atlanta's independent entrepreneur network
Natalie Keng, above right, owns Chinese Southern Belle with her mother Margaret Keng, left. Together they fill the minds and stomachs of Atlantans with Asian goodness.
LRBN: We’re in this (metaphorical) elevator together for 30 floors – Hi there, what do you do?
NK: I just started a mother-daughter business where we take people eating, learning and shopping - through Asian market tours, hands-on cooking classes, cultural workshops, special events and consulting. I'm also a Chinese Southern Belle and family historian - Ni Hao, Y'all. I'm writing a cultural cookbook and family history documentary .
LRBN: How's the whole mother-daughter dynamic thing work? I bet that presents some unique challenges!
NK: I love it! My mom is a wonderful, gifted teacher, funny and my favorite chef. We have great synergy and fun teaching together, telling Buddha-to-Bubba stories and cooking up a storm! It's a rare and special opportunity for me. We are a great team! People seem to like the mother-daughter energy and uniqueness.
LRBN: That sounds pretty great. How long did it take you to go from ideation to implementation with the company?
NK: I have entrepreneurial genes - runs strong in my family - my dad was an engineer turned entrepreneur/business man, and my mom was a school teacher turned international business consultant - so the brainstorming energy was there for years, but it wasn't until about 2008 that I decided to implement. I left my corporate job, sold my house, put my stuff in storage and took my mom on a world trip in 2007 and begin dreaming, reflecting on what I really wanted to do, what would make me happy, what was my dream/vision. But it's scary to actually throw your hat in the ring and set up the LLC, execute. Family and friends' support made a big difference, helped me take the risk, go for the dream.
It started more as a family history project and grew from there, into a multi-faceted vision. We had been getting the signals for years - our friends loved our dinner parties, wanted to go shopping with us and get cooking tips - they wanted to eat, shop and learn with us, basically - so we turned it into a business, with a strong community component. We're only a year old, so still market testing, exploring avenues, but also a lot of positive feedback - folks want a show, more video!
LRBN: Wow, awesome story! So, speaking of "support," how did you fund the company when you started?
NK: Used my own savings, sold my house in MA right before the crash so used some proceeds from
that. Saved a little during my corporate years, after I paid off student loans. I've been frugal with expenses, e.g. not doing glossy brochures until now or lots of logo "stuff." Taking it one step at a
LRBN: How has the business model changed over the year?
NK: The model has evolved somewhat, from classes/tours/demos as the end product to those same things as more of a means, a stepping stone. At first, we were thinking the service was the class or tour, but then we realized, based on feedback that the product was really US. People were coming to our classes or liked the website because they liked us as entertainers, chefs and teachers, hosts. You can get any recipe you want online, there are plenty of great restaurants/food experts/critics and great caterers, but few Chinese Southern Belles, with the combination of our experiences, stories and East/West/Southern heritage, cultural blend. People love the food and presentation but they come for the experience. Food is a medium, not an end for us.
LRBN: Any surprises to owning your own business (positive or otherwise)?
NK: I should say confront your strengths, etc DIRECTLY. It's now not just a performance review,
it's your livelihood! But I love it! It's a multi-disciplinary business that matches my multi-disciplinary passions!
LRBN: Have there been any mistakes you've made that you wish you could have a do-over on?
NK: I wish I had done this earlier, like when I was 25 or 30 so I wouldn't have to worry about using up my retirement funds. I also think there is more general support and resources for young entrepreneurs. But then I wouldn't have had the insight of working in all the sectors to bring it all together now. I think about Paula Deen making it big at age 60, and I feel better.
LRBN: Ha! She is an inspiration, isn't she? Any advice for enterprising indiepreneurs?
NK: Seek out good and diverse advisors/resources who can play different roles - when you need a cheerleader, trusted expert advice, or hard reality check. Make sure you do your homework - market
LRBN: Thanks for the insight! Any parting words? (Please feel free to shamelessly promote yourself here if you so desire…)
NK: We have a new schedule of classes for June - fun hands-on cooking classes at Buford Hwy Farmers Market, Asian Noodles at Cook's Warehouse, check it out on the website. We are also starting to respond to group classes, more private Asian market tours, multicultural consulting. I am working on a few books - the first one will probably be a cultural cookbook, with Buddha-to-Bubba stories and cross-cultural food/kitchen tips. And we have a new CSB business page on FB so make the switch over and "LIKE IT" and become a fan!