What is Whalen’s?
Whalen’s is a restaurant that serves the best skillets, omelets, breakfast platters, waffles, sandwiches, wraps and gourmet poutines in Taipei. It is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and guarantees the best quaility of food at all times as nothing comes directly out of the freezer. Everything is freshly made and nicely prepared hours before they appear on your plate.
Where is Whalen’s?
Whalen’s sits on the corner of Anhe Road and Leli Road. The closest MRT station would be Xinyi and Anhe Station on the red line; walk south on Anhe Road and you’ll find Whalen’s on the left side of the road just past Leli Road. You can also get off at MRT Liujiangli Station on the brown line and walk about 10 minutes north on Anhe Road (passing by Shangri-La and Carnegie’s on the left). Whalen’s will appear on the right side as the road takes a right curve.
Taipei was engulfed in the unbearable August heat when we sat down with Alex Whalen, owner of the restaurant that bears his name, and enjoyed the most striking conversation during which he talked about coming to Taiwan, working 3 week stretches in an oilfield to earn start-up money and what his next business venture will be.
Alex arrived to Taiwan on his eighteenth birthday. At the age of seventeen he didn’t like the idea of attending university like his peers and choosing a major (and thus a career) at such a young age. He was well aware of the ever-changing nature of one’s interests and ways of looking at things (exhibit A in hindsight: Whalen says almost all of his peers’ jobs right now have little to do with what they studied in college), so he accepted an open invitation from his best friend’s older brother who had been living in Taiwan for a few of years and came here to explore the possibilities of a life outside his native Ottawa, Canada. After a couple of months, he went back to Canada, but the thought of Taiwan never escaped him. So he came back.
At the age of 24 Alex had been studying Chinese for 6 years. He saw two career options in front of him. One: Teaching English. He smiled at this and said he truly enjoyed teaching, and he still does. Yet he realized the prospects and the room for career growth weren’t nearly as good as going back to Canada to get a post-secondary degree in teaching. Two: Opening a restaurant. He had been working in restaurants from the young age of 13, and preparing food has always given him great pleasure. The answer seemed clear enough to him, and the next step was to find the money he needed to make this dream happen.
Enspyre CEO Elias often jokes about the 3Fs start-ups turn to for financing: Family, Friends, and the Fools who are foolish enough to believe in you. That sounds reasonable enough when you are trying to finance your budding business. But no, not for Alex. He did the unimaginable (for a chef or any other sane person): he went back to Canada, but this time to its Northern part and worked in the oil industry. Working in the atrocious weather of -50°C and in an accident-prone environment, he committed to a 21-day-on, 3-day-off schedule with a minimum of 14 working hours a day for 6 months. He describes the experience as “memories forever burned into my brain”, and recalled a day when his boss broke his hand in three places with a hammer, but had to suck it up and keep on working. By the time he finally got to a hospital it was 10 p.m., and the only doctor was busy attending to a woman in labor. It was 1 a.m. in the morning when he finally got his hand treated, and he had to be on duty three hours later to start the daily routine.
He remembered one day as he was doing cleaning work and was completely drenched in diesel oil, he looked up at the sky and helplessly wondered what it was all for. This image might remind us of Tom Hanks in “Cast Away”, but this time the hero was a blonde Canadian with much less facial hair, howling silently from the bottom of his heart in the great white North. Though Alex does NOT encourage young entrepreneurs to try this as a means to finance their businesses, he admits the experience toughened him and prepared him physically and mentally for the long and exhausting hours not alien to restaurant-starters.
The restaurant is a partnership between Alex Whalen and Andrew Lunman, a restaurateur and culinary consultant. Lunman owns Coda and Bongos, two restaurants in the Gongguan area, and he has abundant knowledge in food, as well as years of experience and established connections in the restaurant business in Taiwan. The two partners were aware of the highly saturated market for Western cuisine with burger restaurants and pasta places lining the streets of Taipei, not to mention the fact that some well-known brunch places such as The Diner are within walking distance from Whalen’s. Yet Alex had always felt there was something missing in the food. Either the buns were too sweet or the food wasn’t legitimately “Western” enough. Many restaurants choose to cater to the Taiwanese market and add a local touch to their dishes. But Alex didn’t want to adopt that strategy. He “didn’t like to change for the local palate”, and he wanted to offer food that was rich in flavors. He calls it “hangover food”, which is simply the greasy, satisfying comfort food we oftentimes find ourselves guilty to gobble down by the plate. This is also how they were to distinguish themselves from other restaurants. They wanted to properly test-run all the dishes before going full-scale, so they experimented with a series of “condensed menus” at Lunman’s Coda in a separate set of dining hours and provided discounts for customers who filled out comments cards.
Slowly and purposefully paving the road for Whalen’s launch, they carefully “rolled out” their plans. Instead of attracting a huge crowd of customers and possibly make them think the restaurant was not prepared to receive such demands, they made the opening day a small event for family and friends. This mentality continued throughout the first year, and while other restaurants spend big bucks on marketing and ads, they have spent basically zero on promotional costs and relies instead heavily on word-of-mouth. Now they are active on Facebook and you see the pictures of ambitious customers coming in every other day to take on the Killer Whale challenge: finishing a gigantic plate of yummy fries, cheese, gravy, and various kinds of delicious meat that weighs 5.5 pounds in total in 30 minutes. Alex wasn’t fully on board with this “gimmick” in the first place. He was hoping the restaurant could have a more classy feeling than a dinner atmosphere. But then he said this is when the advantages of a partnership pop up because you get to hear different opinions. As it turned out, the Killer Whale was a big hit. It has successfully attracted challengers near and far and become a hot (and mouthwatering) topic in the restaurant.
Despite their goal to not adjust to the local palate, they recently adjusted the menu selection to attract more local customers. If you have been to Whalen’s, you would have noticed that the options are breakfast-and-lunch heavy. During dinner hours, many Taiwanese customers would walk in, look at their menu, and say “I’ll come back next time”. He realized that many local people have a hard time associating “sandwiches” with dinner, and they walk out once they can’t find “rice” or “noodles” on the menu. Now the new menu incorporates three regular pasta dishes: lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, and mac and cheese. Alex makes sure the additions are not far-fetch fancy dishes but something his mom would make at home when he was a kid.
“A whole lot of driving” was Alex’s answer to how they found the location. The numerous agencies they hired were completely useless, either demonstrating poor professional attitude or simply turning a blind eye to their needs and requirements. None of the places the salespeople showed to them came close to what they pictured. Enspyre’s Elias can contest to the poor quality of service the agencies provide and relate deeply to the frustration for finding the new office space for Enspyre was not easy task either (read more about finding and renovating an office, please click HERE) . Finally, they found the current location on Anhe Road and acquired the place from an Italian restaurant through “dingrang” (頂讓). In Chinese the term means selling an existing business, and Alex characterized it as a “funny” business practice, saying the decision to buy an existing business was a “double-edge sword”. On one hand you don’t have to build everything from zero, but on the other hand you have to accept whatever the previous owner offer. There was little room for negotiation e.g. with the the lease, and though they took over the equipments along with the location, they still paid a startling price to get their business started in this way.
Alex said one of the biggest frustrations comes from employees, whether hiring them, training them, or keeping them. In the beginning they used forms and websites to recruit, yet it turned out to be a waste of time. He could have 10 interviews scheduled in the afternoon, but only 1-2 people would show up. And he said you could almost count on the predictable absence in the second round of interview even though the applicants sound pretty enthusiastic on the phone. Now they depend on word-of-mouth to recruit their serving staff. They are friends of an employee’s boyfriend or another employee’s high school classmate. It’s easier for them to stay around this way because they all know each other. Still, many employees are between the age of 22 to 25, and they have always lived at home and never had a job. Their parents take good care of them, and they never had to get their hands dirty. In consequence, a lot of young people have no concept of food handling. Once, the restaurant ran out of burger patties and the employees replied that they didn’t receive the ground beef delivery. Yet the next day Alex opened the restaurant door and he was overwhelmed by an abhorring odor. He traced the source to the back of the store where he found a package in the dry storage area. He opened it and almost vomited at the sight. Inside was NT$3,000 worth of ground beef worth, no longer frozen and completely ruined and smelly. Incidents like this caused by neglect and laziness greatly frustrate him, and now he trains the employees from the very beginning (literally), reminding them to wash their hands before making food and to wash the knife after cutting the ingredients.
Alex and his partner play good cop/bad cop when it comes to managing the staff. They didn’t mean for such arrangement; it just came naturally. Alex is close to his employees in terms of age and interests, and he would take them out drinking and have fun. He believes a happy working environment is an efficient one, but he also recognizes a fine line between the professional and the personal. He recalls being soft and forgiving towards the staff, thinking they’ll reciprocate such respect if he treats them nicely. Now he has learned to be more stern in situations that involve laziness and lack of thinking to avoid future occurrences. Interestingly, Alex said he has had far more success in hiring international students. Whereas American and European students hold an Alien Resident Certificate (ARC) that doesn’t allow them to work, somehow the ARC that South-East Asian students have allows them to work a maximum of 20 hours a week. All he needed to do was to make sure the total weekly hours of their shifts don’t go over the maximum 20. Besides that, no extra procedures are needed to hire them. These students need the cash to make ends meet so they appreciate the opportunity and they work hard. At one point he had more foreigners than local employees working in the restaurant.
Everything Alex said regarding employees he said with exasperation and sheer frustration. You understand the gravity of the matter because if you talk to Alex, you would know that he is by no means an impatient person. His reaction align with many other foreign/immigrant entrepreneurs’ feeling towards recruiting, saying “I could talk about this for hours”. Their experience tells them that young Taiwanese people lack fundamental skills and generally show little commitment to work. Of course this is a generalization that none of us want to impose on the young labor force, yet fickleness, negligence, and lack of problem-solving and critical thinking skills are the top complaints we hear from foreign employers. It has been a pain in the a** for business owners, and it always initiates fervent discussions whenever we hold a workshop on starting a business. Alex and his friend sarcastically describe the issue as “remarkable” for the professionalism of service is seriously lacking, and everything is believable especially in the restaurant industry. To cope with this, Alex said he “smokes more and drinks more coffee”.
The day before the interview was Alex’s day off. After a 90-minute workout at the gym, he checked his phone and there were 16 missed calls from the restaurant. He laments the fact that the Taiwanese education emphasizes getting the right answer but completely overlooks problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and as a consequence the system cultivates a group of people who are afraid to take initiatives for fear of getting blamed or making mistakes. Luckily, not everything is a disaster. Currently Whalen’s have 3 to 4 culinary school kids as interns in the kitchen, and one of their previous interns just got accepted to The W Hotel. The restaurant gets help from the interns, the interns get real-life experience, and the schools are grateful to the restaurant owners for introducing the opportunities.
Alex blames the government for the low minimum wage. When the restaurant is busy, he truly sees the employees’ hard work. For nearly the same hourly wage, they could choose to work at 7-11 for an easier, more systematic and less challenged job. He confessed that he “feels bad for paying their paycheck” because he believes they deserve more monetary reward. Yet in order for him to pay them more, the restaurant will have to make more money. He hopes to see the government raising the bar of minimum wage so that people would be more willing to spend on leisurely activities, including dining, and that restaurants can make more money, and in return reward their employees with a reasonable and more satisfying salary. He believes it can be a mutually beneficial cycle.
We asked him to choose one thing that he is most proud of, and after a short contemplation, he said he takes pride in their steady and regular clientele base. People don’t just come here for the food. They come here for the whole dining experience, and sometimes they come here to chat or work on their laptop for an afternoon without feeling awkward even if they are the only customer in the store. The sense of total comfort and trust manifested from the relationship the managers and waiters build with the customers.
With a highly loyal clientele, of course we would like to know if there’ll be a second Whalen’s. Alex said they have definitely thought of expanding, and they are very confident in moving forward. On a different note, for a long time, Alex has wanted to sponsor a local sports team, providing the kids jerseys and the team and their parents a gathering place. He believes a healthy give-and-take relationship can be mutually beneficial if this dream becomes a reality.
To start a restaurant, on average you would need approximately 4-6 million NTD. If you have 5 million NTD on your hands, Alex’s advice to wanna-be restaurateurs is to “invest somewhere else”. Coming from a successful restaurant owner under the age of 30, this doesn’t seem to offer much encouragement or comfort. Alex continued to explain that the frustration and the annoyance of little problems that he constantly experiences make him believe that a better investment could be made out of the 5 million NTD. With the same amount of money, “you could pay down payment for three houses”. Or travel around the world for 10 years. Nevertheless, he does encourage entrepreneurs who want to dive into the business to find a partner. A partner with passion and knowledge to help you out financially and most importantly, someone who is ready to tackle problems hands-on and share the heavy workload.
With Enspyre’s experience and the previous symposium we attended on government’s grant and subsidies (see article HERE), we shared the information we know, and Alex is keen on checking the programs out. He mentioned that utility costs along are the single highest costs among all the expenses. They overshadow rent and food supplies, and they even put employee salary to shame. He understands that between residential and commercial properties there’s a different calculating mechanism, but he simply cannot comprehend why he has to pay more than NTD$100,000 per month on power. He’s interested in learning the government’s policy on this and hopefully to apply for a grant to cover the costs and make Whalen’s operations smoother and more efficient.