"The world is full of 20 and 30-year-olds who feel frustrated that they could be doing something with their lives or that they should be on the world stage. It's refreshing to reset and think about Din Tai Fung, a very famous restaurant chain that only succeeded after Yang Bing Yi’s product-market fit pivoted when he was 45. It's not a guarantee that everybody will be successful. Even if success arrives, it may not be on your desired schedule. It may come later, after a lot of hard work, pivoting, and pain." - Jeremy Au
“It's crazy because he went through the local Civil War, which was interrupted by the Japanese invasion, another Japanese invasion, then the Civil War kicked off again, then he had to move to Taiwan. As a young man, he saw people dying and being drafted. He saw a relative fight a relative, a friend fight a friend. He saw multiple changes in government. His story is unique, and yet it also represents, in many ways, the diaspora in the 1900s, where people left China in search of peace, a job, and a place to be.”- Jeremy Au
"We often think about luck, being mentioned by the press, and accolades as the things that create opportunity, yet the opportunity actually only emerges because you've been working your ass off for so many years." - Jeremy Au
Jeremy Au, in his reflections, discusses the life of Din Tai Fung's founder Yang Bing-Yi, who passed away at the age of 96. Din Tai Fung is now an award-winning chain restaurant, famous for its soup dumplings, and has over 170 locations worldwide. However, in 1958, Din Tai Fung was founded as a tribute to Heng Tai Fung, Yang's former workplace, and DinMei Oils, their oil supplier. Initially, Din Tai Fung sold peanut oil and bottles, which was a solid business until the market changed, and vegetable oils became packaged in tin containers. In 1972, they pivoted half of the store to sell xiao long bao, the steamed soup dumplings, which became incredibly popular.
Din Tai Fung continued to evolve and eventually focused only on selling food, leading to international success. Yang's unique story of success, business pivots, perseverance, and hard work is a representation of the diaspora in the 1900s, where people left China in search of peace and a better life. Jeremy Au reflects on Yang Bing-Yi's journey and emphasizes the lessons of hard work, consistency, resilience, and adaptability that can be learned from his life story.
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Jeremy Au: (01:03)
On 25th March 2023, the founder of Din Tai Fung passed away. I was surprised to read about it in the news because I realized I had no idea who the founder was. His name was Yang Bing-Yi, and he died 96 years old after an incredible life of pain, pivots, hard work, and eventual success. I wanted to share with you my research about who he was, but also my reflections on his journey and what it means for me, and also the questions I wish I could have asked him actually because there are so many things we don't know about him.
Today, everybody knows about Din Tai Fung. It's an award-winning restaurant chain, famous for soup dumplings. The food is great. It has more than 170 locations across Taiwan, China, the United States, Japan, Australia, UAE, and more. The Hong Kong branch has been awarded the Michelin Star over five times. The food is excellent and turns out my wife also really loves the food. We go there so often that I often joke that my first kid is half made of Din Tai Fung and the other half is made of oatmeal. In fact, I hardly go to Din Tai Fung myself because I know that I'm going to get dragged along by her to go there, and I go there and I still enjoy the food because the service is consistent, everything is awesome and efficient, and the food is consistently good, especially, of course, the xiao long bao, as well as all of the other, you know, appetizers and meals around it. You can get it fast, you can get out fast, and experience is always consistent, whether you are eating in Singapore or in America, wherever it is.
I had always thought that Din Tai Fung was a Taiwanese food brand. That's correct, but actually, Bing-Yi was actually born in China in Shanxi Province at the year of 1927, on 23rd March. That's kind of crazy if you think about it, because 1927 was before World War II, right? And the Civil War so much had happened between 1927 and today.
He moved to Taiwan when he was age 21 due to the Civil War as a refugee, as a single male who would've been targeted, profiled, and drafted or even killed due to, you know, his status as a single male, right of military age. He took his first job at a cooking oil store called Heng Tai Fung, and he worked there for 10 years. He was a delivery man. He handled shop accounts and he handled inventory. In fact, he even found love there and he married Ms. Lie, a coworker, in 1955 at the age of 28.
In 1958, at the age of 31, he decided to launch Din Tai Fung, and it was selling not dumplings, but cooking oil. In fact, Din Tai Fung was a tribute to their former workplace, Heng Tai Fung, which had closed, as well as DinMei Oils, which was their oil supplier. Din referred to the traditional Chinese cooking vessel, and Tai Fung represented peace and abundance. They worked their ass off for 14 years. They sold peanut oil and bottles, which was a solid business until something happened. The market changed. Vegetable oils became packaged in tin containers, and this became the primary way that consumers bought oil.
In 1972. The couple, who were 45, unfortunately, had to figure out something else. So they decided to convert half of the store to sell peanut oil and bottles. The other half started selling xiao long bao, the steamed soup dumplings that they're famous for today. And crazily enough, this is the thing that became really popular, that Din Tai Fung became super popular, for the soup dumplings, and they eventually pivoted entirely and only focused on selling food.
21 years later, in 1993, when they were age 66, they were still selling in Taiwan, and for the first time, they received a 300-word review in the New York Times by an Asian chef that spotlighted them as a top-notch table-to-eat, and that's when they became, in some weird way, famous on a slightly global stage. In 1996, they opened their first-ever international location at the age of 69. They opened up their first year's location in 2000 when he was age 73, and he passed away in 2023, two days after his birthday.
So what do I think? I think it's kind of crazy because he went through a ton of wars. I mean, he went through, as I said, the local Civil War that was interrupted by the Japanese invasion, then another Japanese invasion, and then the Civil War kicked off again, and then he had to move to Taiwan. As a young man, he saw people dying. He saw people being drafted. He saw a relative fight relative. He saw a friend fight a friend. He saw multiple changes in government. In many ways, his story is of course, unique, and yet it also represents in many ways the diaspora in the 1900s, where people left China in search of peace, a job, and a place to be at.
The second thing that resonates with me is building a company of his own at the age of 31. I love the fact that he built a company that acknowledged the legacy, right, of the old boss that he loved by marrying the name of, you know, his two former business partners at the shop that he was an employee at and making into his own company name.
In many ways it's kind of crazy because I'm in my mid-thirties now and I can't imagine, what's it like to be 31, setting up your own business with your wife. Can you imagine what it was like to build something new at that time, and to work their ass off, and then to be slammed by the market reality of nobody wanting to buy peanut oil in bottles? And so, you have to pivot at 45. I mean, who wants to be working from 31 to 45 on an idea that you have, and then suddenly the business stops, and you have to pivot?
The third thing that struck me, of course, was that success of what we'd see of him today came so late in his life. It came at the age of 45 when they eventually kind of landed on the winning idea of xiao long bao, and yet he will only be recognized at the age of 66 by the press, by the New York Times. And then from there, the restaurant started growing in terms of a really aggressive international expansion plan.
What I take away from this is that success is not really linear. It comes and it goes. It's here. It's there. Can you imagine being in a time machine going back to when he was age 31 and telling him, Hey, your peanut oil business is terrible, but you're going to land on the right idea at the age of 45, 14 years later? He would be like, yeah, is there a way I can skip the next 14 years of pain and anxiety and trying to figure shit out and just go straight to, you know, xiao long bao straight away, so that impatience, that frustration, the anxiety of knowing whether you're on the right track or not. I mean, that's something that I really empathize with and I also hear the stories of so many folks.
The world is full of 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds who feel frustrated that they're with the wrong boss, that they could be doing something with their life, that they could be doing something amazing, that they could be an entrepreneur, that they should be on the world stage. So it's refreshing to really kind of like reset and say, Hey, you know, Din Tai Fung is famous, and he only succeeded after his product market fit pivoted at the age of 45. It's not a guarantee that everybody deserves success. In fact, the world is filled with far more failure than success. Even if success arrives, it may not be on the schedule that you want. It may come later, after a lot of hard work after pivoting, and a lot of pain.
The second thing I think about, of course, is I think the importance of family. Throughout the story, his children really started growing the business, and so I think there's an official timeline of Din Tai Fung about him and his success, but we do know that his son became the chairman in the 1990s, which was a period where they were starting to really accelerate and change the strategy.
So what's interesting is how we untangle what he did. What did his wife do? What did his son do? And how did they work together to make the Din Tai Fung formula happen? What was the iteration? What was the approach? How did they change the way they manufactured, the way they cooked, the way they got stuff done?
Now, all these are questions that we don't really know the answer to because nobody asked him. He was relatively low-profile in terms of media, and his family has not really shared too much about his story.
The third thing I think about is really the importance of consistency and perseverance in the context of luck. When we look at it from a biography perspective, we often look at when they were recognized by New York Times as the moment they made it, when he was age 66. That’s the moment where there was an inflection point I think it's easy because I think it's easily dated. It's obviously a brand name. So we look at a review in 1993 as luck, right? The moment that spotlighted it and put them on a global stage. But if you read the review, it's talking about how good the food was and how consistent the food was. In other words, it was more about people recognizing the high quality of his work. His work was high quality, consistent, and persevering in a high standard of food quality.
Everybody knows that the food business is a hard business. It's hard to keep consistent, and the margins are low. It's a lot of work. Running a restaurant is not like a white-collar job where you're working on a computer and doing research and getting to use ChatGPT. No, you got to go to the restaurant and make dumplings.
So, for me, what I take away from this is that success is not linear. It's not on your calendar. It comes when it comes and it's often the fruit of hard work. Secondly, I think about the importance of family, and how having a great co-founder in life called a spouse. Having great children and being able to work with them are all important parts of not just building a business, but also building a legacy. Lastly, I think about how we often think about luck, being mentioned, the press, and accolades, as being the things that create opportunity. Yet the opportunity actually only emerges because you've been working your ass off for so many years.
So here are the questions that I wish I could ask him if he was still around. What was it like to be born in China right during the war? Was it scary to make a decision to move to Taiwan? Was it a no-brainer? Were you scared for your life? Did you feel it was a better opportunity? How did you make the decision to move to a new country? When you moved to a new country called Taiwan, how did you find your job? Why did you decide to stay at a job called Heng Tai Fung doing cooking oil and selling it? Did you wish to do more? Why did you marry Ms. Lie, your coworker?
When Heng Tai Fung closed, you made a decision to set up Din Tai Fung. What other opportunities were you evaluating, like being an employee somewhere else or doing another job, or working for someone else? Were you scared of setting up a new company at the age of 31? What was it like to be supporting a family during that time? When vegetable oils and tin containers started becoming popular, when did you know they started to be a problem for your business?
How did you make the decision to pivot your company and start selling xiao long bao? Why sell xiao long bao out of all foods? How did you as a couple sell xiao long bao at half the shop and the other half an oil? How did you keep the food quality good even though small? What was it like to work for 21 years without being recognized, but to grow a growing business? How do you feel to start handing over your business to your son? What stories did you share with your children? Were you happy to see Din Tai Fung spread to 170 locations or were you focused on some other metric? When you look back on your life, what regrets do you have? What were the bravest moments of your life? What advice would you give to teenagers these days? What advice would you give to people who have lost their jobs and have a think of something new? What hopes do you have for your children? What fears do you have for your children?
Those are many questions, and we don't have the answers to them yet. In many ways, the questions are more interesting than the answers.
I would love to see a movie, like what they did for McDonald's, or KFC and Wendy's. You know, all these fast food entrepreneurs, American models, dynamism, backdrop, social and cultural change. I mean, I would love to see, I don't know, a movie about Din Tai Fung, a business of wit and perseverance and hard work.
Then, you don't have to watch The Social Network for Mark Zuckerberg, or We Crash for WeWork. I want to see that movie where he's like old AF and he is like cutting up the store and starting to sell dumplings on the side and making the fold at the age of 45. I mean, what kind of story is that? 45? I don't know. I mean, I kind of wish I was rich and on my way to retirement at 45. I wouldn't want to be going through a business pivot. The story is about family. It's such a great story. I mean, I want to see this on the screen and I want to see delicious food in the background. I want to see A24 produce this film and I want Michelle Yeo to be the wife aging gracefully. I want those slow-motion camera shots of the dumplings, steaming away. Okay. Somebody make that movie. Okay? I think it would be a great book to write.
(16:17) So, yeah, that's about it. On that note, stay brave and eat more dumplings.