In our fourth episode, we would like to welcome Linda Wang, founder of Ume, an authentic yet innovative Japanese restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn NYC. Linda is a proud Brooklyn native who aspired to create her own brand to showcase the world her high-class esthetic on design and food. Surrounded by both Japanese and Chinese culture, Linda decided to combine the 2 cultures and form Ume. The name Ume originated from the meaning of a plum flower in Chinese and Japanese. Like the flower- Ume restaurant will blossom. Starting her first restaurant at the age of 23, Linda shared with our audience regarding her struggle as a young entrepreneur, rejections she faced from banks for loans, and her business mindset for managing a restaurant in one of the most competitive food capitals – New York City. She also shares a great announcement on her new business. Be sure to tune in if you would like to learn more about how the Ume family will blossom!
Angela: It’s episode 4, and I would like to introduce Linda Wang. Hi Linda, how are you?
Linda: I’m fine.
Anglea: Good, so Linda has founded a beautiful restaurant in Williamsburg called Ume. It is inspired by her travels and the experience with flavors that she’s discovered from the places she’s visited. Linda has also designed Ume personally, the interior, the artwork displayed, even down to the menu. Everything was designed by you! Do you have any design background or just great taste?
Linda: Obviously it’s just a great taste. (Laughing) Just kidding. So the first time I started Ume, I did a little bit of graphic design, nothing professional. I’m just doing something for fun. I’m not sure if I have a great taste or not?
Angela: You do, you do. The restaurant is beautiful.
Linda: Thank you. I just designed it to be the way I thought it would look nice yeah and I just have some vision and I just decided to do it.
Angela: And you brought it to life! So what made you choose the name? It’s such a beautiful, easy to remember name.
Linda: So when I was a child, my dad’s side family immigrated to Japan so they are all in Japan right now. So I spent the majority of my childhood there but I’ve also spent some time in China. Obviously, I’m Chinese and because of that I wanted to find something that was kind of inspired by both cultures. Ume, means “plum” in Japanese and there’s also “U-Me”, which is also a type of plum in Chinese. Because of my love for plum, it’s one of the flowers that blooms as early as in the winter. If you think of it philosophically, it’s a flower (Ume) that blooms and face it like the harshness of the winter and I want Ume to become that type of restaurant, one that blooms in any type of adversity so I chose the name.
Angela: I love it! It’s very nice.
Linda: Thank you, thank you!
Angela: And I understand that you had no prior experience in hospitality, so what made you start it?
Linda: So when I started Ume, I didn’t really think of it as a restaurant. I thought of it as a project, which made it a lot easier because thinking of it as a restaurant, which is something I have never handled before and put some pressure on me. Because it’s a project, I would list different things I need to complete, different things I need to learn, different skills among people I need to hire and that’s how I kind of tackled it. I wanted to start Ume because I knew this chef who is great with sushi. I also had this idea for the kind of design of the restaurant I wanted, which I wanted to make that into reality.
Angela: And you did it!
Linda: Yeah and I think though I actually believed everyone has a lot of ideas and the only thing that separates you and others is whether you do it or not.
Linda: And I just simply decide to do it
Angela: Why did you pick Williamsburg? It’s such a quite diverse neighborhood, and I think there are lots of people there. It’s also very touristic, and there are a lot of tourists. And I’m sure they’ll find you on Yelp. Do you get a lot of tourists? What kind of people come into your restaurant? I’m sure it’s not just Japanese people who look into sushi, right?
Linda: No (launching with politeness). So I grew up in Brooklyn so Brooklyn is very dear to me. (“Me too!” – Agreed by Angela) Yes, Brooklyn girl! So because I grew up in Brooklyn, choosing a neighborhood in Brooklyn just makes me feel more like home. I chose Williamsburg because it’s quite similar in terms of the vintage to the vibe to another neighborhood in Japan called “Koenji” in Tokyo. It’s around 20 minutes away from Shinjuku and and in and which is why I chose it. In terms of obviously as a business, you’re kind of the restaurant has to work with the neighborhood and I just thought Ume will make it fit.
Angela: It’s literally the perfect fit.
Linda: We got it right before they announced the L-Train’s shutdown. I can’t imagine remaining to be a destination place to be getting affected but because of that, the rent was actually a good deal. And three months after we signed the lease, the L-Train went back on. I thought that was kind of like a sign that’s telling me that, (Ume) is gonna work out.
Angela: So you started this about a year and a half ago. (“right” agreed by Linda) So how old were you?
Linda: I was 23 when I opened (“Wow”- shocked by Angela and then I had the idea probably around nine months so in December of 2017.
Angela: It took you nine months to just make it happen? And what kind of obstacles do you have to overcome? I’m sure that before you started out of business, there are so many obstacles,so many hardships. What would you say were some obstacles you went through and do you still have those obstacles? I’m sure you do, you know businesses always have something going on.
Linda: Yes, I was. I will separate into two different kinds of obstacles and so the first obstacle is the kind that I feel like you experienced the most when you were starting out. So starting out, funding was obviously the biggest thing. I started Ume with not a lot of money, I started from $3,000.
Angela: Did you get any funding or how did you do that?
Linda: So I attempted a lot of government funding.I attempted all the loans, all the government loans, all the bank loans. Nothing worked out mostly.
Angela: And why do you think it didn’t work out?
Linda: So specifically for business loans, what they want is collateral funding to start it out. As an early 20 year old starting out, having a house to my name was not an option and having very expensive cars under my name was also not an option. So that did not work out. Actually I also asked around for funding from my family. No one believed in it, they all thought it was a really bad idea.
Angela: I bet they are crying now and they’re dying.
Linda: Yeah, they are dying to invest now. I had also asked around 10 different investors from friends and family. No one wants to invest. There were two people originally wanted to and they bailed on me.I actually almost gave up at that point, because they gave me so much hope that they were going to invest. And then when they said no (I mean call me ) and obviously maybe I should give up. I mean I didn’t and then I just decided to go with it. I put the down payments for the deposit for the place first and I actually got very lucky because my cousin does construction. (“ Ok, so you had some deals there.” – Angie said) And I also did the majority of construction with my friends, they didn’t have the money to support me but hey helped physically. So we painted Ume, so the walls and you see those post settlement we did and the garden we did with ourselves.
Angela: The garden is one of the most beautiful aspects of the restaurant.
Linda: One of the biggest challenges is definitely time management. Having to run between different restaurants and then making sure that you have to finish. Making a certain number of things by a certain time. Sometimes, these deadlines are like two months away but you guys are kind of being put with different things so it’s very easy to forget. I actually have a planner, which I know it’s really old-school. You know it helps me beyond anything and managing people as a team. Managing people, and managing much more people. And managing people is a lot and another hardest part in running a restaurant. Because budgets are numbers, they are objective and stationary looking. There are all types of people and you just have to know how to bring out the best in people. And that’s something I’m still learning as well as running a restaurant.
Angela: How do you basically make a budget for the restaurant?
Linda: I actually think when running a restaurant, even any businesses. I think the best thing to do is to know what you’re gonna do and not worry about it. So for anything that I know I’m not very good at, I usually hire someone to do it and obviously this has to come after you already started making money. The reason we survived at the beginning is because I didn’t have money to hire people. I end up doing things myself, but in terms of budgeting, I just have a very good accountant and he does everything. And I think that is a secret to a lot of successful businesses since I’m very bad with numbers. You know I am not an organized person and I’m a big picture person. But I have people who are focused on getting into the little details, especially numbers.
Angela: So speaking about your accountant, so he’s obviously an employee. What type of employees do you hire? What do you look for when someone’s coming in for interviews?
Linda: I am usually thinking about what the role needs and then that’s why I figure out what I require from the employee. I don’t have “one size fits all in” equation. For instance, if you’re a sushi chef, you must have experience; But for service, you might have a great personality rather than experience right. So yes, I hire every single person who comes to me personally and their happiness is very important to me as well.
Angela: Okay and so now, I’m gonna go into you. What would you say is one interesting fact about you that you know some people don’t know or that you like to share? It doesn’t have to do with business, it could just be something fun.
Linda: I actually started learning Chinese well over five years ago. It’s actually something I am really proud of, because people assumed I was born in China. ( “Are you fluent?” – Angela) I think so, about writing. I can type and I know Pinyin. I can recognize words. My next goal is to finish reading a novel in Chinese
Angela: Do you have any new business plans coming up?
Linda: Actually I do, so we’ve been working on a second restaurant in a few months. We found the space, and we got the permits. It is going to be in the East Village and we should be opening in two months. So when that happens, we’re all invited to the party. I am really excited for the new restaurant to join different scenes and Ume will finally have a little sibling restaurant.
Angela: Do you have an assistant or manager or do you know someone to help you organize?
Linda: Everything I do and for every restaurant, there is a manager or assistant. I also think because Ume is my baby. It’s hard to let go. Whenever I’m there, I will be obsessing over to see whether there’s a spawn floor ( “Sometimes, I think that’s the key to success” – Angela) Yes, there’s just so many more things I want to do I think Ume is just the beginning.
Angela: Yeah and I just want to let you know that you are so young and there’s definitely a really bright future ahead of you. Thank you so much Linda.
Linda: Thank You Angela!