Small Business Tour: Nom Wah
Running a business

Small Business Tour: Nom Wah

Tell us about Nom Wah.

Nom Wah has a really storied history. It opened in 1920 and it started off as a bakery which transitioned to a restaurant. But really the crux of the story of Nom Wah is Uncle Wally who came over from China and moved to the US when he was in his late teens. He started off as a dishwasher in the 1950s, worked his way up to becoming a manager, and eventually became an owner of the actual restaurant itself.

We've grown a lot since our little shop on Doyers Street. We've become more of a brand. We have an outpost in Nolita, which is fast casual, one in The Market Line, which is another fast casual type of stall, an actual sit down restaurant in Philadelphia, which we never really thought could happen. And then we even went back to China with a franchise model when a good friend of ours was like, you know, what'd be funny since you guys immigrated from China to the US? What if we took the American Chinese food back to China? So now we're in Shenzhen in three locations there, too.

Barb Leung

Were there any big lessons or things that surprised you as you expanded?

Opening a fast casual was very different from opening a full sit down restaurant. You have to consider what actually goes into a menu. You're going to have a much smaller menu, for example. Then you also have to factor into the space that you're using. And that kind of goes hand in hand with what kind of kitchen that you have. So for instance, here at Nolita, it's an all electric kitchen, so you're not gonna get that same wok flavor that you would normally with gas. And the fryer itself is actually a very new addition because, well, we didn't even have a counter space to actually accommodate like a mini fryer. So a lot of our menu had to be redesigned in a certain way.

What do you love about working for a small business and a business that has such a great family history?

I started off 10 years ago, fresh out of college, having some work experience, but not really owning a lot of the big decisions that affect what direction a business really goes in. So for me, I think working in this environment has met me at my level at every stage of my life. We added responsibilities to me every couple years whenever I was ready -- going from someone that was just kind of handling the social stuff, a few hours a week at most, to actually overseeing a lot of our operations and really where our brand is going. I feel like I've kind of grown up with that and that's something you can only really get from a small business.

What are three words you would use to describe Chinatown?

Community, multi-generational, and yum.

Tell us what it’s like to work alongside such a robust community of small businesses in Chinatown.

I think working alongside a lot of legacy businesses has made us very tight knit as a community. When we talk about our purveyors, we actually like to keep things as local as possible. So for instance, when we do the soft shell crab season, we actually go to Aqua Best who is featured in our cookbook. We try to keep it as much in the family as possible. I think it's really my way of being able to help the community. I don't have to know how, per se, to be an activist. I know how to help. I know how to help enable a lot of the activism by pointing people in the right direction. So for me, it's really being the connector of sorts as opposed to being the one that's always at the forefront. 

quote image
Take it slow. One problem at a time.

What advice would you give new business owners?

Take it slow. One problem at a time. It's hard to multitask and you're never going to do things great if you try to do everything at once. You can do stuff in steps: just prioritize and make sure that you're doing the right stuff at the right time. Another piece of advice I have is to really invest in a good team. You're really only as good as the people around you. You can't do everything by yourself. It's not possible, nor should you. You hire people and you build a team based on what other people are good at and you let them excel. Don't micromanage. Don't kind of think you know everything, because really you don't. There are people that are smarter than you in every kind of way. In fact, they're probably better than you in a lot of ways, and you know what? They're going to make you a better person, too, at the end of the day.

What does an average day look like for you?

An average day for me isn't really that glamorous. It’s a lot of emails, for better or for worse, right? I think having communication that's documented and that you can refer to is always helpful, but at the same time, sometimes it's actually better to be able to talk in person. So when I wake up in the morning, it's usually going through closing reports, because everything is documented. Just checking in on everything at some point in the day. I do make my way to the stores. We do touch bases. There’s one on ones every week; we have biweekly, large meetings with our management. I would say I help start things, but my team really helps see it all the way through to the end. And then I’m at the finish line being like “great job, guys!”

What are your favorite parts of your day?

For me, what really gets me going and what really makes me excited to come to work is seeing the camaraderie of everyone. Seeing everyone being able to work as a team and then never being just “me, me, me” or “I, I, I.” Everyone giving each other credit, and making sure that there is a level of accountability.

For me, it's making sure that everyone's working all together and being able to form relationships that go beyond the doors of a restaurant. That there are people that they can feel comfortable talking to if they're having a rough day or if they're having a great day. That's also amazing, too.

What does success mean to you?

To me personally, it’s really to enable people. It’s not likely for someone to start off as a line cook here and stay forever, right? People have different ambitions. Some people are here to earn a little bit of money before they can go to school. Some people are here because they want to actually grow in the ranks and, and move more to management. And that's totally cool. But at the end of the day, I want to make sure that people are coming away with life skills. You're learning teamwork, you're learning how to multitask, you're learning prioritization, you're learning communication--all these skills. They're not just limited to just working in a restaurant. Success is really making sure that people have the skills and the tools that set them up for the rest of their lives.

Tell us about how you started using QuickBooks.

I was actually the one that said, you know, maybe we should try using QuickBooks. We were looking for a way to stay organized. Actually, it was probably my frustration at trying to find something and I just couldn't handle it anymore. So I said, we need something that's a little bit more streamlined and automated. So, we started with QuickBooks. I think it was more so originally to track expenses. And then we started using it for invoicing, which my gosh, it actually saved us so much time because can you imagine having to make Word doc invoices and using the calculator on your phone to figure out how much you owe and then do the tax on top and then do the suggested tip? And then just having QuickBooks all automatically do all that? 

Our most recent discovery is that we could use it for estimates and which comes in really handy when we're doing catering quotes, because nothing is ever really final until it's paid for. With catering, people have changes all the time. People have different guest counts. So being able to submit estimates and keep track of what actually people are asking for is actually so much of a godsend because you can hold the other party accountable and it's like, well, look, this is what you wanted originally. That’s been a game changer for us really.

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