Lunman the Burger Meister
This article is dedicated to Andrew Lunman, friend to me and many others, and a smart traveler rat who not only stayed out of the swamp, but also made life on the beach better for all! Hope you’re enjoying life back in Canada!
Anyone living in Taipei today – or much of Taiwan, for that matter – would not feel that it was difficult to get their hands on a good hamburger, at a reasonable price, with a nice side order of proper fries. But there was a time, back in the day, when the affordable quality burger simply didn’t exist in Taiwan. And you may be too surpised to hear that the burger trend was created by recently repatriated Canadian restaurateur Andrew Lunman.
Bongos in 2003 was the blasting off point for the Taipei burger wave, and Lunman’s career as a successful restaurant owner. By 2004 the burgers, beer and Mexican food place in the Gongguan student ghetto was “busy every day”, he said. Despite a somewhat hard-to-find location, Bongo’s made a beefy splash in both the foreign and local NTU student community. People loved the food and the price was right, just 190NT for a good burger, fries and drink. Although larger operations were in his future, Lunman says, “I never equaled the return on investment I got from Bongos.”
It was the culmination of several streams of experience in Lunman’s life. One of these was education. Lunman graduated in management economics at Guelph University, cooking his way through college. After graduation, he became a loans officer – “Frosty the No Man” as he put it – for the Royal Bank of Canada. He hated that for 8 months, then decided to go on the road.
That’s where he got some of his core restaurant cooking experience. In 1999 he ended up in Australia with almost no money, so he started working for various restaurants to make some cash. He soon had to a chance to apply for a rather posh job at Club Med in the Whitsunday Islands, a position that was pretty far above his level of restaurant experience at that time. However, Lunman says that he was “creative in the interview process”, and managed to score a test of competency at the job, which was a demo cooking position, cooking right out in front of the customers. It was a serious challenge to live up to the performance requirements of a restaurant run by French chefs, one that he says he met with a “laser like focus”, working long hours, asking questions, and swotting up on the manuals for the Australian Culinary School.
Then one day, something totally unexpected happened. He was working diligently away out in the dining room when flames and smoke started shooting out of the main Club Med kitchen, 30 meters away. Too focused on trying to keep up with orders to think about anything else, he kept cooking away while the place was being evacuated and the fire brigade came in. “After that, they thought I was utterly unflappable!” This may have helped him pass his probation and keep the job! He and stayed on for about 6 months, eventually leaving so he could travel around Australia for a few years. But then it was time to go back to Canada.
Lunman worked in Whistler, British Columbia doing Italian and French food, because the mountain tourist town just north of Vancouver was always busy with tourists. It was also a well-known stop on the travelers’ trail that he had come to love. But he didn’t want to do this forever: “It was too much work for too little money. And I realized that I didn’t want to be a kitchen slave or an office monkey.” He said that he was ready to go to Asia and make some money teaching English. “I had an international mindset. I was a rolling stone, and didn’t want to settle into a 9 to 5 career. That was not the way I wanted to live my life.”
So he came to Taiwan in 2001, hoping to find what he called “a paid adventure”. He started off teaching kids and then became a hockey coach as well, working long hours. But then he noticed the lack of good Western food. “There was nothing really good. There was Grandma Nitty’s, and places like TGI Friday’s, which isn’t good food, or you end up paying 600 – 700 NT for a meal.” He said to himself, “Here’s an opportunity!”
So he opened his first restaurant, Blast Burger: “I just jumped in, boots and all.” It was in a high traffic area in a food court in Zhonghe by an RT Mart hypermarket and under a large apartment building. He signed contracts, bought equipment, and just went for it, with a menu that included fish and chips, wings, quesadillas, burgers, sausages, and weekly specials. But it didn’t work out. “I made only a little bit of money, and not enough to pay back my initial investment.” However, he said that it was a real learning experience. He wasn’t so busy, so he had time to observe the walkers by, and see who showed an interest. “Every type of person that you can imagine walked through that food court.” Old people, young people, city slickers and Uncle Binlang in his white and blue flip flops, everybody, he said. He said he began to enjoy profiling the people to try and guess where they’d stop and eat in the food court, which had noodle places, dumpling places, etc. “I started to see very clearly what choices people made. I realized who my customers were. They were all under 30, nobody over 35. And they were fairly well dressed. They wore Western brands, fashionable things.”
He also learned some other useful lessons. “You have to be careful with contracts,” he said. “Things like cleaning services and upgraded electricity never happened.” “That entire food court was built on lies,” he said. When he left he remembers a Taiwanese man from the food court committee in a shiny suit smiling at him and saying, “Now you know what it’s like to do business in Taiwan!”
Undeterred, and now reinforced with Debby, his then girlfriend and current wife, he decided to try again. He now had all the experience he needed: management skills, cooking skills, and a target market that was chosen from real experience. The result was Bongo’s, which he renovated by himself with “duct tape and bubble gum.”
By 2004 and he was already experiencing “the growing pains of success” from the roaring burger trade he was doing. “I was so busy, just absorbed in it.” He said he had two restaurants’ worth of business, so that’s when he decided to open CODA, another success story. “If I didn’t copy myself, somebody else was going to do it.” CODA, he said, was a good facility with a purpose built kitchen. In fact, he says that he planned CODA as a central kitchen for further restaurant projects. CODA, just around the corners from Bongo’s, was more upscale, including special salads, pastas and thin crust pizza. “Food I wanted to do,” he said. He also said he wanted the brand to stand by itself. “I never wanted it to be ‘Andrew’s store,’” grunted Lunman. His plan worked and CODA started thriving too, adding another cash cow to his small but growing herd.
There were some interesting cultural bumps along the road. He said there was an old man with an illegal breakfast shop near CODA and Bongos. Lunman would visit it every day, and the old man running it always smiled at him very politely. But then things started happening: the police were called on late night noise complaints. “But we were only open to 10pm!” There were other false allegations made, like that they were having karaoke nights, or lacked required equipment, like a smoke hood and fan. He said someone even bribed a Taipei City official to pull his business license, which he only got back by using a local ombudsman from the community. Then one day one of his neighbors finally told him about what was going on: it was the old man. He had been instantly averse to having a foreigner set up shop in in the neighborhood, and had been constantly complaining to everyone all the time about Bongo’s. He was furious when Lunman got his business license back, and showed no sign of being willing to accept the foreign element in his neighborhood. So Lunman started to retaliate: “I started to make official complaints about his business! And the police and the city people kept showed up at his place. Eventually he gave up.”
Exploring the topic of culture more, Lunman talks about racism in Taiwan. He says that there is a lot of xenophobia about foreigners, but not much overt racism. But when it does exist, it can be sneaky. He had told me before how foreigners stick out here, and can therefore attract problems with illegal or semi-legal businesses. They also lack the support network of guanxi that locals have, so they should be very careful with their relationships. “When my landlord came over to renegotiate the lease, I’d drink tea with him for a couple of hours.”
Now that his operation was on a roll, Lunman launched Forkers, the first true gourmet burger restaurant in Taipei, near Zhongxiao Dunhua. The restaurant exploded almost from day one. Success was “instant and overwhelming,” said Lunman. “Forkers paid for itself in six months. There was a bit of burnout and success shock. But it was nice to see all my plans come to fruition.”
Riding the wave, he opened Forkers 2, near Zhongshan MRT. He said it grossed 1,000,000 NT in the first month. He now had four stores going on. “It was too much on my plate.” He said his success had painted a bullseye on his chest: “The green eyed monster reared its ugly head.” He was getting constant neighbor complaints and online smearing. He was still top of the heap, but the competitive environment was changing. Many other gourmet burger places started up, like Evans, KGB, and many more. “By 2011, there were about 1000 burger restaurants in Taiwan.” Costs were going up, but he couldn’t increase prices too much or else he’d lose customers to cheaper competitors. One example was fryer oil: “When I started out, 18L cost 280NT. In 2012, it was up to 1000NT.” Rent was increasing too, as the property market kept heating up. “I could see the writing on the wall. There were stormy seas ahead,” he said. He saw only two choices: either go bigger still, or sell and consolidate. He chose the latter option, selling off Forkers 1 and 2, and consolidating Bongo’s and CODA into one location. That done, he started thinking about going home to Canada with Debby, and spending some time with his family there.
But before that, he had something else to do. “I wanted to give back to the community. When I started all my businesses, I had no one there to turn to. I wanted to have a foreigner small business network where people could support each other, so they wouldn’t have to operate in a vacuum.” So, even though it took a huge amount of effort, the CCCT’s Taiwan Small Business Network was born, and had soon made a name for itself. It was a packed house at CODA September 2015 that started off the recent monthly series of TSBN events, where successful foreign entrepreneurs shared their knowledge. “I am very happy with the CCCT right now. There is a happy and active chamber, and a board environment that is more open. And there’s a strong and active SBC that is actually helping small business people today.”
There are lots of new faces now. And we’re really helping them, hearing their thanks. That’s why we do it.” On behalf of everyone that you have helped, thank you again, Andrew Lunman, boss of the burger, promoter of poutine, giver of gravy, brother in beer, shooter of pucks, stalwart of the small business community!
Before our interview ended, he shared a few parting words of mentorship to future entrepreneurs. “If you really feel the drive, its right for you. But if you are running away from something you don’t like, if you are sick of teaching, this is not a good reason to start your own business.” He says that he usually tells this to people as a warning. For those that insist on going that route, he has this to say: “Be careful! Being an entrepreneur is not for everyone. It’s stressful, challenging, exhausting and risky. Not just ‘I didn’t make any money risky’. Not making money is not what I mean by failure. In addition to draining bank accounts, it can destroy relationships, affect your self-esteem, even your mental stability. It’s a real risk.”