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Building A Food And Beverage Business In China

Carlie: Hello again, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus Podcast.

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Today’s guest built a successful business – and brand – around her passport country’s most popular food – pierogi. And she did it in the bustling city of Shanghai. Gosia Modlinska shares why she first moved to China a decade ago, how she navigated local rules and regulations as she ran her polish dumpling business, why she pivoted to cocktails, and became known for serving up one of the best martinis in town.

Gosia, it’s lovely to have you on the Expat Focus podcast. Welcome.

Gosia: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Carlie: Pleasure. Now, brand building, it’s not uncommon these days in the days of social media where everyone has a side hustle.

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Gosia: Yeah.

Carlie: But you decided to build your brand in another country. In China.

Gosia: Yes.

Carlie: So can we start with what led you to China a decade ago?

Gosia: Yes. So, that’s a long story. I went to China in 2012. And the reason why is that, at that time, I was 28, about to turn 29, and I started thinking, okay what should I achieve by the time I turn 30 years old? And I thought that I would love to learn the Chinese language because I love learning languages, and I thought, well, yeah, everybody says it’s the most difficult language so I will just, you know…let’s just say I wanted this kind of challenge, and I wanted to have it achieved by the time I’m 30.

Carlie: Oh, wow, okay, so you set a deadline.

Gosia: And also, I had a friend who used to come to China a lot on business, so she would tell me a lot of stories. And somehow in 2012, China became like really suddenly, you know, the dragon of China started rising on the international scenes. I noticed more and more people around me, students on the buses, in trams in Poland, were learning Chinese. And I thought, there must be something about this China, and I want to check it out myself.

So the idea was born in my head, but I didn’t know how it happen, how I would evolve, or how it would evolve. And one day I was just procrastinating on some social media, and I saw this ad, do you want to go to China for free? And do you want to study Chinese for free? And I was like, wow, that’s a coincidence.

Carlie: Yes and yes.

Gosia: So I clicked on it, and it turned out to be this Aupair program that actually later was renamed into a cultural ambassador program because the Aupair program in China is not the same as it is in the rest of the world.

So I saw that, and I was always encouraging everyone else who was younger than me to always go and try these kinds of programs when they are young because when I was 23, I went to Alaska for a work and travel program, and it was really life-changing for me,  in terms of my outlook in life, you know, and attitude.

And I always regretted that I only did that once. So that’s why when I saw that opportunity to still go to China, because the deadline also was that you cannot be older than 29 years old, so I thought okay, so it’s now or never. And I think it’s a sign that I want to go to China, it pops up there right in my face, so I’m going.

So I submitted my application and I was quickly chosen by a family. Actually, I had to write my whole biography, I had to provide a history of all these diseases I had. I had to write a whole portfolio for this program. And I was chosen by the family in Chengdu, and they said that I would come there, I would learn Tai Chi, the martial art, with their father, that I would travel with them. So it really all sounded so appealing.

Carlie: You were looking after the children as well?

Gosia: Yes, and I would spend time with the kids. But actually, that’s why I said it’s not the same. That’s why it was renamed more into a cultural ambassador rather than Aupair, because you don’t really look after kids nonstop because every rich Chinese family has an ayi, which is like a maid. Rich Chinese families have this kind of ayi I who lives with them, ayi means auntie in Chinese.  

So ayis, they clean, they cook, they take care of the kids, like, you know, like all the hard work. And an Aupair in China is more like a companion that travels with you and you exchange culture, you exchange language. So it’s not really, at least in my case, it was not such hard work.

So yeah, I was chosen by that Chinese family in Chengdu, and I went there. However, after three months in Chengdu, I realized that it was not the place for me, and I did not really get along with that family. So I asked for a change, and the agency that was in charge said, okay then, we have a family in Shanghai to welcome you.

And I thought, okay, Shanghai. At that time, I thought I would want to go to Beijing because it is the best place to learn Chinese, the proper [inaudible], Mandarin, and I really knew nothing about Shanghai at that time. I’m really embarrassed to say this, but I really didn’t know much. And I just googled Shanghai, I saw images, I saw the skyline, and I decided I’m going. And I was like, yeah, okay. I’m going to Shanghai in this case.

And I arrived and it was the perfect time because I arrived just in the middle of October, and this is really the best time to go to Shanghai, during the early fall, September, October and early November, because the weather is really fantastic. It’s fresh, it’s about 25 degrees. It’s a little bit cool at night, but you just wear a light jacket.

And I arrived in Shanghai on the 15th of October, and I just fell in love with Shanghai on that day. The sun was really warm and the air was fresh and there was the smell of osmnathus flower all over the city. So it was really charming, extremely charming.

And yeah, the program was supposed to last six months, but I just knew already on day one that I wanted to stay longer.

Carlie: So what did you do after the end of the official program?

Gosia: So, yeah, after the program ended, I decided that I would teach English because it was the best thing to do, the fastest way to find a job, especially since I had taught English before in Poland, so I had a lot of experience.

Carlie: You had the right qualification.

Gosia: Yes, qualifications and experience. So I started with teaching, and actually, it was a great step because, in the first school where I worked, I met a friend, actually, a French friend who, a couple of years after we met, exactly two years later, had the idea to start the very first blog for foreigners in Shanghai. It was this WeChat blog because it is this mega Chinese app that really evolved tremendously over the last 10 years.

Carlie: Yes, WeChat is really central to how people communicate in China.

Gosia: To live in China. It’s like, you know, it’s the way of life. And at that time WeChat started, the microblogs started evolving and there were some mini Chinese blogs on WeChat, but there were no foreign blocks. So my friend, who was a fanatic for eating out because Shanghai is especially a city of restaurants, it’s the place where you eat out nonstop, so my friend had this idea to start a blog about writing reviews of restaurants because he was this person that everybody was asking for recommendations, and he knew a lot of owners of restaurants already.

But he knew that if he would only write this mini blog about restaurants, it would be boring. And he knew that I was learning Chinese all the time, during the program and after, and he said, like, how about you? And he also knew that I like to share some advice about some girly stuff, like where to do your nails or your hair. So he suggested, how about you write something, maybe something about the Chinese language or, you know, some advice for ladies? So I was like, okay, let’s try.

And I wrote this blog, Found in Translation, where I was explaining Chinese slang expressions through some stories from my life and from my observations. And then I also added some stories about my travelling around China and Southeast Asia and about cooking, which was also just still my passion, and then some advice about the city. And it’s really become quite popular. At this time also, in 2014, it was the time when a lot of little brands started mushrooming on the Shanghai scene because it was really easy. And I was doing interviews as well with some female entrepreneurs especially, so it was really inspiring

Carlie: Sort of the time when bloggers could still get cut through and influencers were sort of starting to really emerge.

Gosia: Yes exactly, it was that time. And the little brands started popping up on the Shanghai scene, and it was a great time to start because later on in 2017 Shanghai became much more strict for foreigners and foreign businesses. Well, it’s still kind of easy, but it was stricter than before. So it was a great time to start and test the waters because there were a lot of these markets, you know, where you could just-

Carlie: And when you say test the waters, is this the point at which you decided to start a food and beverage business?

Gosia: Yeah, that was 2016. Yes, it was two years after I started with the blog.

Carlie: And looking at your website, am I right in thinking that you started a business in like Polish dumplings?

Gosia: Yes.

Carlie: In China?

Gosia:  Yes.

Carlie: That’s amazing.

Gosia: It started, it started with Polish dumplings, because-

Carlie: Pirogi I think they’re called?

Gosia: Yes, exactly. So my friend created a community that he called Shanghai Gastronomy Club, which was the very first community which united all the restaurant owners and everyone who was related to f and b, the food and beverage industry, and he started doing these monthly meet-ups for people to meet and exchange advice and exchange knowledge. He created WeChat groups because that was also the new thing then, where the community started meeting online and offline.

And of course, because I was the co-editor of the blog, I was attending these meetups since the beginning of 2015, and I kept observing the vibe, and I really love the vibe of Shanghai’s hospitality, f and b, and I observed that there was no Polish food there, which I believe deserves a spot on the international scene.

Carlie: Do you think your idea to bring Polish food to Shanghai was really a passion project? Or did you identify or do any market research about whether Chinese people would be interested in Polish food? I’m curious.

Gosia: It was a passion project, yes. But I also observed, because as I was going to these markets, there were a lot of other foods from all around the world.

Carlie: And Poland wasn’t represented.

Gosia: Yes. And I saw that because there were so many people from everywhere. And Chinese love food. It’s all about the food there. There is no dinner without taking pictures of the food. Their social media is filled with food. Most money goes into food in China. So that’s why I thought, well, you know, I think they would be interested. And because China has its own type of dumpling, so it’s a concept, but it’s different. And a lot of people were telling me, you’re crazy, you want to sell Polish dumplings in the kingdom of dumplings?

Carlie: I admit, I kind of thought that too. I’m like, I’m pretty sure China does this.

Gosia: Yes. But actually, you know, every country in the world has its own version of dumplings. I created this map, it’s become really famous, it’s called Know Your Dumplings.

Carlie: That’s cool.

Gosia: And it shows that every country in the world has its own 10 of type of dumplings. But it’s the same, you know, with noodles for example, right?

Carlie: Yes.

Gosia: China has noodles and it’s one of the most typical, cheapest foods that you can find in China next to rice. But then there have been Italian restaurants in China for years before, and they also sell spaghetti. And they sell ravioli and people still eat it, right?

Carlie: They can coexist. Yeah.

Gosia: Yes. Because it’s kind of, you know, it’s same, same but different. And the thing about Chinese people is that they like to understand the concept, because if the concept is not understood- but I think it’s everywhere- if they don’t understand the concept, then the concept fails quite quickly. But if they do understand the concept, then, you know, like for example, in my restaurant the young Chinese people used to love to bring their parents and grandparents because they wanted to try the foreign food, but if they don’t understand what it is, they will feel embarrassed and they don’t know how to eat it.

But they could come to my restaurant, they can eat pierogi with chopsticks, and then they will go and they’ll say to their friends, oh, I went to this western restaurant and I ate these Polish dumpings. And then their friends will be like, oh, Poland has dumpings. Yes, they have dumplings. You know, they just look a bit different, they are made in a different way, but it’s the same concept.

Carlie: So how did you go about educating your potential customers about the concept of Polish dumplings? Was it very much through your foodie blog and social media?

Gosia: It was mainly like face-to-face because in China they love to see especially the person who is the face of the brand, that’s really important for them. And we did a lot of pop-ups with my former business partner. We did a lot of pop-up markets because that’s how you bring the food out there, you show yourself, and you show the branding.

We had Polish typical folklore outfits. And you talk about it and you let them try, you explain, and you just tell them, well, it’s like [inaudible] jiaozi, you know, jiaozi are dumplings, and we say, yes, these are Polish dumplings. And it actually, the easiest way to explain it. And there are also lots of American people and lots of Russian people in China, so they were super excited. And Canadian people, Canadian people think that dumplings, pierogi, are their food.

So they got ecstatic. And then they started bringing their Chinese friends. And we were at this market, and Chinese people would always follow and they would always go to foreign events. And they tried it, and as I said, it’s easy for them to understand it tastes different. Then later on in my restaurant, I started organizing events called Dumplings Unite, which were these cooking classes where I was collaborating with a dumpling shop, and for one hour a Chinese lady was teaching how to make Chinese dumplings. And then we were talking about them, showing the differences, how is the dough different? How is the stuffing different?

Carlie: To a Polish version?

Gosia:  Yeah, than pierogi. And sometimes I would also invite some other chefs from other countries to also show like, for example, ravioli or Indonesian pasta, you know, like to show these different-

Carlie: Yeah, the whole dumpling and pasta universe. That’s really cool.

Gosia: Exactly.

Carlie: So you spoke about selling at markets and also that you had a restaurant. Let’s look at some of the specific rules and regulations when it comes to having a food and beverage business in China. Did you start with food markets before you decided to have a permanent space?

Gosia: Yes, exactly that. For the first year, me and my former business partner, we just did the markets because we observed what was happening and we saw some people jumping too fast into the business and investing too much money without testing it. And testing, I think is the most important thing because you need to see how the people, especially Chinese people, will react. Because I’ve seen some concepts, like a Norwegian concept, that was not really clear and pretty quickly it failed, I think after like three months maybe, because they did not really understand what it was.

And there were also some eastern delicacies, some desserts that were not understood. So there were different things that I saw, like what other people did. And then I decided to learn the lesson, and for a whole year we were doing these pop-ups, but it started getting more and more popular. So after a year, first we kind of got an offer to take over a small shop. Actually, we never really wanted to do a restaurant, we only wanted to do wholesale production. That was our goal, to have like a frozen dumplings business and just have it made, you know, by a factory.

Carlie: Well, I guess you’re in the right country for wholesale production, aren’t you?

Gosia: Yeah. And that’s what we wanted to do. But someone just offered us to run this little cafe for free, just to help because this person was too busy. But they wanted to sell their alcohol, and they said, as long as we run the place, we sell the alcohol, we sell our food, then we can do it. So we’re actually pretty lucky that for a whole year we were able to use some spaces for free.

Carlie: And what alcohol goes well with Pierogi?

Gosia: Yeah, of course. And that’s how later I evolved my business into a cocktail.

Carlie: Oh, so you can eat pierogi with beer or spirits? There are no clashes of booze?

Gosia: Yeah. That’s how I actually evolved, you know, it became like a pierogi cocktail bar.

Carlie: Oh, wow.

Gosia: Yes. And people love this concept. But we had to go through a lot of drama because the first venue we took over, it did not have the proper license. Because, 2017 was when we took over the place, and the rules were more flexible. But then there was this big dramatic scandal in Shanghai where a French bakery was using expired flower.

Carlie: Oh, like expired.

Gosia: Yeah, expired flower. And they discovered that, and they were exposed by some unhappy employee. So since that day, it was March 2017, the authorities have become super strict, especially towards foreigners. So they started checking all the licenses, even at the markets. Before you didn’t have to have a food license to-

Carlie: So you could just show up with your food and set up a stand..

Gosia: Yeah, exactly. Before it was much, much easier. You just paid for the stand. But later on you had to have a proper license.

Carlie: What about food handling and hygiene qualifications?

Gosia: Before nobody needed that, you know?

Carlie: Okay.

Gosia: And in China it used to be like this, that if you had proper connections, called Guanxi, you don’t need all of these food handling qualifications, licenses, everything is done by your landlord, by the person who is leasing you the space.

Carlie: Is leasing you the space for the restaurant. Right.

Godia: Yeah. And especially if your landlord has really good connections with the local police, then you are fine.

Carlie: Okay.

Gosia: And before you didn’t even need that. You know, there were lots of places that were opened as restaurants, but after 2017, they started checking, and every restaurant had to have this license on the wall. And actually, it’s more important to have a hygiene checkup than a food handling license.

Carlie: I mean, personally, I think that’s probably a good thing to have when you’re selling food to the public.

Gosia: Yes. So that was more important. So in some ways, you know, China was more difficult when it comes to, like now for example, COVID, but some rules were also easier to get through.

Carlie: So how about just dealing with paperwork and that sort of thing? You know, you were learning Chinese, but were you at a level where you could do your own business administration?

Gosia: Actually, if you have a business in China, there are three people that you should have, which are an agent, an accountant, and a lawyer. If you’re just an expat, then no. But as a business person, yes. Sometimes your accountant can also be your agent who helps you with your visa, but you definitely need a lawyer, and you need the accountant.

Carlie: So that’s how you’d navigated the paperwork?

Gosia: Yes. To navigate through all the rules. Because the thing is that China is still a developing country. When it comes to technology it is 10 years ahead of Europe and the US, but it’s still developing. The rules are changing, like you see now with Covid, right? Suddenly it’s open and before it was not supposed to be open. And they just change rules as they go. They are testing them themselves. So you have to adapt all the time. And only the locals have the fastest access to the latest news, you know? So that’s really important.

Carlie: Gosh. So how did your business change when you decided to have a bigger focus on the beverage part of it and bring in the cocktails and that sort of thing?

Gosia: Yeah. So, when we moved to our bigger location, because as I said, we had to move out of the very first location because of the licensing issue and because of some crazy neighbors who were not happy with us being there, and they were trying to sabotage us.

Carlie:  Oh gosh.

Gosia: There was this crazy guy who was pouring oil into fire. Fortunately we met our new landlord.

Carlie: Gosh, they really didn’t like Pirogi, did they?

Gosia: No. We were trying to bribe them, but-

Carlie: With Pirogi?

Gosia: Yes. And some beers and vodka. I don’t know if I can say this in the podcast, but that’s how you do it in China.

Carlie: I mean,  I’m understanding this. We have had guests in the past who have traveled through Asia, lived in Asia, and talk about how bribes in Asia are just kind of a part of how you get things done.

Gosia: Yes.

Carlie: It’s not necessarily as sinister as how we know bribes in the West, for example.

Gosia: Yeah.  So we had to move out from that place because there was this neighbor who just hated everybody and everything, and even his own family and all the Chinese people.

Carlie: Okay.

Gosia: Even when he called the police, the police said, we know what kind of person he is, but we have to come because it’s our job, and we don’t want to come, but we have to.

Carlie: Serial complainer.

Gosia: Yes. But thanks to that we met our new landlord. We called him the King of the Block because he had a few real estates there, and he had all the guanxi, so like he knew all the people in the neighborhood and the right people.

So we met him and then he offered us his former house, because at that time also, the authorities decided that our previous lane could not be a commercial lane anymore. And the landlord was leasing a space to another restaurant, and he said, well, if you want, you can take my old house and I will move here, and you just have to rebuild it from scratch. So, I never thought I would come to China and actually build a house, you know?

But fortunately we had some friends who were architects and who helped us create a vision, and they said it was doable. So we did that. And yeah, so we moved to this new place and we knew, okay, so now this is a really big investment and food is only the symbol. It’s alcohol that makes money. So at that time, I decided that I want to train myself more in cocktail making. I had some friends who were working as bartenders, so I learned a little bit from them. And then I did my research, and of course, I practiced in a restaurant and it became my new passion.

And yeah, we actually became the place that made some of the most famous cocktails in Shanghai. And this year, I was even nominated for Lady Amarena China as the only foreign female bartender. I got some accolades for some of the best drinks. So that was really rewarding.

Carlie: That’s really awesome. Congratulations.

Gosia: Thank you. And, yeah. So it really changed. And that’s also why, when I split with my ex-business partner, I changed the name of the brand. Because Pierogi Ladies was the first brand, but it indicated that it’s just mainly food and ladies, and people thought that it’s just like a cute bar. But that’s why I rebranded to Jar Bar, because of my obsession with making jarred vegetables, pickled vegetables, which were also a part of menu.

Carlie: We’re bringing in a third element here.

Gosia: Yes.

Carlie: Pierogi, cocktails and pickled vegetables.

Gosia: Yes. They were the three things, yes. Those were the three staples. And, yeah. And then I kind of made the pierogi menu smaller, I expanded the cocktail menu and it brought a lot of new attention. And the last project I did before leaving China, that unfortunately didn’t come to life yet, for now, was the bottled cocktails project that I was supposed to release this year. So I worked with a new business partner on creating new lines, because this, during the pandemic, it became a new thing. The bottled cocktails, bring the bar to your home.

Carlie: Yes.

Gosia: So because the drinks were so popular, and actually people were often asking me to deliver, because in China delivery is also a huge thing. It’s much cheaper than here in the West.

Carlie: And until recently, China had a very strict Covid policy still in place. So people were still quite frequently subject to lockdowns.

Gosia: Yes. And it was also very difficult for restaurants because every restaurant owner, and every person who worked in the restaurant, had to take a PCR test to work every day, you know?

Carlie: What is the best pierogi, cocktail and pickled vegetable combination?

Gosia: The most popular pierogi, well we had a lot of flavors, but the most popular were pierogi with feta and spinach.

Carlie: Oh, interesting.

Gosia: And with some garlic and olives on top. Another one is the Classic Pierogi, it’s potatoes, cottage cheese, onions, with some bacon on top. And they are also fried in butter. And the other one was the Quesadilla Pirogi with chicken, chedar, mushrooms and dried tomatoes.

Carlie: It’s like a Mexican-Polish fusion going on.

Gosia: Yes. But later on I also did a lot of other fusions. I did some Chinese fusion, different colors, duck pierogi, sweet pierogi as well. And of course pickled cucumbers. That was a hit.

Carlie: I like a pickled cucumber.

Gosia: Yeah. I also organized the classes to teach people how. It became really a huge thing, the pickled workshop, the pickle workshops became more popular than the dumplings workshops because I was educating people how important it is to build your immune system through what you eat. So, eat your way to immunity. And people really became aware of how important it is to to actually prevent rather than, you know, later, cure. And the pickle juice, pickles were really a hit.

Carlie: Do you think you had an advantage being an expat, entrepreneur, business owner, when you brought pierogi to Shanghai in terms of, you know, marketing your product, getting bums on seats and getting interest from customers?

Gosia: Definitely, yes. That was one thing. But the other thing was marketing and the way I introduced it as well, because it was all packed with this nice polish pattern, with polish folklore flowers, with pierogi shaped pillows, with a lot of funny posters and slogans with bright colors.

Carlie: Okay, so the marketing and how you marketed it was really key.

Gosia: Yes. Especially with Chinese media, I focused a lot on Chinese media, on the WeChat accounts, on the posts, on the videos, and then collaborating with other people, because we soon got a lot of invites to other places because the concept was really bright and fun and happy, you know?

So, yes it’s food, but it’s also the people and the whole marketing. So that was something that attracted attention, I believe. Because I see now, even after I’ve left, that there are people that are trying to bring some new concepts but it doesn’t always work. Or there are people who are fun but then, you know, if you don’t also have the product, then you will not stand out. So you must have a product that is really perfect.

 And that is something about Shanghai, the competition is extremely fierce and people are super demanding. They will pay a high price for their food, yes. But they expect this food to be perfect. So you really have to bend over backwards to satisfy their palates. Even people who went to Poland, they were texting me asking, where can I find the pierogi like you made in Poland? Because in Poland for example, they just boil pierogi and they just throw them on the plate. They don’t care about presentation, they don’t fry them, you know? But in Shanghai, the bar is high, I would say.

Carlie: You gave people unrealistic expectations about pierogi in Poland.

Gosia: Yes. So there are some people who had pierogi for the first time in China, and then they went to Poland and they got disappointed.

Carlie: Disappointed.

Gosia: But the thing is that, here, when I observe in Europe, it’s really different. In China, people come into a restaurant, immediately they come with a camera, they take pictures of everything they eat, and they immediately post it on Dianping, which is something like Yelp and  TripAdvisor together, it’s another giant app for lifestyle and for restaurants.

And everything will be reviewed there. Like, everybody who will go will write a review. And this really will affect your position, your recognition on the market, because the people really read that. So it’s really kind of stressful. So you really have to push to make everything perfect.

Carlie: And you said the real money is in the alcohol sales?

Gosia: Yes.

Carlie: So tell me about some of the things you did to make your cocktails really stand out.

Gosia: So what I did, I used a lot of natural juices and natural syrups. And another thing is that my menu was dynamic. So this is the other thing, in China, you have to make the menu dynamic. It has to change seasonally, because there are a lot of seasonal fruits in China. And generally, every concept has a shelf life now of about three years. After three years, you have to rebrand, refresh because people will be bored and there’s so much competition.

Carlie: No one’s making rainbow pancakes anymore.

Gosia: Yeah. And yes, so the cocktails, they would usually include some elements from the jars that I made. So I would combine, for example, beetroot shrub with whiskey, or I would make pickle martini. Or for example, I introduced, generally,  people in Shanghai to pandan leaf.

Carlie: What is pandan leaf?

Gosia: Pandan is the vanilla of the east. It’s like this long leaf that kind of smells like vanilla, but more like if vanilla married lemon grass. It’s more fresh. And in Malaysia and Indonesia, they use it for food coloring, but also to make desserts. And I had some people who approached me back in 2020 to buy my business, bring it to Singapore, before, but it just didn’t work because of Covid and some other factors, because I did not agree to certain things.

But anyways, I did research during the first lockdown in 2020 about the ingredients in Singapore. And I found the pandan leaf, and I decided, okay, even if we’re not going to Singapore, I can still use pandan leaf in China because it’s cheap there.

So I started experimenting, and I made this pandan syrup and I combined it in a cocktail with some classic Polish vodka, with some kiwi syrup, with lime, and I started introducing this to people. And that’s how I made one of the top 12. It made it on to the list of top 12 best martinis in town. So I really did a lot of research.

And then I also used some seasonal fruit. For example, in the summer, China has waxberries, which are like these big berries, kind of like the size of a ping pong ball, and they only appeare during the rainy season for like a month or a month and a half. So I also used natural juices to make drinks, for example, beetroot juice combined with some ginger syrups, or we’ve combined with classic Polish raspberry syrup. So that’s what I started doing.

Carlie: I’m really curious because you mentioned when you were selling at markets, how excited foreigners in Shanghai were to see Polish pierogi available.

Gosia: Yeah.

Carlie: It sounds like it was really important for you to not just capture that expat, that foreigner market in Shanghai, but also capture the attention of locals. So how important were all those Chinese language lessons in enabling you to really tap into the local market as well as the the foreigner community?

Gosia: Yes. It’s  super important because in China it’s all about building relationships with your customers, with your partners, with your clients, with your landlords. So that helped, getting this amazing landlord who was the King of the Block, because I could speak Chinese with them, I could communicate. So that was one thing.

And also introducing the Polish food and the culture, because as I said, in China it’s the face of the brand that’s really important. Before, there were some concepts, like some people used to bring in a person, even though the behind the scenes was maybe run by someone Chinese, but they would say like, oh, this person is the face.

But then the Chinese people got smarter than that and they wanted to see that this is really the person who works behind the brand. I want to speak to this person, I want to ask some questions. And then you have Chinese vloggers coming to your restaurant and making their vlogs. And they also want to say like, oh, this is the Lǎobǎn, the boss, and ask some questions.

Carlie: They I want know that boss is really Polish and really loves their pierogi. Yeah.

Gosia: Exactly. This is really important. And also when you go and get your visa and everything, when you go and they see that you handle your visa yourself, they…Like last time, like before I left, I actually got a visa for five years because I went there myself and I can speak Chinese, so they see I’m not just some random person who came to China. So of course, I am the proper person running the business.

So if someone wants to start a business in China, it’s really crucial, I would say, because you need to build these relationships. And then of course you have suppliers that you need to speak with. You will have the neighbors. Sometimes I need to explain something to people around the restaurant. You never know, right? So for me, it’s essential.

Carlie: I was looking at your social media and you posted about needing to leave China pretty abruptly.

Gosia: Yes.

Carlie: So we are speaking, both being located in Europe at the moment. What can you tell me about when and why you left China, especially after a decade?

Gosia: My original plan was that I would maybe come back to Europe in 2023, because things at the beginning of this year were still looking good. And I was about to start the new brand, the bottled cocktails,  and actually I had like one potential investor who wanted to open new venues of my shop because he really liked it. However, then we were suddenly hit by the lockdown, as I said. And when it turned out that it would last longer than a month, then I already knew that I’d been fighting for so long, I’ve been fighting since 2020 for my brand-

Carlie: -to stay afloat. Yeah.

Gosia: Yes. Because also, the thing about Shanghai was that, okay, half of your customers are local, but then there are also foreigners. And a lot of these people left, got stuck outside, and the rules were getting stricter and stricter. And I saw all these lockdowns, like the Zero Covid policy was just brutal.

And I realized, at this point, that sometimes you have to know when to stop, and it does not mean that you failed. Sometimes it’s just the right decision. And also, you know, for your mental health. Because I just felt so overwhelmed with this, and I knew, even if they opened Shanghai, it would not end there. Because, maybe you have seen, of all the protests and what was happening.

So until recently, people were still getting into lockdowns, the Zero Covid policy was really damaging businesses, big and small, So I decided, well, it’s not good for my personal life, it’s not good for my business anymore. And that’s why I decided, okay, I’m just leaving. I’m coming back to Europe.

The brand is still mine, the Jar Bar brand, and I can bring it back to life somewhere in the world. And yeah, who knows? There will still be mess in China. Just because they are open, that does not mean that things will be great.

Carlie: It will take a while to calm down.

Gosia: It will take a while. And now everybody’s sick Recently, one of friends-

Carlie: I read some crazy numbers.

Gosia: My friend posted, you know, like before there were all these fights with the police. And actually, I don’t want to give this idea that I suddenly hated China. I still love China. I love it. I feel like it’s made my dream come true. It even helped me with the dream that I never dreamt  would happened. But it’s just, with this policy, it was just impossible.

And I still love the country. I just do not love what happened there. I was really sad, and it really made me super sad that I did not get to say like a proper goodbye, but I just left. But I knew it was not possible for me to stay and just get this anxiety and keep this stress in that environment. So, yeah.

But, you know, it doesn’t mean that I am over, I’m still doing some online collaborations with some Chinese communities and I’m super happy about that. Because even after I left, like every week actually, I get invitations. Like I get some emails from people who want to book a restaurant, who are asking if they can order food. I made an announcement that I was closing, but apparently it didn’t get to everybody.

Carlie: Sounds like you need to look into that wholesale.

Gosia: Yeah.

Carlie:  Gosia, I’d like to end this conversation on a positive note.

Gosia: Yes.

Carlie: We are speaking in the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year.

Gosia: Yes, exactly.

Carlie: Why is Chinese New Year such an important holiday?

Gosia: So, Chinese New Year is the time when the families reunite, because a lot of families are usually apart for most of the time of the year, because China is so huge. But a lot of people from small villages come to big towns and they usually stay there, most of the time, to make money and send money to their families in the village.

So they usually see each other either twice a year, they can also see each other during the national holiday in October, but some of them just try to save money and they will see each other only during Chinese New Year. So this is also the biggest human migration in the history of mankind, because China has so many people and so many people move around during this time.

And another reason is  because, of course, there’s a new animal of the year. So it’s it’s like this new beginning for for Chinese people.

Carlie: And I believe for 2023 it’s the water rabbit?

Gosia: Yes, it’s the water rabbit. Yes, starting on the 22nd of January. Yes. It’s the water rabbit and it’s supposed to be good year, according to the Chinese calendar. Actually, you know, everything that has happened so far, it’s been true. Because the year of the rat, the first year, 2020, was actually bringing major changes.

And it did because of Covid. And then the following years, like now, year of of the tiger, was also a very hardworking year, which is true. A lot of us had to work really hard. But now, hopefully, things are settling down, China is opening up. And we all worked really hard to get through these three years of pandemic. And apparently, the rabbit symbolizes patience and hope. And so it should be a good year for all the zodiac signs in in the Chinese Zodiac, all the 12 animals. So fingers crossed for that.

Carlie: Definitely.

Gosia: I believe. I will definitely go to the temple. I always used to go to the temple, especially since I had my restaurant, because my lenders always told me, on the first day of Chinese New Year, go to the temple and pray for money. And get the red thing. I always wear my red bracelet from the temple, and it does somehow protects me. So, yes, it seems like it’s going to be good. 2022 was the year of the roar. And it was, the world was roaring. But now, hopefully, things will be more peaceful.

Carlie: Fingers crossed.

Gosia: Yeah, fingers crossed for that.

Carlie: And just finally Gosia, I’m curious, if you could rewind on your 10 years in China and make that move again, is there anything that you’d do differently?

Gosia: I think I-

Carlie: Come home before the pandemic?

Gosia: No, I’m actually glad I stayed there during pandemic because China was actually really good during the pandemic, most of the time. It’s just this year that it became crazy. When the whole world was suffering, you know, in 2020, we were actually really good. It was just two weeks, and that’s it.

I think if I changed anything, maybe I would study Chinese characters more. I mean, I keep studying Chinese all the time, I speak Chinese, but I would study even more than I did. And probably, I would not put all my eggs in one basket, which is something I realized too late. But in this business you have to. Because I had to quit my other job at some point to focus on the business, and then I started putting my eggs in different baskets, but it was a little bit too late. So this is the life lesson I’ve learned, to be more cautious.

Because 2019 was the year when the business was really going up and things were looking amazing, and nobody expected the things that happened. So I think the only thing I would change, is probably that I would maybe not resign from my other full-time job. I would somehow try to divide my time and try to find-

Carlie: Remove sleep out of your life.

Gosia: Yes.

Carlie: You’d have all the time you need

Gosia: Yes. But then, you know, there was a time when I just wanted to enjoy and have time for myself. So, yeah. But it’s just a little thing. But actually, I don’t regret anything. I met amazing people, I traveled all around China. And I will still visit in the future, for sure. I haven’t been able to go to all the places I wanted to visit. So, yeah. But I don’t think I would change much besides this one little thing at the end, about being more cautious business-wise, but otherwise I would not change it.

Carlie: Gosia, it’s been fascinating to speak with you about your 10 years in China. Thank you so much for your time.

Gosia: Thank you so much, Carlie. Thank you for having me.

Carlie: That’s it for today. If you enjoyed this podcast, please follow us or subscribe, however you like to listen. We love your feedback, and you can drop us a message on social media, we are “ExpatFocus”. I’ll catch you next time!

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