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David Zhao Of The X Pot: Five Things I Learned As A Twenty-Something Founder

Focus on what kind of value and experience you can bring to an organization, instead of focusing on the short-term monetary return.

I had the pleasure of interviewing David Zhao. Originally from Shanghai, China, David Zhao immigrated to the United States at 12 years old and created his business at 20 years old in 2014. An entrepreneur, activist, and scholar, David has opened restaurants in cities such as Las Vegas, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, and Philadelphia, and he owns one of the current top-grossing restaurants in the entire country, The X Pot Las Vegas. David is not only passionate, but heavily involved in self-growth, finance, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, optimization, education, wellness, and restauranteurship.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! What is your “backstory”?

My partner, Haibin Yang, and I met in New York City in 2014, when we were 20 years old. After we met, we wanted to create a hot pot concept restaurant because we noticed there wasn’t an equivalent to Chinatown in Las Vegas at the time. There was another owner at the time, an older gentleman, and they wanted to do more of a Chinese franchise. Haibin and I’s vision was to create something more universal, not something just for a Chinese audience. We wanted to be inclusive and really bridge the culture gap about what hot pot is!

In 2015, we bought out the owner and Haibin and I, with the help of other operators, general managers, and team members, we started the first Chubby Cattle in Las Vegas in late 2015. Overall, it was a success but it most definitely wasn’t an immediate success — it took us two years to fully understand how restaurant operations work, and we didn’t find success financially until we had been operating for about two years. The great thing was that the product was good — people loved the product and the concept, but from an investor standpoint, it wasn’t a good investment yet.

From 2016 to 2018, we opened more locations in Denver, Philadelphia, and Texas. Then the Venetian Resort invited us to open The X Pot in The Palazzo. They thought a hot pot concept was the perfect addition and it was ten-times bigger than anything we had done before — it was a ten-million-dollar location! After a couple years of planning and preparing to open The Venetian location, COVID-19 hit. We finally opened in August of 2020, and it has been a huge success with the customers. Before we even opened that location, we had already decided that we wanted to open locations in Chicago and Los Angeles and it was exciting to see that people responded well to our product. Seeing how far we’ve come, turning into a 20-million-dollar a year business, especially having launched the Venetian property during COVID, has been amazing. We’re now one of the top-grossing restaurants in the entire country!

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company? What lessons or takeaways did you take out of that story?

I don’t know if you would consider this funny, seeing as we’ve gone through so many treacherous situations, dealing with bad investors, bad actors, etc… But in the beginning, nobody knew what hot pot was when we started back in 2015. Starting out, when we told property landlords that we wanted to create a hot pot restaurant, we ended up having to buy an existing restaurant space because we didn’t know what “the right thing to do” is. We thought it was normal to have to buy the restaurant space because they didn’t believe in us enough to have us sign a lease. We knew that the concept would build great value for not only the space, but for the landlord as well, and they just didn’t believe in us enough to have us as renters.

Coming from having to pay to start and open a business, to now being paid to open the business that was once viewed as having no potential, not going to be successful, etc., has been a hard journey, but has also showed me that you really just have to delve deep and really understand the industry, work through the different kinks and difficulties, in order to get to the profitability… From the beginning up until now, it’s been eight years in the making.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our goal, and what makes Chubby Cattle stand out, is always talking about bridging the gap between different cultures. Hot pot is the top revenue generating industry in China, but in the US the majority of the public doesn’t even know what hot pot is, similar to how sushi was in the 1950s, people didn’t really understand what sushi was and only having California Rolls, whereas now almost everyone across the country knows about authentic sushi. Right now, we’re in the space where we’re exploring different cultures and in the information age where we’re able to spread information about these different cultures and concepts so easily and quickly with help from the internet and social media.

We’re able to bridge the gap by taking the best of different cultures, and for me, I’m bilingual and immigrated here from Asia at 12-years-old, so I spent half my life in China and half my life is here in the US. So, our team is able to bring this experience and make it really intuitive, not just with the traditional side of hot pot and how it should be (which is really focused on the soup, and the spices) whereas now we’re bringing the best of both worlds; we have the soup and the spices, but also focusing on the best quality ingredients. We’re talking about the best Wagyu beef, we have our own cattle ranch in Texas, we serve fresh seafood, etc. On top of the traditional hot pot, we’re bringing in a ton of modern technology! There is a lot of contrast here — not just the ingredients and the tradition, but by bringing robots into a thousand-year-old hot pot culture.

With Chubby Cattle, we were the first to create and use a refrigerated conveyor belt for hot pot. You’ve seen conveyor belts being used for sushi, but we wanted to bring that concept to the hot pot experience. That is one of the first innovations that we’ve had as well.

Overall, what makes us stand out is bringing the best of both worlds and allowing ourselves to share this experience in a very intuitive way for the demographic here in the US so that they don’t feel overwhelmed by the experience by not knowing where to start. We use a tasting menu for that very reason, where you just give us any dietary restrictions, and we give you the perfect experience.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

For me, our team is absolutely essential! Every person on our team has gotten us to where we are today. On a daily operational level, we have really excellent team members that are really proficient and great at what they do. We have partners that are really good at the service end so they work front of house, our Executive Chef takes care of all our concepts, food, and dining experiences. Haibin, is the CEO of the company and is able to create these concepts and can go from idealization to actually making these ideas a reality! We have a lot of team members in China as well that are able to help us provide the best, and most traditional experience possible, and also providing the best ingredients from China. Our architect puts together amazing concepts so that we stand out visually, and our marketing team, which is an ad agency I sit on the board of, they help us with translating our experience into the digital space so that people can understand what we do — we utilize Instagram and social media lot so they are really integral to getting the experience out there online.

This wouldn’t be possible without our team members — the general managers, the executive chef, the operators, my partner, our investors that believe in us… The fact that we’ve stuck together since starting Chubby Cattle when we didn’t make a profit for two years, and surviving COVID, no one gives up and we’re able to make it through these challenges together.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

We’re opening an X Pot location in Chicago’s South Loop! As I’ve mentioned, our job is to bring people together with our concepts and we’re so excited to be opening a location in the Midwest, and in a city as culinarily adventurous as Chicago. As the pandemic continues and individuals are still working from home, we hope to bring people together and connected through The X Pot experience.

We want to launch The X Pot in New York City and Miami eventually as well! Our first and foremost goal is making sure that the existing locations are doing well, of course, but we want to eventually bring the experience to every major US city. Seattle, San Francisco, Beverly Hills, are all on our list as well.

We also want to eventually bring in other concepts that are popular in Asia, that aren’t popular in the US yet! Karaoke lounges are huge in Asia right now — it is the number one concept in Asia. It hasn’t been developed here in the US. We also want to bring in augmented reality and virtual reality nightlife.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I always want to do more! Right now, I’m very focused on building out these projects, and I’m very passionate about video content creation. I aim to help people who are currently or have been in my position, or give some insight to those in similar positions… I came to the US with nothing as an immigrant that didn’t speak English, to an adventure that obviously took years, but now finding success as an entrepreneur and a business owner. I hope to provide insight about entrepreneurship, about life, about going to school, and I hope to inspire and motivate and to share failures… It is important to fail and you should celebrate your failures and challenges as much as your successes!

I give back to the community through my follower-base and content creation, and I also try to donate my time to fellow entrepreneurs and former classmates of mine by giving speeches to classes or at speaking events, and answering questions people might have on the industry and running your own business.

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

There are so many to choose from that I don’t think I have a favorite. However, some that have left a lasting impact on my life include The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, Give and Take by Adam Grant, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth, and Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.

Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. Please share an example or story for each.

1. To have investors, vendors, and clients that believe in you.

Starting out, it was really difficult to find those key people that believed in us because we were so young when we launched our business.

2. The ability to pivot.

When you’re so young, you have time on your side and it is a wonderful thing. Your lack of experience when you’re starting out, probably means that your first idea isn’t going to work out and that is good — you learn to pivot, change, and adjust as you learn more about the market and the niche for your product.

3. Lack of experience.

4. Lack of trust.

Lack of experience and lack of trust kind of go hand in hand as one of the most difficult parts of being a “twenysomething founder”. You have to prove to others that your project and MVPs is or will be successful! You’re not going to go to potential investors and say, “Hey, this is my previous work experience and this is why you should trust me and my product” … You have to go to them and give them PROOF of why they can trust you with your capital and your results.

5. Risk

Because you are so young, taking big risks is good! You have your whole life ahead of you… When we were launching The X Pot, we ended up selling our cars and selling our homes to financially back the project and so we could order in a timely fashion. When you’re in your 20s, your able to make those decisions because you don’t have a spouse and children to think about — you just have yourself, your business partner, and your company.

What are the main takeaways that you would advise a twenty-year-old who is looking to found a business?

Get started now, don’t wait! In my mind, you don’t have to wait for school to end, you don’t have to get your first job to start. Sure, those things can work and they can help, but I say you can get started, not necessarily by starting your own company right away, but by getting started in the industry so you can learn and go through, in entrepreneurship, it’s called the “valley of death”. For example, if someone wants to start a restaurant, they can go work as a general manager or intern in a restaurant operations management role.

Don’t worry about the capital that you’ll make in the early stages. I didn’t take a single paycheck for the first three years of Chubby Cattle, as we didn’t make a profit for those first three years. You have to put a lot of hours into the work with little to no monetary return the first few years and you have to be OK with that.

Focus on what kind of value and experience you can bring to an organization, instead of focusing on the short-term monetary return.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

I really look up to my own teammates and partners rather than idols in the industry, as I’m able to work day to day with them and see them as a teammate/partner/friend and family!

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Instagram and TikTok.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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