Uncle Mike's has become a local brand name in Tanjia and Zhuhai, with many of the local university and college students visiting to meet the 'famous' local Mike - and to try the delicious variety of food of course! After moving to China on a whim to originally teach English in 2007, Mike first took over the Jida branch of SPR, which is now a Starbucks, before establishing Uncle Mike's in 2009. In just three short years the business has expanded into a further four buildings, which include a large kitchen, Lounge Bar, Down Under Pub, Uncle Mike's New York Pizza and now Trattoria Verde, all of which offer something different. Delta Bridges met with Mike to see how the arrangements were going for Trattoria Verde, his new Italian venture set to open in May, as well as the renovations to his New York Pizza restaurant.
It is the difficulties of running a company like this in China that make Mike miss Australia. However, this is what makes him such an inspiration to budding entrepreneurs as the Uncle Mike's chain is still one of the only completely foreign owned businesses in the area. Mike told us how, due to the business being completely foreign owned, the set-up process took around three and a half years, and he still experiences difficulties with numerous and regular changes of the regulations. However his hard work dealing with the business set-up, not to mention the cultural and language barriers, has certainly paid off. This can be seen by his many invitations to lecture at local universities about his business successes - Mike is certainly in demand!
Although he came to China just for a holiday, he was bowled over by his experiences here and says 'China is nothing like I expected it to be', he returned to Australia and immediately told his wife about his wishes to move out here permanently. Once new managers had been found to take over the running of the motel Mike still owns in Australia, plans were made to move to Zhuhai where he has lived happily for the past 5 years. Although times have been tough, he says he would love to do it all again, however one thing he would have perhaps done differently would be to have fully immersed himself in the Chinese language - he can 'get by' but has begun taking Mandarin lessons to advance his skills.
Although it has taken four years, Uncle Mike's is now doing better than ever, and he puts that down to the changes here in that time. 'Business is definitely changing here', Mike says, 'people are becoming more attuned to Western foods.' Back in 2009 Mike was one of the only Western owners of a restaurant on the plaza, now there are three or four others who have joined him, and another one in the surrounding area.
Zhuhai is experiencing some dramatic changes, with the construction of the railway to Guangzhou, as well as the Bridge to Hong Kong and a number of Federal Projects, not to mention the influx of students with increasing university numbers. Mike seems very excited about these, like many Zhuhai inhabitants do, and he believes these will greatly improve the area, however there will definitely be some big changes. These changes, Mike hopes, will bring more business to the area and will make Zhuhai a really interesting place to work and live in.
When asked about expanding his business further Mike said it will depend on how things go, especially with his new Italian restaurant. He thinks, because of the establishment of his business as a local brand name it will be easy enough to open another shop, especially if it is close to the universities and colleges, due to the use of student blogs, spreading the word about Uncle Mike's. However, when asked what kind of venture he would try next, 'I wouldn't do the same as I've done here', he explained, 'My ideal expansion would be an Old English Pub style that included a diner, for people to both eat and drink.'
For the time being Mike is focussed on improving his chain, expanding the New York Pizza restaurant and revamping the kitchen, which will hopefully be finished in the next few weeks. As well as maintaining the Lounge Room and Down Under Pub which opened just last year, a friendly Australian bar selling imported beers and spirits, where you can socialise inside or out, and catch up with friends both old and new. In addition Trattoria Verde, the new Italian restuarant, set to be up and running by May, has tradition Italian dishes on offer in the newly refurbished Italian style dining space. If the food is anything like the pizza we tried then Trattoria Verde is sure to be a big hit with the customers.
If Mike doesn't expand in the next few years then he and his wife are thinking of going travelling again, 'I've retired twice,' he says, 'and although I've been around the world three times, there are still many places I want to see'. But don't fret, the Uncle Mike's chain will still remain, as he hopes to one day leave it in the trusty hands of his restaurant manager.