Nom Wah Tea Parlor is an unassuming restaurant on a short, crooked street in New York City’s Chinatown, identifiable mostly by its faded awning and the crowd of people who can be usually be found lined up outside. But for many New Yorkers, it’s an institution.
Nom Wah has been serving up dim sum and baked delicacies since it opened in 1920, nearly a century ago. Its longevity is something of a rarity in the ultra-competitive New York restaurant scene, where even ionic spots like the Carnegie Deli have shut their doors in recent years.
Wilson Tang, its current proprietor, took over the restaurant from his Uncle Wally, who started there as a dishwasher in the ‘50s and worked his way up to owning the place. Tang, who grew up in New York but rarely spent time in the family restaurant as a kid, left a career in finance to take over Nom Wah in 2010. Since then, he’s opened multiple new locations in New York, closed one of them and expanded to Philadelphia — all while maintaining the rich history of the nearly 100-year-old restaurant.
We spoke to Tang about how he balances running a successful business with maintaining long-standing traditions, what he learned from closing one of his new locations and how he keeps his staff happy.
Our conversation with Wilson Tang is the latest edition of Ask a Genius, our regular series of talks with brilliant people. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
For people who might not know, what’s the history of Nom Wah Tea Parlor?
The restaurant was originally opened back in the ‘20s. It was actually not my family, it was another family, the Choy family, that founded the restaurant. My Uncle Wally started working here in 1950. He came from China; this was his first job. He started as a dishwasher and just kind of rose through the ranks of all the positions in the restaurant. And he bought the restaurant from the Choy family in 1974. So he essentially spent his entire life in the restaurant, and in 2010, I inherited it from him and I kind of just continued the legacy and continued the operations of the place.
How did your uncle buy the restaurant? Had he been saving for awhile?
What he has told me is, there was obviously a formal agreement for the purchase, and then he borrowed a bunch of money from friends. He had also saved a lot himself. There was a negotiated price, and then he almost paid for it in installments. That’s how they did it back in the days, a handshake agreement but the majority of it was just under the table, like here’s some cash now and I’ll pay you a little bit every month until it’s paid off.
Did you grow up spending a lot of time at Nom Wah?
I actually grew up spending zero time here. I’m an ‘80s kid, and back in the ‘80s, Chinatown was not like it is today. There was a lot of organized crime, a lot of these small gangs that ran drug markets and extortion and all the bad stuff in Chinatown. So my parents kept me away from Chinatown.
Chinatown was such a gathering place for new immigrants, so when my parents immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-’70s, they lived in Chinatown, but as soon as I was born we had moved to Queens already. I essentially grew up in Queens, and that was kind of like the American dream for my parents, moving out of Chinatown.
I actually spent very little time in the tea parlor growing up. Just on the weekends. On the weekends, back in the ‘80s, my family would still go into Chinatown to buy our groceries, anything we needed that was Chinese, like noodles, our fish, our poultry. So back then I was here mainly on the weekends, I had Chinese school on the weekends, but it was very, very brief. My parents didn’t want me hanging in Chinatown.
Given how your parents felt about Chinatown, were they surprised when you wanted to take over the restaurant?
Totally surprised. I took over the place in 2010, and at that point in my career, I was 32 and I was working in banking. I’d had one job in hospitality in between my gigs in finance and I didn’t do so well the first time around. I ended up not making money and wasting a lot of time and eventually selling the business. So my dad was actually really, really upset that I was going back into the restaurant business at 32. He was upset because he was like “you tried it, it didn’t work out, why are you even trying to attempt this again?”, just very, very negative about it.
But I knew I had to give it a try. I always thought that hospitality was my calling in life. I love talking to people, I love food. But, you know, being a product of immigrants where the American dream is to not have to work in a restaurant or own a restaurant, my dad was actually very upset.
Since you took over, you've opened up multiple new Nom Wah locations, can you talk a little about that process?
Restaurants these days are a lot different from my parents' days. You still have to put in a lot of hours, but I think with technology, things are slightly easier. And with Instagram and Facebook, reaching your target audience is a little different from my dad’s days.
For me, once I saw our success, we have this legacy brand, we were able to put the business in a position to expand. We grew out of our kitchen capacity here at the tea parlor on Doyer Street, and we looked into getting a centralized kitchen. And then once we did that, the only option was for growth. I wasn’t able to pay for another facility unless there was more growth involved. It almost kind of forced me to do more. And that led to the fast casual model, and then another fast casual model that didn’t work out, that we closed earlier this year. And it also allowed us to grow into Philadelphia, which is a city that I love and it’s close by. Because of the centralized kitchen, we’re able to produce more food and more dumplings, more dim sum and we’re able to do a couple locations at the same time.
What are some of the lessons you took away from the experience of closing one of your New York locations?
Wow, I learned a lot from that experience. I think for me, I didn’t do enough homework and I kind of acted out of wanting to work with people. I just signed the deal without really thinking about it. I wanted to work with a particular developer. It was a good deal, but I didn’t do my homework. I didn’t do the market research that I needed to do to figure out what the clients are like there. I overlooked the proximity to my other two locations, and I feel like I cannibalized my own business. We’re basically walking distance between all our locations.
Now I’m armed with more information; I’m armed with more experience and knowledge. You know, mistakes happen, and we’re just going to keep moving and keep building.
What are some of the challenges that come with running a restaurant with a 100-year legacy?
One of my major challenges is just finding good people. The restaurant business has really taken off as a career. Just how people eat these days — people are not cooking as much, people are constantly out. Especially the millennial market, they just don’t cook. That has put a strain in the ability to hire people, because restaurants are so popular now.
Ten years ago, it was like “you work at a restaurant? That’s lame.” But I think with the rise in social media and the Food Network and all these things that glorify cooking and chefs and restaurants, it’s become a thing now. It’s a very viable career, and it’s hard to retain people because they have so many options. One of the biggest challenges is building the right culture within our organization, so that people actually stick around.
How do you do that?
Slowly! We’re working on it. I don’t have the answers. Honestly, we’re just taking these small steps. Paying people correctly, offering them insurance, we do a company trip every year, we do multiple company dinners every year. These are small things that I do that I feel are building the culture, but you know what? I don’t have it figured out. And it kind of put a hold on the growth process for me. I don’t have the ability to just bring people on, it’s hard.
But it goes back to inspiring the people that work for me. I want my employees and my staff to know who I am, and I want to be approachable with any questions that they have. So we do a monthly meeting just to catch up, the good, the bad and the ugly. I think that has helped. But it’s still hard, people still leave and it’s kind of a numbers game.
Every month we look at retention and we look at, why did these people leave? Was it because they’re getting paid more somewhere else? Do we need to pay more? It’s very small margins in the restaurant business, and it’s super hard, there’s so much competition. But at the end of the day, it’s still a business.
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Image: Paul Wagtouicz