Aré is the owner of one of China’s first multi-city chains of Tibetan restaurants and a long-time participant of The Bridge Fund’s (TBF) Business Development Program. The hallways of her three-story Chengdu restaurant are lined with traditional woodwork and paintings, as well as framed photos of her taken with Tibetan folksingers and Chinese movie stars. During a packed lunch hour this busy location runs smoothly around her. “Without the training and advice of The Bridge Fund I couldn’t have a good business like this,” she says. “They gave us hope.”
Aré’s highly successful enterprise was built amidst disadvantages and setbacks. Growing up in a farming village in Sichuan’s Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, her family was unable to afford for her to attend more than a year of school. Aré slowly expanded upon her elementary school level ability to read, write and speak Chinese through the self-study of newspapers and cartoons. Eager to contribute to her family’s earnings, she wrote letters to her older brother asking if she could live with him in the province capital of Chengdu and in her early twenties her parents allowed her to join him. Aré’s initial experience in the hospitality industry began with jobs in several restaurants until she was able to borrow enough money to open her own small teahouse in 2001. Following customer requests for her to serve food Aré started to offer a simple menu of Tibetan dishes. The popularity of her business quickly increased and within a few years she invested in a second and third location. But her expansion proved hasty—without a clear business plan or market research her new restaurants failed.
It was at that time that Aré first came in contact with TBF’s Business Development Program. She was able to participate in a one-week training that introduced her to business development principles and management strategies, helping her to identify new ways to approach her future as an entrepreneur. “My first training showed me the direction I could go,” she recalls. Aré then began a series of consultations with the TBF team as she revisited the goal of expanding her restaurant business. She was eager to tap into Chengdu’s larger market of restaurant clientele, having formerly attracted a mainly Tibetan customer base. With the guidance of TBF staff, Aré was able to design a marketing and branding strategy and expand her menu to appeal to Chinese and Western appetites. In 2005, Aré found the ideal location for her new business in a well-trafficked section of Chengdu’s Tibetan district; the site of the business that she still owns today, which became the flagship of her chain of restaurants.
Aré now owns and runs three restaurants in Sichuan and one in Yunnan Province, providing training and employment for over sixty Tibetan staff, the majority of which come from poor families in rural communities that are unable to afford school. She has also succeeded in becoming a favorite institution among local Chinese clientele: she estimates that as much as 70% of her customers are Chinese. Her menu continues to offer a large array of traditional Tibetan dishes, while also making room for such unique items as sashimi-style yak meat and barley flour pizza.
The popularity of Aré’s business has drawn nationwide attention from potential investors who urge her to take part in new ventures. But with a mind toward prudence, Aré is focused on building upon her well-established achievements. “My aim is to have the best standard of Tibetan restaurant,” she explains, “and I think we are confident to achieve this dream now with all our experience.”
Aré continues to add to her business skills, having most recently joined a group of 16 Tibetan business owners for a TBF-supported training program in Penang, Malaysia. The week-long course focused on such subjects as change and crisis management and business improvement strategies. For over a decade, TBF has supported an on-going series of trainings to meet the needs of both established and aspiring Tibetan entrepreneurs. In 2010, TBF established the Mandala Business Development Center, a community resource that provides comprehensive services to entrepreneurs—such as Aré—as they navigate through the various stages of designing, building, and managing a business.