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Home > Life Stories > The Ethnic Food Entrepreneur - UK - 3

The Ethnic Food Entrepreneur - UK - 3

Food is central to immigrant entrepreneurship (Kloosterman et al, 1999; Basu, 2002) with previous studies finding that lack of language, education and even capital need not be an impediment to starting up a small take-away or restaurant specialising in ethnic cuisine. In the UK Chinese and Indian restaurants have been a significant feature of immigrant entrepreneurship for more than 100 years. The earliest were established in London and Liverpool during the second half of the nineteenth century (Leung, 2010) with the early 20th century seeing a wider range of ethnic food outlets established across the UK, including Jewish cuisine, catering at first to compatriots and co-religionists, but as time went on developing a far wider market. Food-related entrepreneurship is a commonality across immigrant groups and there were many similarities in experience found in the interviewees for ELIE UK where they were engaged in this type of entrepreneurship.

This case study concerns Mr WY who represents a pinnacle of achievement but whose business has followed a pattern of development that can be seen in all of the other interviewee’s stories. This suggests that there is a ladder of food-related entrepreneurship that can be climbed so far as the individual entrepreneur wishes, but that success in climbing the ladder rests on a range of factors, not all of which are controllable by the individual but with some factors that can be managed and knowledge of which will be helpful to entrepreneurs.

Mr WY was born in the West Indies into a Chinese family. His father was a businessman of some repute and had a factory that produced soft drinks. The global economic slump in the 1930s encouraged the family to return to China and they were caught up in the difficulties of the war between China and Japan. Mr WY completed his education in China but the family maintained English speaking as this was seen as important both in living in Hong Kong and also as a business language. In the late 1950s Mr WY came to the UK to seek work and was first based in Liverpool where there was a sizable Chinese community. He says he had an advantage because he was able to read the English newspapers and take account of changes and trends. Many people who started in the UK with him never learned the language effectively and so he thinks were not able to exploit opportunities as effectively as he could. Mr WY got a job in Hull through contacts, working in a restaurant. He cannot cook and worked as a waiter. He was able to save and brought his first Chinese restaurant, employing a chef. Very soon he discovered a central problem of being a restaurateur; he was at the mercy of his chef. Very often chefs would decide to leave and set up their own takeaway or small restaurant, leaving him to find another chef very quickly. One chef did not even start work; he arrived and went off to the local bookmakers, where he had a lucky accumulator bet and made so much money he immediately left Mr WYs employ to return to China! Mr WY said that at the time (early 1960s) most restaurants in the UK shut at 10pm, if not earlier, so staying open after the pubs shut at 11pm gave his business and others like it an advantage.

His brother also came to England and worked with Mr WY, so that they were able to develop a small chain of four restaurants across the East of England. However, the problem of chefs and difficulties in obtaining ingredients led Mr WY to decide that he would move into wholesale supply of Chinese food and restaurant necessities. The acquisition of their first warehouse, with family accommodation on the top floor and including a basement area and car parking in the Midlands was an ideal base for a Chinese grocery. After only five years the business outgrew this site and within eight years Mr WY and his brother acquired outlets in another city. Later expansions included development of business centres associated with their sites (now in four different towns and cities), an online shop that has customers as far away as Australia and South America, and the continuous development of the business into the production of food-stuffs such as sauces and cooking ingredients. The business centres attached to the various wholesale and retail centres attract a wide range of entrepreneurs, mainly but not exclusively immigrant led, including banks, restaurants, Chinese printers, hairdressers and other small and medium enterprises.

In addition Mr WY has developed a property portfolio and an internationally respected educational charity as well as being involved in a number of civic projects. The group now employs 300 staff over its four sites and continues to grow and develop. 

Education and Culture Lifelong Learning Programme
© 2011 ELIE Project
This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication [communication] reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.