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The Shanghai Sweatpants Entrepreneur

Who wants to wear slacks to work?

(Originally published September 18, 2014)

This afternoon I was out running an errand with Joon, one of the guys from my program. We found ourselves caught in that awkward time-between-lunch-and-dinner hunger stage (a justifiable problem when dinner sometimes happens at 8:30.) We decided we needed a snack, and indulged in something more familiar; as opposed to Korean or Chinese, we hit up “ToGo Taco.”

ToGo Taco looks reminiscent of the American taco shop—bright colors, outdoor seating and tacos that can only be ordered by multiples of three. However, since this particular shop is in mainland China, it does not have access to the same ingredients found in a typical “Tex Mex” joint. While the food was respectable, it lacked the greasy zest of the southwest.

Joon felt similarly, voicing that his burrito did not quite meet the Chipotle standard. At that moment, I heard an American voice with a slight Californian accent ask, “You don’t like the burrito?” The voice belonged to a man I would have guessed to be a Chinese national wearing grey sweatpants to the knees and a grey shirt with a faded basketball on the front. His name was Steve, and he is the owner of ToGo Taco.

Joon and I struck up a conversation with Steve. A Shanghai-born immigrant who grew up in California, he came over to Shanghai to visit family around the time of the American financial crisis. After seeing how the city transformed since his childhood, and aware that his job security was questionable in America, he moved his life to Shanghai and started a taco shop.

I picked Steve’s brain pretty thoroughly for the ten minutes I had it. Here was an expat entrepreneur in front me, proof of a larger network of Shanghai foreigners, who owned and managed his company in China. He spoke pretty freely about how business is done in China, and what it is like working with the country’s regulations.

What I think is cool about Steve (besides the obvious facts stated above) is how he deals with his customers. He told us stories about different Americans and Europeans that come to his restaurant and how he adapts his food to meet the needs of all the foreigners that come down College Street. He is used to taking criticism from customers directly, and using that to make pivots to his menus. I am pretty sure no one trained Steve in the Lean Startup Method, but he is doing exactly what that theory of entrepreneurship describes—listening to customers and adapting rapidly.

ToGo Taco is definitely not my favorite place in Shanghai (I’m a sucker for the Korean food now), and I probably will not go back every week. But I have respect for that little taco shop because of the man who has given nine years of his life to run it. Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes they look like expats in sweatpants on the streets of Shanghai.

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