.
“My dream is to become as good as the master chefs at home [in Xi’an]. But ultimately, a food business is not just about the food. It’s about who we are as a brand. I’m working to develop our brand identity,” Wang says. “I hope to become involved in projects in the future that I personally care about. Things our customers hold dear. I admire businesses that are able to make a contribution. You take, you give. It’s what makes a good business great.”
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Photo: Xi'an Famous Foods