Despite a pandemic that stalled his restaurant business, Eric Sze has never been busier. He’s made a name for himself in the past year by making pivot after pivot to keep his New York City restaurant 886 afloat — and by being the change he wants to see in the industry. He’s made thousands of bento boxes for front-line health care workers and local shelters, raised money for his out-of-work staff, and started Enough Is Enough, an initiative to bring awareness to hate crimes against Asian Americans.
At the age of 28, Sze already has two — soon to be three — restaurants under his belt. There’s the Tang, an East Village noodle shop he co-founded after college; 886, the nearby Taiwanese spot he opened with business partner Andy Chuang after leaving the Tang; and Wenwen, a new restaurant that’s slated to open in Brooklyn later this year, assuming all goes well after weathering the COVID-19 storm. But if Sze’s history is any indication, he’ll find a way to make it work.
Eater: When did you know you wanted to open your own restaurant?
Eric Sze: When I was a senior in college, I made a food startup, selling what were basically direct-to-consumer prepackaged beef noodle soup kits called Scallion Foods. I was cooking it in my apartment, which was very illegal, but people liked it, and it was fun. I turned down a few full-time job offers from restaurant groups; I really wanted to bet on myself at the age of 22, being way too innocent and naive.
But then I had a skiing accident and tore my ACL, which left me bedridden. Operating Scallion Foods, I had been cooking, buying ingredients, delivering it myself — and then I couldn’t do anything. While I was stuck in bed, an acquaintance pitched me this idea of a noodle restaurant in the East Village. I hadn’t really worked in a restaurant before; I had interned at Momofuku, but it was mostly office work. I was like, “Fuck it, I don’t have anything to lose.” And so the Tang was born. That was my foot in the door. I got to run a restaurant very gung-ho, making up shit as I went.
My business partner, Andy, is also from Taiwan. We really wanted a place that was Taiwanese for us to hang out and drink, so I sold my shares for the Tang, and the next day we were signing a lease for 886. My identity crisis has gone through different shapes and molds, but I think the core has always stayed the same: just wanting more Taiwanese food.
Fill in the blank: The past year and a half has been _________.
The past year and a half has been sort of a mirror because it reflects who you really are. We certainly had opportunities to just take a PPP loan and call it a day; we could have taken the government’s money, closed up, and we would have made a profit on 886. We could’ve weathered the storm and opened a new restaurant after that or gone into a different industry. But it never even occurred to us to do that. When things are really bad, and you’re losing money month after month, and there just doesn’t seem like there’s a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel, it takes some guts to keep marching on. It’s been a marathon, and it showed me more of who I am and why I’m in this industry. It’s because of the people.
I’ve always known myself as an optimist, but in this past year and a half, I had to pull out every single trick up my sleeve and keep improvising. When indoor dining was closed and outdoor dining too slow, I was personally delivering those Scallion Foods beef noodle kits, which we made about $1,000 a day from as a bonus revenue item. We had to change the menu to be delivery friendly and more classic and homey. We adjusted our prices; instead of going up, we actually went down. We had to buy a bunch of new, aesthetically pleasing stuff that would make our outdoor dining look like Asia. I used to hate plants, but now I can spot a bird of paradise from a mile away. I accidentally bought one and planted it on our patio, and a month later, it bloomed into this gorgeous plant, and some dude came and stole it. It was just pivot after pivot after pivot, and everything we did was a reflection of our abilities.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned in the past year?
I was surprised by my front-of-house staff. A lot of my friends in the industry are having so much trouble hiring because it’s easier to sit at home with a stable unemployment check — and nobody would blame you for it; it’s a pandemic — but every single one of my front-of-house staff who is in New York reached out and offered to return because they know we need a staff. People are willing to sacrifice and commit to our cause. My personal ethos has always been to surround yourself with good people. Good food plus good people equals good times. The “good people” part is arguably the most difficult. I think I was surprised by how good people are.
From one Asian American to another, how are you feeling with this swell of attacks on Asians across the country this past year?
It hits me so hard. I was born and raised in Taiwan, so I consider myself a foreigner here. I’ve always looked up to American culture; diversity is the beauty of America. But now, I don’t understand how humanity has come to this. I can’t shake the feeling that whatever we try to do, it’s nothing but putting a bandage on a gunshot wound. I’m feeling helpless and powerless because what else can we do? What else can I do?
Can you tell me about your grassroots initiative Enough Is Enough, aimed at addressing some of these issues?
We started Enough Is Enough in February out of my frustration from seeing a lack of representation, whether it’s in mass media or among the rich and wealthy Asians who are influential. I find it pretty hypocritical for them to lean into Asian culture when it’s financially beneficial, but when the Asian community needed their voices, they were radio silent. This was about a week after Uncle Vicha, the 84-year-old man in San Francisco who was pushed onto the pavement, died. I started an email chain, and the next thing I knew, I had 20 or so people from a few of the coolest restaurants in New York City. We hosted virtual cooking events. We gathered donations and gave half to Black and brown shelters and half to shelters for Asian communities with food insecurity; we wanted to show solidarity with every community that needs help. We raised $70,000, and I think it brought attention to the cause and empowered people to speak out.
How are you making change in the food world?
I pay everybody a living wage, which sounds hilarious, but a lot of people in the industry are not being paid a living wage. I focus on the well-being of my employees. A lot of cooks are working six or seven days a week, but my cooks work five days a week because time off is very important. There’s so much more I wish I could be doing. I wish I had the scale to implement all the things I want, including benefits, health care, and paid time off. But I am doing what I can for my employees. It’s almost comical that I can say that’s a positive change in the food world, but that’s the reality of it.
What does a restaurant that is ethical to its employees look like to you, in an ideal future?
In an ideal future, we would not have tips; everybody should just be on salary. Cooks and servers should all have health care, and everybody should have paid time off. We should be able to offer that to employees. We can at least provide a safe environment so the people who are in the kitchen all day can afford to send their kids to school. They should be able to afford a decent standard of living. They should be able to feel comfortable staying home when they have a fever and not worry that their paycheck is going to get deducted. That’s not a lot to ask for, really. There’s something obviously wrong with the system, and I am too small right now to fix it — the reality is I run a small Taiwanese restaurant, and if my pork belly over rice is $80, nobody’s gonna buy it — but it’s something I’m eyeing. That’s the goal for me.
What do you hope to accomplish in this next year?
I hope to get the new restaurant in Greenpoint open. It’s called Wenwen, because my mom’s name is Wen and my wife’s name is Wen, so it’s a nod to the women in my life. I hope to create a team there as good as the one we have in the East Village. And I hope that the East Village restaurant will be managed by somebody whom we can really empower to take over operationally so we can focus on the road map ahead. I want to hire everybody back, which we’ve already started — back of house, we already have everybody, and front of house, some people are slowly coming back. I want to make that a sustainable operation and open up the Brooklyn restaurant to really showcase the creative side of me. That’s something I’m really excited about. I can’t wait to see what we can do.
How can readers support your work?
They can obviously buy our stuff or come to the restaurant. They can also support me by reading up more about not just Taiwanese food, but different regions of food. Food can be a political tool for good; if you know about a country or a region’s food, you can be a little bit more invested in their people.
Gary He is a photojournalist based in New York City.