We caught up with the brilliant and insightful Willet and Diane Feng a few weeks ago and have shared our conversation below.
Willet and Diane, thanks for taking the time to share your stories with us today Are you happier as a business owner? Do you sometimes think about what it would be like to just have a regular job?
Yes and no. Compared to a regular job, the highs are higher and the lows much lower. Being the owner assumes more risk, while being an employee offers more stability.
Owning a restaurant is a gamble, and it isn’t necessarily high-risk, high-reward. The risk is quite high, but the reward—monetarily—is medium at best. Passion fuels most business owners in the food industry, and you need a surplus of it to ride out the lows.
We aren’t dissuading people from pursuing their dreams of owning a business, but we do believe a reality check is crucial before beginning on this journey. While the media paints an overly rosy picture of how great it is to be a chef and restaurateur, the food and beverage (f&b) industry is filled with saddening stories of failed ventures. The reality is that food truck life is a grind and filled with uncertainty, pop-ups are stressful and risky, and plenty of f&b concepts opened by talented individuals still fail for a myriad of reasons. If you can stomach the risk, then go for it!
As for the highs—they can be very high indeed. And no, not saying you’ll strike it rich, but a successful restaurant is a monumental accomplishment. A great meal can literally make someone’s day better; you are responsible for your staff’s livelihood and happiness; your purchases can support local farms, bakers, and artisans in meaningful ways. And, should you find financial success, you can choose which charities to donate to and which events to sponsor. The amount of good that can come out of a successful venture is genuinely the best reward.
To sum up, the rollercoaster of running your own business is a worthwhile endeavor, if you accept the risks and stress. And while we’re doing fine right now, we just might be okay going back to a “regular job” at some point in the future.
Great, appreciate you sharing that with us. Before we ask you to share more of your insights, can you take a moment to introduce yourself and how you got to where you are today to our readers
burger-chan is a mom & pop counter-service gourmet burger concept in Houston, Texas that serves umami-filled burgers with a side of community and inclusiveness. Chef and co-owner Willet Feng has the culinary chops to create a chef-driven menu, and co-owner Diane Wu Feng has the pedagogical background to foster inclusiveness for workers and customers. Back in 2016, Willet was determined to open his own restaurant, and a couple friends in the food and beverage industry convinced him to take over a second-generation restaurant spot located in an underground food court in Greenway Plaza. Willet utilized his fine-dining training to transform an office lunch spot into a burger mecca that drew diners from all over Houston.
From 2016 until 2020, burger-chan not only won a steady stream of customers, but also won accolades from food critics like Alison Cook of the Houston Chronicle and Eric Sandler of CultureMap. burger-chan was on Alison Cook’s Top 100 Houston Restaurants list from 2016-2019, and came in at #25 on CultureMap’s 2019 Top 100 Restaurants in Houston list.
We serve some burger classics and some innovative items, but hopefully will never be labeled as “gimmicky.” What sets our burgers apart is that each burger is topped with a special glaze that amplifies the umami flavor of the beef. Willet created the signature Asian-inspired glaze and other popular sauces like scallion aioli and sambal mayo to elevate the typical burger and fries experience.
In 2019, Diane and Willet signed a lease for a second location of burger-chan near the Galleria Mall, and it was slated to open in June of 2020. However, the pandemic changed all of that. From March 2020 until August 2020, burger-chan pivoted to online ordering only, curbside pick-up, and in-house delivery to try to stay afloat during the first few months of COVID. Unfortunately, sales plummeted more than 80% as office workers continued to work remotely. By the end of 2020, Diane and Willet made the difficult decision to permanently close the first location of burger-chan in Greenway Plaza.
The second location was originally called burger-chan II, but that name made less sense once the first location closed. Therefore, Diane and Willet renamed their first brick-and-mortar and now sole flagship location “burger-chan 2.0,” to indicate that it was an upgraded version of the original underground location. burger-chan 2.0 opened in January of 2022, and upgrades from the original location include a covered outdoor patio, a family-friendly dining area, beer and wine offerings, special menu items, and expanded hours.
[More About Diane and Willet]
Diane graduated from Rice University with aspirations of becoming a Sociology professor. After a short stint in graduate school, she quickly realized she preferred teaching to research. So Diane got her middle school math teaching certificate from the UTeach program at UT-Austin. Diane taught for a few years in Houston ISD and won “Teacher of the Year.” She also taught for a couple years at an international school in Shanghai. Diane had plans to return to teaching a few months after their daughter was born, but her husband Willet soon realized he needed her help to run his new burger restaurant. Fast forward six years to the present, and now Diane has more experience in a restaurant than in a classroom.
Chef Willet Feng was born and raised in Houston, but he also spent a few formative years in Southeast Asia. He earned his bachelor degree from Rice University and culinary arts degree from Le Cordon Bleu. Willet worked as a line cook at Uchiko and Oxheart before travelling across the world to become the head chef at The Grumpy Pig in Shanghai. In 2016, he opened Kuma Burgers—now known as burger-chan.
How’d you build such a strong reputation within your market?
Our reputation within the restaurant industry is built upon high standards and a relentless pursuit of improving constantly. What this boils down to is avoiding shortcuts and being willing to waste products that don’t meet our standard.
As an example, we hand cut our burger vegetables to ensure freshness and quality. Each produce item is washed and inspected before, during, and after processing. This takes longer and can result in a fair amount of waste, but the end result is vastly superior to the pre-cut vegetables that some restaurants use or produce that is blindly thrown into the slicer and not inspected afterwards.
On the other side of the equation, our customer service is also second to none. One time a regular diner informed us that the taro root chips tasted stale. Upon checking, it seemed like the fryer oil had taken on an off-flavor, so we refunded his chips. Instead of waiting for other customers to notify us that the chips were subpar that day, we reached out to every single one that we could track down and offered a refund and new chips. Many were genuinely surprised that we went through all that effort to correct an “okay” product; but that’s because we strive for exceptional and not just okay.
There’s no real secret to building a strong reputation – avoid short cuts and outwork others.
We’d love to hear the story of how you built up your social media audience?
Social media is a natural outlet for self-promotion and advertising. But for better or worse, we are both anti-trend and anti-marketing, in a way. We want our product to speak for itself. We want our customers to come in, try the food, and judge for themselves. And honestly, our customers are our best promoters. Without us asking or paying them, they post pictures and videos online and tell friends and strangers about us. That kind of organic advertising can’t be bought, and we refuse to buy it. We don’t want to trick anyone—we know our product isn’t for everyone, and we’re okay with that. If you like what we offer, we’ll go above and beyond to meet or exceed your expectations. We enjoy getting to know our customers, so we’re pretty approachable via direct messaging and texting. We love supporting local establishments, so we post stories about local places we think other people should try. We welcome suggestions from customers, and we enjoy having a dialogue with our followers.
For those just starting out, we suggest that you be authentic—show your customers why you do what you do, and why they should try you out. Customers love personal details, and they love finding common ground. In this day and age, online content can lead to divisiveness and polarizing debates. We are not here to add to that. We are here to add interesting, fun, and meaningful content.
- Website: https://burgerchanhtx.com/
- Instagram: https://instagram.com/burgerchanhtx
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/burgerchanhtx
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/company/burger-chan/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/burgerchanhtx
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/c/WilletFeng
- Yelp: https://www.yelp.com/biz/burger-chan-houston-3
Alison Nguyen, Conor Moran