Min Mao, aka Alice, decided to realize her dream. The Chinese student’s home restaurant Alice Secret Recipe delivers authentic Chinese food in Groningen in the weekends.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
‘My name is Min Mao or Alice as one can call me here in Europe. I was born in China, 24 years ago. Now I am living in Groningen where I’m attending a master’s program in Finance at the University of Groningen.’
How did you come up with the idea of opening a delivery restaurant?
‘I’ve always been business-oriented. From a very early age I knew I wanted to work for myself and do things that I love. Following the crowd and working for someone else doesn’t appeal to me. During my bachelor’s program, I was working part-time as a Chinese to English interpreter.’
It makes me happy when people like my food, it really gives me joy
‘After graduation, I opened a translation company in China. After one year I realized that was not really something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Acting as a translator is like being the microphone of two parties. And I want to be the main speaker. So I started thinking hard and looking for something that I really like to do. Then the corona pandemic came, Shanghai was in lockdown for months. I had plenty of time to experiment with food and discover that I am actually good at cooking. It makes me happy when people like my food, it really gives me joy. So I started posting YouTube videos every week to share my recipes. Three weeks ago I came to Groningen. I felt it was a perfect time to open a Chinese kitchen, with authentic Chinese food in Groningen, just for weekends.’
Which are the main difficulties you have encountered since?
‘The first week was a big surprise. My business was something completely new, so I expected one or two orders in the first weekend. But it turned out to be far more popular. Twenty orders! That blew my mind. I had to cook all day long. During the second and third week however I received only a few orders. That was a blow, because the feedback of the customers was very good.
‘Usually a start-up business grows gradually, so you experience it is getting better and better. My first week in Groningen was so good it gave me too high expectations. I didn’t expect this set-back. I should have stayed calm and focus on the basics: cooking good food, providing good service and promoting it. I want to keep it simple and build strong roots.’
Do you have any supporters or haters?
‘I know every business will encounter haters when they grow bigger and become a competitor to others. But this is not the case yet. Indeed I am still a small-scale business. I do know some people who are jealous. Luckily, I do have a Vietnamese student from Hanze University to help me out. He’s the sous-chef in the kitchen and he helps with delivery, we make a good team together.’
Did corona have an influence on this adventure?
‘It did push me, for sure. The pandemic made me aware of my desire to find a way to create an impact in the world, a wish to make myself and other people happy. It has been an wake-up call. I am grateful I managed to see something positive in it besides all the chaos and pain the pandemic caused.’
Why did you decide to start this journey?
‘Many friends encouraged me. They thought it to be a really good idea, since there is no really good authentic Chinese food in Groningen. Indeed, the already existing places have adapted Chinese flavours to European taste, so the food is not original and loyal to a millennial-long tradition anymore. You should do it, and create an authentic Chinese kitchen, they told me. And I will try not to disappoint them.’
Does your family know about this adventure?
‘My sister knows about it since the very beginning. My parents have no idea of this aspect of my life yet. My sister thought it to be a good idea to try and start a business and build something for myself and my future. She’s also a businesswoman, so she knows how difficult it can be. She knows that a food business can be really tiring. However, she also pointed out that I have to take care of myself and keep prioritizing my studies. Education is the most relevant thing at the moment, she always emphasises. If you have time and energy besides your studies, then go for it, she said. I will try and follow her advice, because she loves me and wants the best for me.’
Would you like to bring this business to the next level in the future?
‘For sure! I have really big goals. I want to open chain of stores later and build a brand. But before anything like that can open, I will focus on taking every step steadily. I do want to stay focused and humble, without fooling myself and imagining things still hard to achieve right now. You know, I have only just begun and I am fully aware of that.’
Where do you see yourself in the near future?
‘I will still be taking pre-orders on weekdays and delivering them on weekends. This is the best strategy I can adopt to keep an equilibrium between my studies and this new work opportunity. In this way, I will focus on building a word-of-mouth reputation and have a regular client base. And I have always been an optimistic person so I see a rosy picture for the future.’
Which tips and suggestions would you give to other student-entrepreneurs?
‘I consulted a student food start-up owner before I began. That was a wise decision because he helped me with lots of things I didn’t know about. I really like when people help others. Supportive relationships are crucial. After that, I also made myself the promise to help people who want to start something in the future once I will have gained some experience to share. Just give me a call and I will tell you everything. But as of now, I would advise you to keep believing in your capabilities while staying humble and caring about people.’
If you could go back in time, would you do something different?
‘Absolutely nothing. We cannot go back in time so let’s not regret anything and keep looking forward.’