As a restaurateur, Amelie Kang wants to craft a positive experience for her guests. Her first New York City restaurant, MáLà Project, put Sichuan dry pot in stylish environs, “using modern design tropes as a counterpoint to the classically minded food,” as Eater NY critic Ryan Sutton described it. Since opening in late 2015, Kang has grown her portfolio to include a second location in Bryant Park and fast-casual restaurant Tomorrow in the Financial District.
As the 2018 Eater Young Gun has grown, her empire has expanded to employ a staff of more than 60 people. From the beginning, Kang has prioritized company culture behind the scenes as much as hospitality. In the early days of MáLà Project, one book helped crystalize and integrate these two pillars of her business philosophy.
Somebody to look up to
“I was listening to the podcast How I Built This, which I listen to religiously. Tony Hsieh was on one of the first episodes and when I heard it, I thought, ‘I have to read his book.’ Delivering Happiness is about his company philosophy and how he built the culture at Zappos. The name of the book comes from the idea that leaders of a company have a responsibility to deliver happiness to the staff and the team so that later on, the team can deliver happiness to the customers.
“His company culture aligned with our company culture: They consider themselves a customer-service company that happens to sell shoes. We have the same philosophy: We consider ourselves to be a customer-service company that just happens to serve food. Zappos is a big company with way more experience and having someone to look up to, in a way, really helped us. Seeing these ideas on paper was kind of like a validation.”
“I learned a lot from that book. For example, Hsieh incentivized all of the staff to resign from the company for a $1,000 bonus, [deciding that] whoever took that money was obviously not a good fit for the company. It turned out no one left.
“I thought that was really brilliant, and so we did that at MáLà Project as well. About one year in, we offered $300 for staff to resign within three weeks. Now that we’re heading toward our fourth year and the second year of our second location, we offered it again. Nobody takes it. Overall, the team is very close and very tight, even more so than I expected. We have a pretty low turnover rate, and everyone says it’s the team that’s keeping them here.”
Lessons for building the future
“Hsieh says we should always be learning and changing, and inertia is the worst enemy of a company. The moment that you get used to things is the moment you lose sight of problems.
“I’m looking to grow my business not so much from a financial perspective — it’s because I need to build a platform so that people can grow. There’s only so much they can learn from working at a physical restaurant, and being a single location is not going to get them any further. A lot of people consider the restaurant industry as a middle stage, a quick way to make money. We don’t want that. We want to build this company to support careers that people can rely on. They can have their benefits, they can go on nice vacations, and have the opportunity to have a family.
“I think if any industry can offer that to its employees, we can offer that to our employees as a restaurant. It’s going to take some time and we have to be creative about it, but we really want to make it happen.”