Trucking a taste of Mexico into Hong Kong
While the daily routine of eating at a Los Angeles food truck always left Edwin Wu satisfied, he never expected to turn those experiences into a way to make a living.
Hong Kong-born Wu went to California aged 14, remaining there until after completing his degree in architecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture.
“My father is an architect and it’s a genuine passion for me. I still enjoy designing interiors and menus for my restaurants,” Wu says. Although SCIA was isolated from city life, the industrial neighbourhood attracted food trucks. “They target such areas, bringing great Mexican food daily. A 99 cent taco with juicy marinated meat was a taste I came to love.”
Fate led Wu away from architecture. Although he won an internship working on an architecture competition, losing meant a search for a full-time job. “The easiest thing to do was wait tables. I worked in a Japanese fusion restaurant and at night, tended bar. Many of my co-workers were Mexican so I learned how to make Mexican food,” he says.
By 2000, Wu had returned home to assist his parents. Hailing from a city that loves to eat, it’s no surprise that Wu’s mind turned to food. “There were things I missed that didn’t exist in Hong Kong. The fast food culture was just McDonald’s or cha chan teng – it didn’t represent the dynamic profile of Hong Kong or its metropolitan people.”
In spite of his observations, Wu was busy with sales and marketing and life in the rat race kept him occupied. After seven years, however, he had reached a plateau and was questioning what he wanted to do next. “An EMBA was logical because I thought I’d move up the corporate ladder. You can’t tell people you’re an architecture graduate forever,” he quips. An EMBA at the University of Western Ontario, run by its Richard Ivey School of Management campus in Hong Kong, offered the kind of support Wu wanted.
An architecture graduate, Wu sets up his restaurant after obtaining an EMBA from Richard Ivey School of Management of the University of Western Ontario.
The course attracted people of all ages, from 25 to 70. “The connections you build are the most important thing and I appreciated the spectrum of people,” Wu remarks. “We’re still very close, getting together throughout the year. And they come to my restaurants! After high school, I’d say my best friends are the ones I met on the EMBA. We have similar goals and ideas; we grew at the same rate during those 20 months,” he observes.
Wu, who had expected to climb the career ladder, found instead that life had other ideas. “The company I worked for wasn’t doing well so I took a sabbatical to reflect on my experiences. I wondered if I was I too old to move on from publishing,” he admits.
Determination led Wu to test himself. “I decided to start my own business and thought that at my age, it’d be easier to go back to my old industry if I failed.” Coincidentally, he bumped into a childhood friend who had spent time in LA. “We started reminiscing about the food trucks and I mentioned wanting to open my own place.” His friend had not only studied at the Culinary Institute of America but also had experience working in a Hong Kong fast food restaurant.
“When the market dropped 1,000 points we decided to create our own place,” Wu recalls. The two then explored various ideas until finally their mutual love of LA food trucks won through and Taco Chaca was born. “You can’t just put something with beans and rice and call it Mexican – real Mexican food isn’t made to eat in a restaurant,” Wu argues.
To be sure that Mexican food could become popular in Hong Kong, Wu carefully studied the market. “Hong Kongers love Japanese and Italian food. Mexican isn’t comparable but I believed it could work. There weren’t many Japanese and Italian restaurants 20 years ago,” he says. And, slowly, his customers proved him right. “Some locals would walk past every day and after a month, come in and ask me to recommend what to eat – and they enjoyed it,” he says.
Wu started his Taco Chaca restaurant in Sai Ying Pun in 2011, and opened his second shop in Happy Valley in 2012.
In 2011, Taco Chaca opened in Sai Ying Pun and later, in Happy Valley. “Food is part of life and F&B is one of life’s legal addictive experiences. Statistically, most restaurants close within the first year and it’s not always lucrative, but you regain your investment quickly,” says Wu, explaining some of the rationale behind his decision.
Talking honestly, Wu says: “We’ve been well-received in our neighbourhoods but I’m not ready to call it a full success yet. We focus on food quality and consistency. Most people believe that location is the key, but a lot of restaurants open in a low-density area and people will travel there specially, if you have the right food.”
Wu says, “Some locals would walk past every day and after a month, come in and ask me to recommend what to eat – and they enjoyed it."
And in a final word of advice, Wu says that face isn’t everything. “I don’t believe in paying high rents just to be seen, I’m happy for people to look for us. It helps create talk among customers. Some don’t even know where Sai Ying Pun is,” he laughs.