David Zhou has one of those infectious laughs, one that unites people and fills them with joy. Speaking to Zhou, it’s clear he believes food has a similar capability.
A Chinese native, Zhou moved to Australia when he was 29 and in 1993 he started his culinary journey by opening a small tea shop in Melbourne. Tea was always a part of Zhou’s family. Having grown up in Shanghai, Zhou fondly remembers watching his father testing green tea.
“It’s in your blood,” Zhou recounts. Originally Zhou had been content with a single table and chair so people could sample his tea before purchasing it, but in 1999 he was unable to secure a licence for the teahouse and unwittingly he emerged as a restaurateur.
Now Zhou is a well-known name in the Melbourne hospitality scene. Zhou currently operates five restaurants – Melbourne institution David’s and four Oriental Teahouses. He has been awarded 10 chef hats.
His restaurant designs incorporate a mix of cultures in a comfortable setting, and he believes in bringing together the best ingredients of all cuisines.
His restaurants now turn over $9 million annually, but despite his culinary success he says the best meals are those accompanied with good conversation.
SmartCompany spoke to Zhou about the transition from a single-table teahouse to a full-scale restaurant, continuing to innovate within his restaurants and staying passionate 20 years into the business.
Name: David Zhou
Company: David’s and four Oriental Teahouse venues
Location: Prahran, Victoria
Being a restaurateur, Zhou is no stranger to working long weeks.
“I’d usually get up at 7:20am, I think everybody has a body clock and if you pay attention to it you’ll be advantaged,” he says.
“I have a quick wash and then I go into the office early and do some exercises on the punching bag, wooden dummy and speed bag I have set up in different locations around the office. Then I’ll leave again before everyone else arrives and get a bite to eat – it always looks like I’m the last person to arrive.”
While having breakfast, Zhou prioritises his day before returning to the office and meeting with his team.
“I make sure everyone is on the same page and then we get into action. At the moment, we’re spending a lot of time establishing structures, talking about customer experience, staffing and new products,” he says.
“We constantly have new things we’re working on. We’re changing the whole offering to our customers and planning to have a completely fresh menu every three months. This is a challenge, but we have the ability.”
For Zhou, the working week never ends. He’s at the office seven days a week, but it’s this commitment and passion he believes makes the best businesses successful.
Nowadays, Zhou doesn’t work in the restaurants as much as he used to. He’s based in the office, working on the business strategy, designing new concepts and doing the nitty-gritty number crunching.
He says the problem so many small business owners have when starting out is focusing too much on working ‘on’ the business rather than ‘in’ the business.
“When I started, there were so many concepts and theories about working on or working in the business, but people didn’t really explain them,” he says.
“In a small business I think the trouble is not working ‘in’ enough. The small business owner won’t see their DNA in the firm unless they work in the business. Later you work on and not in.”
Zhou says business owners should continue to work and evolve their companies, but always prioritise the basics and remember the big picture.
“It’s important to do different things and to excite your team, but don’t forget what you’re offering and the big picture.
“We still see the opportunity to adjust our model and have a new concept. This time we’ll be opening in Fitzroy Street … it will be kind of like a permanent pop-up which is outdoor and indoor with lots of nibble foods like the stores I used to eat at in Shanghai.”
With this new venture, Zhou wants to cater to people who eat out regularly and it will have a lower price point. It will also appeal to the Friday night, after-work crowd, as Zhou intends to serve tea cocktails.
When Zhou started David’s, he says the experience of turning a tea warehouse with one table and chair into a restaurant was a “big learning curve”.
“All of a sudden we needed 100 chairs. It’s a totally different mentality when you get into hospitality. It was an industrious challenge which was new, but it was a lot of fun.”
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