In the five short years since Lisa Zhang opened Three Fold Noodles & Dumpling Co., the restaurant has already become a staple of the Little Rock foodie scene with plans to expand across the city. We sat down with Zhang for the latest installment of our Small Business Talk series highlighting and demystifying the world of women in small business.
Tell us about the idea of Three Fold.
LZ: When we started Three Fold five years ago, we assigned ourselves a mission: to establish a business that's a window into authentic Chinese culinary culture, which is crafted with freshness and full of flavor, while served in a manner that’s comfortable with the Western culture.
Did you have a lightbulb moment when you knew this restaurant was what you were supposed to do?
LZ: Yes and no. As a characteristic of mine, I don’t “imagine” a lot. I always focus on the day-to-days of what I’m doing. That’s my philosophy: If you do well today, it’ll create a path for tomorrow. When I saw customers return to us (while we’re still on Center Street) and thank us for doing what we’re doing, I knew that I brought them comfort food. You can call that the lightbulb moment that encouraged me to keep on developing Three Fold in the way we designed it. That’s why we put all the money we made during the first three years on Center Street into our Main Street location so as to achieve the goal of making Three Fold a window into the Chinese culture with our open kitchen where guests can see the traditional way of cooking noodles and dumplings.
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What was it like to go full time with Three Fold, especially in the notoriously unpredictable restaurant business?
LZ: Again, it’s my character that when I’m doing something, I put my whole heart and effort into it and expect the same with my team. I think this is one key element of being successful. Let’s use an American saying: “If you’re in, you’re in.”
What is something you wish you did differently when you first opened?
LZ: Nothing. I did what I could do with our first location on Center Street the best that we could with limited funding and the way the facility had been set as an American cafeteria-style service. That’s why we kept on developing with Main Street, to strive toward perfection.
What are the best and hardest parts about being a boss?
LZ: The only benefit of being a boss for me is that you can make the initial call to achieve the goal, but then you have to depend on your team for the rest, and that leads to the toughest part: building a team, a good team. Simply put, HR work is the most difficult part. This brings me back to the challenges of management that was my career for 20 years prior to starting Three Fold. I thought I entered another industry that’s more fun than sitting in an office, but the majority of my job is still management.
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Does being a woman affect how you do business or the way people see your restaurant?
LZ: I heard a couple of times comments passed to my staff from customers like, “Tell the owner he’s doing a good job.” That tells me people naturally expect a chef or a restaurant business owner to be a man. Yes, it’s very labor intensive (12-15 hour work days) and you need to have a very tough and commanding character to make your staff follow your instructions (such as portrayed in cooking shows). Yes, inside, I am tough, but I don’t manage my people in the “tough” way since they’re all young and I give them enough time to learn. Most of the time I keep the toughness to myself and keep on going the extra mile.
What do you wish people knew about small business owners?
LZ: I wish for them to understand that small business owners have extra care for their business, so they’re always willing to give more effort to make their customers happy. Because the business is small, their profit is also small, so cost and efficiency are key points. To support them by not wasting the resources they provide is a big help that people might not recognize. For example, I see that our disposable products are a big percentage of cost, which if people have a conservative mind to not consume unnecessarily, that’d help the small business dramatically.
What advice would you give to someone starting their own business?
LZ: Don’t overthink it or overplan it. Just pick a plan, start it and stick with it. And live in reality, not imagination.