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Dave Lu of Pared on Supporting the Restaurant Industry

Renegades Volume 3 feat. Dave Lu of Pared: Renegades is an immi interview series featuring influential individuals who push for progress by creating their own rules in life.

About: Dave Lu is a seasoned startup founder and tech veteran with over 19 years of experience at top Silicon Valley companies including Yahoo!, Sony, Apple and eBay with a focus on product and marketing. He bootstrapped his first startup Fanpop and he is now the Co-Founder/President of Pared, an industry-only network for food & beverage professionals.

You grew up in Somerset, New Jersey, as the only Asian kid in your class until the 4th grade. Can you tell us what your experience was like growing up as an Asian American in America?

I grew up mostly with white and black kids. It wasn’t until the 5th grade when I moved to Princeton, New Jersey that there was another Asian kid in the class.

I think I always felt like “the other.” And I was an easy target for jokes or being bullied because I stood out and looked different.

There were no real role models on TV or in teachers. I remember watching Jackie Chan movies and thinking oh here’s a hero I can actually watch. Here’s a person standing up for himself.

There were no other icons other than martial artists to look up to.

So it was hard. You want to look up to someone as a kid, but they were all white and black. And it makes you feel like there’s no one who looks like me who has made it.

And it’s discouraging.

My parents were probably the closest thing I had to role models. They came over here as immigrants with no friends and I saw that they could build a life on their own.

My mom started a freight forwarding company and had an office near Wall Street. That made me think, hey it is possible to build your own house in America.

She inspired me to do what I wanted to do.

You’ve written before about the Asian guilt and burden we bear as the children of immigrants since your parents sacrificed their dreams to give you security and comfort. How did you manage that burden in your career and how has it affected your journey into entrepreneurship?

When my mom started her company, she was getting on the train from New Jersey for an hour and a half commute to New York. She left every day at 5:30AM and came home late.

My dad worked late and sometimes had to work abroad.

They were always working so hard and I knew it was for us. For my sister and I. I knew they wanted to pay for a house in a better school district and make sure we were never wanting for anything.

They never wanted us to feel like we were lacking. And by no means were they wealthy, but they saved enough so that when I was in college, I could focus on my studies.

When you see your dad wearing the same shirt and sandals for 20 years, it dawns on you that they’re giving up everything of their own.

They do see happiness in us but that pressure is a lot to live up to. They are sacrificing a lot of their own lives for us and there is a feeling of indebtedness.

I talk to them and hear about the sacrifice they made of leaving Taiwan in their 20s to do grad school here with no friends.

My dad first came to Tulsa, Oklahoma. He didn’t know anyone there. And it must have been so hard to live there as an Asian immigrant.

Seeing how much they gave up so we could do well and have security later in life really guided my career. It influenced the schools I went to, and the safe big name jobs I took at Apple, Sony, and Yahoo.

It was more about making sure that I had enough money to take care of myself, my family, and my parents.

It wasn’t about happiness, it was about security. The hard thing in your mind is that security is tied to money. Because that’s what your parents worked their butts off for. To make sure you were safe and secure.

So that definition applies to you too. Where you need a certain income or need your resume to look a certain way so you never worry about getting a job again.

You started your first company at 29 with Fanpop. What was the turning point that led you to make that jump?

The funny story is that I had just graduated from Stanford for business school and was working at eBay.

There, I developed this mentality that I didn’t want to be a cog and I wanted to do more.

Coming out of business school, I used to think that I needed to become a VP or executive because that’s when I’ll know everything I need to know about starting a company. Which is totally not true but in my mind at the time, I was telling myself that to convince myself not to take a risk.

Inside eBay, I was trying to do things that people who had been there a long time didn’t like. I was trying to be entrepreneurial.

And I had a chat there with my director and he said, “I know you’re trying to make a lot of change here. But I got demoted when I tried to rock the boat and speak out. This is what happened to me. And even if someone were to destroy our headquarters tomorrow, eBay would still make money.”

Basically telling me to stand down quietly because nothing I suggested would make a difference.

And when he said that, I asked myself, “Why am I driving down from San Francisco to San Jose every day to do this? If it doesn’t even matter if I come in or not, why am I staying as a cog in the machine?”

I saw this time and time again with other friends who were working in hedge funds or private equity. They were working so hard for partners when they were the ones doing deals or going to the board meetings.

The risk / reward ratio didn’t make sense.

So I wanted to go do my own thing. I joined a startup first after eBay to make sure I wanted to do this.

I tell people, you don’t need to fully quit your job to be a founder. You can experiment on the side while you’re still at your job.

When I was at eBay, I would study some of the people running businesses because we were cutting checks to them. I would study affiliate marketing and other models.

Then an old colleague of mine from Yahoo and I decided to start Fanpop together and we grew that to 40mm users per month. And started generating revenue from what I learned at eBay.

There’s a reason for everything. I still learned at eBay but you still have to take the risk to do things yourself.

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After Fanpop, you jumped back into another company. What led you to go from consumer tech to the restaurant industry with Pared?

There was actually a short stint after Fanpop. After 9 years at Fanpop, I went to Luxe to lead marketing. I had gone from an ad revenue business that used SEO, content, and community to a two-sided marketplace with Luxe.

I had known my co-founder Will through mutual friends. He went to culinary school after graduating from Stanford, much at the chagrin of his parents who wanted him to be a doctor.

His first job was a commis at Per Se out of culinary school. So he was mopping floors and chopping carrots.

Then he worked at the French Laundry and started his own fast casual chain in San Francisco. So I had a lot of respect for him already having taken that much risk.

When he came to me with the idea of Pared, it was a no brainer for me.

When someone has such deep domain expertise and sees an acute problem they want to solve – that’s a very unique opportunity.

For myself, I missed building and I had some understanding of the dynamics of a marketplace with acquisition and growth. I also love restaurants and food so it was a dream come true.

When I was doing Fanpop, I was interviewing Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and going to screeners and premieres. And in this job, I get invited to all these restaurants and meet chefs.

People always ask how I break into these industries? And I say, look if you are passionate about what you do and you build a company around that, you’ll obviously meet these people and get invited to these things because you are excited about it.

Look at people like Andrew Chau and Bin Chen with Boba Guys – they get to travel and write a book about boba.

This is a longer story but one of my favorite restaurants in New York is Gramercy Tavern.

I remember one time I was eating there with a friend. I had moved back to New York after business school and was having dinner there. I’m big into photography and they had a beautiful harvest display so I started taking pictures.

Chef Michael Anthony came out and he asked if I worked in the industry? And I said no I’m just a big fan of this restaurant and come whenever I get a chance.

So he took me to the back of the kitchen, introduced me to all of the staff, and showed me what they were working on.

He asked what course I was on, and I said we were just finishing up our entrees.

So he ended up sending every single dessert on the menu. There were 2 of us and we had 7 desserts each. And I was like whoa! He didn’t have to do that. He was so hospitable.

We exchanged information and he would always help me get impossible reservations, one of which I used to treat my mom to an amazing dinner.

I became friends with him and later when I started Pared, I went to meet him and get Gramercy Tavern on board.

There’s this kinship with restaurateurs and chefs and startup founders. They have to build a product like we do. They have to find space and build that UX experience in a restaurant. They have to hire and fire people. They have to do marketing to acquire users.

They do all the same things we do, but they don’t get to raise millions of dollars and be cash flow net negative for a while while they build the business.

They aren’t making much and they can’t scale like tech entrepreneurs but they do it because they are passionate about what they are doing and they love serving people and making them happy.

So I often look to them as my heroes because starting a restaurant is hard. It’s probably harder than any tech business.

They are eeking out margins that are thin and need to decide on paying employees or taking care of their kids. It’s very stressful and I have a lot of respect for them.

Are there elements in the culture of a kitchen that you try to bring into the workplace culture at Pared?

We have 3 core values of the company.

Heard, Behind, and Soigne.

Heard: Whenever a chef or teammates asks you to do something, you respond with Heard. It means that you will be there for them and have their back. You’ll do what you need to execute and always support your team.

Behind: Self awareness. When you have something hot or have something sharp, you yell Behind so the person knows you’re behind them. It means being aware of everything around you and being self aware of people on your team, not just with work, but in general life.

Soigne: Finesse. When you do something that is soigne, you are very proud of it. It’s perfect. And when you deliver it to someone, you know you’ve done your best job. For us, we use it when someone coded a bug and they say, “I should have been more soigne about this.”

We use a lot of kitchen terminology as values in Pared.

The restaurant industry struggles with countless issues like labor shortages, rising food and labor costs, tipping, and more. And it’s been incredibly painful to see iconic restaurants and fine dining institutions across America close due to competition from food delivery and COVID-19. What do you think will be the future of the restaurant industry in America?

More than anything, it’s an indication that the business model is very challenging.

Do I think restaurants will come back in the same way after COVID? I personally do think they will.

It’s still hard. It’s a working capital business. When the cash flow stops, it’s not coming from anywhere else.

These restaurants are making razor thin margins and don’t have much saved up cash. There aren’t many ways to have a cushion or insurance to endure 3-6 months of closing down.

But people are eager to get back. People would rather go to a bar now and risk getting sick. So there’s still a pull of restaurants to celebrate, dine out, and be somewhere with food you really love.

You can do delivery and takeout all you want, but when you see that meal on a plate at a restaurant and you’re enjoying a glass of wine, you can’t replicate that at home.

These fine dining restaurants have so much staff to cover at service and if you don’t have cash to cover them, these owners and chefs have no choice. Many of them will wait it out until opportunities rise again.

Rents will drop when landlords realize that they aren’t getting folks to come back. But the biggest problem to be solved is this short-term cushion to get people through this time.

Is it a new type of insurance? Increasing prices?

I don’t think chefs can raise prices, because consumers are unwilling to pay higher prices. And any extra revenue would be going to the labor who is already underpaid. So it’s challenging to even build that cushion.

The whole system from labor costs, price of food, willingness to pay to delivery companies taking 20-30% is tough.

Some restaurants are stopping delivery altogether because they are breaking even and it doesn’t make sense.

The bailout with unemployment checks won’t help these restaurants. They have to bring back entire teams when the restaurant is only at 50% capacity and the math doesn’t work.

The government isn’t thinking about economics for restaurants.

These restaurateurs can’t bring back 100% of staff when there is only 50% of standard revenue. You would burn money for 6 months so why even open again?

Corey Lee’s Monsieur Benjamin hasn’t been open this whole time during shelter in place. And I can see why Corey doesn’t want to open. He can’t pay all the staff with limited revenue.

Some restaurants are worried about litigation – if you only bring back some staff members, will the others sue for discrimination?

So there are a lot of restaurants who are scared to only open halfway.

Would you have one call to action for consumers to help the restaurant industry?

The ones that are open now have to be open. These are the local mom and pops. Or one chef who opened the restaurant.

Go do takeout. Drive to the restaurant and pick up your food. Don’t do delivery.

That money all goes to the restaurant.

Tip, even with takeout. That extra money goes into the pockets of employees. A lot of us are cooking at home right now – if you have some disposable income, you can pass that on through picking up and tipping.

What are some cultural values you grew up with that you want to instill in your two sons? What about values you don’t want to instill?

I was a troublemaker as a kid and a headache for my parents. Maybe that’s why I’m an entrepreneur now.

I want to instill creativity into my kids. I know it’ll be a headache. Every time my son watches something, he wants to sing and dance, and recreate it.

My dad and mom encouraged me to be an entrepreneur.

I would create carnivals in my basement and charge my friends a quarter to come hang out.

If my son wants to be an entrepreneur, I want to support them to do that. That’s not an Asian immigrant trait but I do want them to be free to do what they want to do.

My parents didn’t express love or hug me a ton.

So I probably hug and kiss my kids way more than they want. But it makes them feel safe. And they are both social and outgoing as a result.

I don’t want them to be afraid of who they are. As Asian Americans, they should be proud of who they are.

My dad taught me to never let anyone push me around. I never back down and don’t get pushed around.

Asians have a stereotype of being doormats or yes people who don’t rock the boat. But I’ve always rocked the boat.

That’s why I start the things I do, because no one will stop me in doing things I believe in and that’s what I want to teach my boys too.

I want to pass along my parents’ perseverance to my children.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about Asian food in America?

I don’t like that Asian food has the label of being cheap. So you’re comfortable paying $20 for a bowl of linguini but a bowl of jajangmyeon, you’d only be willing to pay $10 for?

The whole misconception that Asian food isn’t as refined or doesn’t deserve the same price as European food ticks me off.

Chef Tu David Phu in Oakland is a Vietnamese chef selling banh mi for $10 and people were outraged. They complained about the high prices, but who says banh mi should only be $2 or $3?

The places selling banh mi in the Tenderloin for those prices are able to do so because they’re locked into leases at below market rates. Why doesn’t banh mi get compared to $15 burgers or $25 lunches if they are using better quality ingredients?

Corey Lee helped break down the pricing doors when he charged more for an Asian tasting menu.

One of the best meals I had last year was Atomix in New York. It’s a Korean tasting menu that is phenomenal. The skill level required for that was incredible.

More of this will happen and Asian food will soon be acceptable in the mainstream as something that can and should be more expensive.

When you go to Californios, you’re trying Mexican food that you can’t just get at a regular food stand.

What is an Asian dish that reminds you of your childhood?

Lion’s Head Meatballs (狮子头). When my grandma was around and taking care of me, she would make soy bean milk from scratch. But when she made lion’s head meatballs, they were so good.

I always wish I learned how to make them from her. She’s 103 now.

There’s another dish called Bo Bia. It’s a wrap that I’ve only had from my grandma and a few places in Taiwan and it’s so much effort to make.

There’s a restaurant called Shin-Yeh in Taipei that has it.

Do you have any favorite Taiwanese night market foods?

I usually go find Hujiao Bing (baked pepper bun). It’s like a black pepper beef meatball inside a baked bread.

It’s super peppery and SO good. Straight hot off the barrel they make it in is amazing.

You can’t get it here so every time I’m in Taiwan, I’m looking for it.

It sounds a bit like a Sheng Jian Bao (pan-fried pork bun)?

It’s a little like that but it’s a bigger bun. It’s very crunchy and it’s not fried. It’s baked in a big barrel (similar to one you’d make naan in).

It’s so good.

15 years ago, a friend told me about a place in Taipei that served it. And we didn’t know the exact address but he remembered and I just remember running through alleys to go find it.

I have a photo of the place but I don’t remember the name.

It’s just street food, but it’s the best.

Who do you think is the most under-rated chef right now?

Chef Junghyun Park at Atomix. He’s quiet and isn’t on social media much. But he’s an amazingly talented chef. If you can get rich old people from the Upper East Side coming down to eat a Korean tasting menu for that much, you’ve got it.

Every course comes with a beautiful card with art and a story specifically about that food.

It’s a whole journey and experience. He tells you where each ingredient is from and the story of that dish.

Atomix should be at the top of your list.

When you leave, you get a card holder to hold all the cards. It’s so cool.

Imagine you get to take off a year to do an apprenticeship. What dish would you spend that year perfecting?

You can stick me in a Din Tai Fung to learn how to make xiao long bao. I’d want to go learn at the original location in Asia.

If I can learn how to make the skin that thin and fold them properly, that would be awesome. That in and of itself is an art.