9/03/2011

Another Wanhua Business Bites the Dust


I grabbed the shadowy picture above on my iPhone coming home today. This place was, until last Thursday, our neighborhood's most popular Shabu Shabu restaurant. It's right around the corner from where I live in Wanhua (萬華), Taiwan.  

Shabu Shabu is from Japanese and means, I think, swish swish. It's an onomatopoeia for how the food is (should be) cooked at this kind of establishment. The process for getting your meal is as follows: Customers are seated at tables with individual pots. They then choose what broth they would like and it is poured into the pots by the server.  Once the broth comes to a simmer, they add vegetables, meat and other. The meat should be held in chopsticks and swished back and forth until cooked. In Taiwan, however, the meat is simply dumped in the pot and cooked until well-done. When the ingredients appear to be cooked or over-cooked (every man to his own), they are fished out and seasoned for eating. New ingredients are continuously added by the customer, who is also the cook. Seasonings include green onions, garlic, chili, cilantro parsley, soy sauce and sand-tea sauce (沙茶醬), which is a clumpy peanut butter and fish sauce. I usually throw a little white vinegar in as well. Here's a link for the run-down on how to proceed at a Shabu Shabu: http://www.squidoo.com/hotpot

The reason I took this shot was my family just ate dinner there 12 days ago. It was a Monday night and still the place was packed. The restaurant was popular because they had all-you-can eat vegetables, shrimp and clams, ice cream and cakes. There was also a soda pop machine, coffee brewer and half a dozen varieties of tea. To top it off, these creative restauranteurs kicked in a multi-tiered chocolate fountain for marshmellow and cookie dipping. Who would have known the restaurant was on its last legs? I guess there were signs though, see the outrageous bill we paid -- almost NT$1,000 which included new goodies (a ten-percent service charge even though you retrieve the food yourself and do your own cooking and a NT$140 surcharge for infants). 

When a restaurant that can fill its tables on a Monday suddenly closes down in Taipei, it's a probably a matter of paying the rent. This is how it seems to go here: If you can't bring in customers, you shutter because you're not able to make ends meet. If you are successful, the owner of the property recognizes you are in the black and raises the rent to a rate that you can no longer be profitable at. Two McDonalds and a Wellcome Supermarket have also left our community in the last couple of years. Not that I am lamenting these facts. I was curious about McDonalds vacating the corner of Wanda Road (萬大路) and Dong Yuan Street (東園街) though. After they left, the landlord wasn't able to find a tenant for this extremely high-activity spot for over a year, and I'm guessing it came down to a staggeringly high rent proposal. (Cafe 85 has since moved in and is packed into the wee hours.)

My family has a lot of memories from this Shabu Shabu spot. In a previous life, it was the banquet hall in which my brother and sister-in-law were married. I'll never forget being left with a bag containing around US$10,000 full of red envelops after all of the festive relatives, friends and associates had staggered off. That'll teach me not to go off for a last-minute leak. Anyway, I did the negotiating for their wedding dinner. I am proud to say I held my own too; I even pretended to count empty beer bottles. 

I wonder how long it is before another business establishment settles here, how long it lasts and what it is. Hopefully, the new owners will take into account the high turnover of previous businesses when they enter into negotiations. 

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Indeed, it is a surprise to realize that a family dinner costs as much as NT$ 1,000 that is about my salary working for Taiwan Power Company as an engineer almost half century ago.
You may be surprised to learn that MacDonald once proudly announced that they are not in the fast food business but are in real estate business; hinting that they make more money investing on the property than selling hamburgers. It seems that many McDonalds are now renting.
ChoSan

Ted Jones said...

I hope they tear down Wanhua and rebuild it from scratch. That part of the city looks like what I saw in Cambodia! No wonder businesses try to escape that misery, who would wanna live there voluntarily anyway? Certainly not me. Hope the KMT won't be so soft on these things anymore, after they win the election in '12. I can hear the bulldozers rattling already. We need to learn from China. They made Beijing a world class city in 2 decades and it used to look worse than Wanhua.

Patrick Cowsill said...

"They made Beijing a world class city in 2 decades and it used to look worse than Wanhua."

You're selling Wanhua short, Fred. I've been posting up on this blog repeatedly to celebrate, not ridicule, this historic neighborhood. I wasn't really looking for an analogy with Beijing, but all comments are welcome.

Join up with the Monga (Taiwanese spelling for Wanhua) Flickr Web site for photos. I know you'll like it: http://www.flickr.com/groups/619891@N25/http://www.flickr.com/groups/619891@N25/

Thanks for touching base.

Anonymous said...

I don’t know how it works in present day Taiwan but in the States the private ownership of the property right is respected and guaranteed by the constitution that even the privately own sea shore is prohibited by public access. In case their property is needed for the public project as for building highway or school, the governments have to pay the fair market value to the owners for compensation.
I don’t think Ma has the right and the power to tear down the beautiful antique old buildings in Man-Ka to build non-public tall buildings. If he could, he would do it now, instead of waiting for his re-election; beside there is no guarantee that he will be re-elected in 2012.
In the other hand, since majority of Taiwanese voted for or bought by Ma and may repeat that again in next election, why don’t they simple let him bring Taiwan as the article of tribute to China and let the red Chinese come in and take over Taiwan like KMT did during 1948 invasion then tore down the old Man-Ka and rebuilt as the second Beijing?

Okami said...

I take offense at your dismissive attitude to McDonalds. The one near Snake Alley night market was my favorite place to people watch as old Johns came in with their girl and were duly pampered before/after business was settled.

Did you ever run the cost of what it takes to have a meal versus the cost of the meal? I find a lot of Taiwanese have this sort of problem when dealing(mostly not bothering to deal) with business plans.

To the first Anonymous, McDonalds corporation is into real estate, but they mostly make their money through franchises.

Patrick Cowsill said...

"I take offense at your dismissive attitude to McDonalds. The one near Snake Alley night market was my favorite place to people watch as old Johns came in with their girl and were duly pampered before/after business was settled."

LOL. I think the operative word here is "was." As far as I know, McDonalds grew tired of chasing off the neighborhood riffraff. They dealt with the problem, and all the "negative" images and photographs being associated to them in regards to this branch, by shutting it down. There is another McDonalds three blocks away from Longshan Temple. I think it could be the last Monga McDonalds.

Anonymous said...

McDonald and Burger King are out of date; the new comers are In-N-Out and Five Guys, check them out.
ChoSan

John Scott said...

I guess part of the reason that neighborhood remains so interesting (or historic) probably has a lot to do with the property values being low, relative to other areas of central Taipei where there are more business and residential development. Its proximity to downtown is increasing the land values, and the 14-story apartment buildings will get closer and closer. Sad to think it may eventually look just like any other sprawling section of YongHe or ZhongHe. But most long-time residents of Monga will see that as a long-awaited improvement.

About the vanishing restaraunt, it's a shame that the people running that business couldn't negotiate a better deal from the owner of the building. Hopefully, they can start up a similar enterprise in another location. However, if they are successful again, they may have to go through the same ordeal when their next lease is up, and has to be re-negotiated. That would be a stressful way to make a living, I think.

Some people in Taipei told me that when a new business becomes successful, it is only a matter of time before the gang currently in "control" of that area shows up and offers "protection". When a business closes suddenly, I often wonder if something like was involved.

Patrick Cowsill said...

"Some people in Taipei told me that when a new business becomes successful, it is only a matter of time before the gang currently in "control" of that area shows up and offers "protection". When a business closes suddenly, I often wonder if something like was involved."

I saw that with the other Shabu Shabu restaurant in my neighborhood and then some. Management suddenly changed hands. We went in to eat and I was wondering why the service was so bad. No sauce, condiments, etc. I went to find a server and then noticed they were all in the kitchen, smoking. They were obviously not chefs.

Patriot4Change said...

I was surprised to hear that somewhere around 70% of all restaurants and bars in the U.S. fail within their first 3 years-- even though they are the "hot new spot" when they first open. When I see one close (even a McDonald's) I assume that they probably just jumped to a new area of town to be the "hot new spot" again... somewhere else. he he

Patrick Cowsill said...

"I was surprised to hear that somewhere around 70% of all restaurants and bars in the U.S. fail within their first 3 years" It's a hard business: lots of work, long hours, etc. It's been extra tough in recent years due to the economic downturn. People are less likely to eat out. I've also heard that consumers are buying their booze in convenience stores now more than ever.

Steven Crook said...

"If you are successful, the owner of the property recognizes you are in the black and raises the rent to a rate that you can no longer be profitable at."

There's another scenario which I've heard a number of times: The landlord sees how much money the restaurant is making, so he kicks the restaurant out and opens his own eatery, or gives the spot to his brother to do that.

Patrick Cowsill said...

"There's another scenario which I've heard a number of times: The landlord sees how much money the restaurant is making, so he kicks the restaurant out and opens his own eatery...."

I hadn't even considered that. If so, it's downright evil.

I sometimes think the only way to really have a chance of being an small / medium enterprise owner, especially in the service sector where the work is hard and margins small, is to just own the property before to another step.