Interview with Charlie Yin, 88 Management Group
Charlie Yin is a partner at 88 Management Group. We just so happened to have gone to Kindergarten together! SecretPenguin had the pleasure of partnering with him on creating LOCAL Beer, Patio and Kitchen (a beer bar with 100+ local beers), as well working on the Brand Refinement of HIRO 88 (a traditional sushi restaurant that also serves high-end Chinese cuisine). I've always enjoyed his approach of creating environments that become a part of people's lives. We caught up with him at the opening of the new HIRO 88 in Millard.
What inspired you to work in the restaurant industry?
I would say that it was more a curiosity at first than an inspiration. I come from a long line of restauranteurs. My grandfather had worked in restaurants since he was a little kid in China. My parents both worked in restaurants growing up. My dad was a server/bartender in San Francisco who actually worked for Philip Chiang's (of PF Chang) family at the Mandarin, and my mom was a waitress at a few places including an IHOP. My grandpa went on to open his own restaurant in Korea, as did my parents in Colorado at first and then Omaha with the Imperial Palace in 1978. Basically everyone in my family has been involved with restaurants including Milton and Norma, my aunt and uncle who founded HIRO 88.
I went to college for finance and ended up working in New York City on Wall St for about 8 years. After a while I learned that the work was interesting but it didn't fulfill me on a higher level. The city was also a bit much for me, having grown up in Omaha. I spent some time in San Francisco doing some soul searching and everything led me back to the same question, "Why hadn't I ever gotten into the family business"?
1 month later I went from VP at a large investment bank to bussing tables and working at a host stand. I remember the first day after a 6 hour shift on my feet I went home and passed out. My whole body ached and I didn't think there was any way I could ever make it another 4 hours much less 4 more years. I woke up to my aunt calling me asking where I was, I was late and tired... I found myself having to learn things that most people get growing up in the industry. Bussing tables, bartending, hosting, cooking, how to expo a line, doing dishes etc... It was all hard grueling work but something amazing happened during that first year, I found myself truly inspired. I found that I loved what I was doing and what it meant to the people that we were doing it for. I became fascinated with spirits, cocktails, food, service, and everything else that makes a restaurant tick.
So to answer your question, it started with a small bit of curiosity and grew into inspiration. Unless you are inspired and passionate about what we do, there is no money or reason to get into the restaurant business. It's hard work and at times heartbreaking, the hours are horrible and I can't imagine that my ankles are very happy with me. However loving what you do is a gift and I wouldn't trade this occupation for anything. Guess it runs in the family.
What are your biggest challenges?
Focusing on items besides operations. It's hard to not get involved with what got you into the business in the first place. Managing the restaurant, getting onto the floor to talk to customers, making drinks, are all things that I have less time for as we expand. Finding a balance of how to be able to still work in these roles a bit but stay focused on what our organization needs as a whole, focusing on long term strategy instead of night by night strategy has been my biggest challenge.
What makes your restaurant(s) stand out?
We are a multi-unit family owned and operated business. One of our biggest fears is perception drifting away from the fact that we are family owned. We take a lot of pride in what we do, we are not a corporate restaurant. We have been doing this in Omaha for the last 38 years and maintaining that reputation while expanding is a huge concern of mine. The fact that you can see all of us here makes me very proud. The fact that we have been able to expand and keep ourselves present in the business also makes me very proud. I think family is what restaurants are about and what makes the industry beautiful in it's own little way.
What motivates you to wake up and continue doing what you do?
Seeing what you do for people. Not just customers, but employees, other local businesses, the people that come up to you and tell you about their first date they had in your restaurant, and how it led to a proposal on a later date at your restaurant, the business meetings that happen at the bar, the ideas scratched on bar napkins during that business meeting that lead to other real businesses. There is a saying in Chinese that "A large tea house is a small community" and I really believe this holds true for restaurants as well. Being able to provide a place for life to unfold is a privilege we don't take lightly. It requires work every day. I suppose that is what motivates all of us, helping people enjoy and live their lives.
Being able to provide a place for life to unfold is a privilege we don't take lightly.
What's your favorite item at each of your restaurants?
LOCAL Beer, Patio and Kitchen: The Sloppy Charlie, I have really fond memories of little league and sloppy joes from when we were kids. Have always wondered why they weren't served at restaurants. LOCAL serves them, and they are terrific.
HIRO 88: Any of the raw fish as sashimi or nigiri. There isn't masking when you serve raw fish. It's all about how well we trim and keep the product. You can't cook or season away unwanted flavors. Tuna is probably one of my more eaten items.
PANA 88: The Pepper Chicken. This is something we specialize in. Its a great dish because it is sooo simple. Basic flavors but it reminds me of my Grandma's cooking.
One word of advice for anyone looking to do what you do?
Understand what you are getting into. Go work at a restaurant or bar for a year before you commit to opening anything. Just because your customers have a good time where we work, doesn't mean you will have a good time where you work. It's the service industry, be ready to serve, not be served. If you insist on ignoring this advice, get a partner that has owned their own restaurant or bar, not worked at one, actually owned one. There is a certain level of personal accountability that comes with an experienced owner that you will not find elsewhere else. Be ready to not make any money for at least 3 years and maybe even more.