Michael Tsai – setting a new culinary trend

Michael Tsai, the owner of Palms, talked with Sino-US.com on June 1. Photo: youzide.com

While Korean-Mexican fusion food became a popular trend in the US in 2009, soon after the first food-truck serving Korean tacos and Kogi Korean BBQ opened in Los Angeles in late 2008, here in Beijing it is still a novelty.

Michael Tsai, an American-born Chinese, moved to Beijing in 2009, two years after graduating from Johnson & Wales University, and brought with him the Korean-Mexican fusion food to China as well.

Palms, opened in early 2014 in the Gulou area, is the first restaurant in Beijing to serve Korean-Mexican fusion. Now it has a second branch near Liangmaqiao of Chaoyang District.

Michael developed a love for cooking in his childhood, and invented his own way of making dishes overtime. He never prepares an ingredient list before he makes a new dish; rather, he goes into the kitchen, picks up the cooking tools, adds different sauces into different meat and food materials, tastes it, and makes notes when he thinks it tastes good.

Before starting his own business with Palms, Michael had two jobs in Beijing. One was in the food and beverage management department of Hilton Hotel, the other helping a friend run a Spanish restaurant.

Having more than 20 staff members in both the hutong restaurant in Gulou and the Liangmaqiao one, Michael thinks taking care of the employees is the top priority in managing the restaurant.

Also, with 60% customers being repeat guests, he believes making friends with customers also contributes to the good reputation of Palms.

Picking the right team

When Michael first started Palms, there were only three members in the team who were his co-workers during his first job in the Hilton Hotel. Now, the two restaurants have more than 20 members in total, two of whom are foreigners and others Chinese. 

Most of the staff did not have relevant experience before they joined the restaurant, but that was not a big issue for Michael. Attitude is important, he said. 

“The most important thing is for them to not have any bad habit. You can learn, if you don’t know.”

In the meantime, Michael said the most difficult part for him in running the restaurant was to find employees and train them, because it really takes some time for a local Chinese to fully get used to the needs of a Los Angeles-style restaurant.

The staff of the Palms need to behave confidently and be willing to communicate with the customers, even when they feel exhausted. 

For a beginner in the restaurant, one way to learn the typical Palms manner is to see what and how Michael does at work.

The other way is to have a makeover once hired, which helps to enhance the sense of confidence.

“If you look good, you feel good,” Michael said, “And you’ll act friendlier, happier, and enjoy what you are doing.”

The staff of Palms are rewarded for their hard work with free accommodation, annual bonus, monthly party and weekly dining out, in addition to salary. 

Although taking care of the employees are the most difficult part, it is also the “most successful and positive” part for Michael, because what he has done to his employees gives them a feeling of belonging and purpose in life.

Turning customers into fans

While training excellent employees is the priority for Palms, another philosophy is to make friends with customers and turn them into fans of the restaurant. By developing a loyal clientele, the restaurant now has about 60% repeat customers.

One characteristic of Palms is to hold parties, in particular customer-oriented parties. “You can do whatever you want,” Michael said. While customers frequently visit here with an appetite for the Korean-Mexican food, they also come to enjoy the comfortable and friendly atmosphere of Palms.

“I hope customers visit Palms for the atmosphere more than the cuisine, because delicious food could be found everywhere,” said Michael.

Although Palms is the one and only Korean-Mexican fusion so far in Beijing, the price is less expensive and affordable for ordinary people.

For Michael, the success of a restaurant is measured by a sense of “satisfaction”, which is gained by both a good team-work and good feedback from the customers, which is more important than money.

Chinese-style friendship

Having been in China for over five years, Michael now can speak Chinese fluently, though he said he cannot read. What’s more, now he can easily immerse himself into the Chinese culture which is quite different from the Western culture, and develop a Chinese-style friendship with his employees and customers.

While foreigners like “immediate satisfaction” and may feel unhappy when they do not get a response that they think they deserve, it takes some time for a Chinese to trust someone and develop a solid friendship.

“But after you make friends with a Chinese, you can find that the quality of your relationship is really high. So be patient,” he noted.

“Whenever I have difficulties, I turn to my Chinese friends, and they are always willing to help.”


View of Palms hutong restaurant Photo: thebeijinger.com

There is only one day of rest in one week at Palms, and most of Michael’s time is spent at work. While his initial goal was just to run his own restaurant, it is now something bigger and beyond his own benefit, as the team becomes larger and more like a family.

“I have to take care of them all, make sure that everyone has their own purpose in life, and that’s my only motivation now.”

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