Since its opening in 2003, Oriental Teahouse has been Melbourne’s most popular Teahouse. Its selection of handmade dumplings, yum-cha, and herbal teas, along with a carefully selected range of cocktails, has earned it a reputation for being Melbourne’s finest Teahouse.
Oriental Teahouse, owned and operated by the close-knit Zhou Family, has helped to reimagine an authentic Chinese experience in Melbourne. The family also owns Zhou Zhou Bar, the Dumpling Studio, and David’s Restaurant.
The family, led by David Zhou and their amazing venues, have left their mark on Melbourne’s hospitality scene.
We sit down with Yanan Zhou and Adam Chen to discuss how to build a solid foundation for a growing business. They also explain why data and communication are the keys to success and how they have reimagined traditional Chinese experiences in modern times.
How to build a family business
Oriental Teahouse was not always the institution that it is now. It began as a small tea stall selling herbal teas.
David was a Chinese herbalist and a Chinese physician. Adam explains that he actually began selling herbal tea after consulting patients.
It was the first OG tea sold on Chapel Street. The stall was very small, and he decided to start Oriental Tea House with the idea of serving tea and some small foods to go along with it. But the tea was still the main ingredient.
David decided to move his small tea stall into a permanent location and open a new teahouse inside an old pub. The locals did not receive this decision well.
Yanan: “He got some hate when he opened that restaurant because yum-cha and dumplings were not as popular as they are now.”
People would ask him in the street, “What are you doing opening up a teashop?” It’s not going to survive.”
“He is quite funny. He said to me… Twenty years later, here we are.”
“It started with tea, then the food became an addition, and it evolved over time, until our dumplings, yum-cha, and other dishes were a major part of [the company].”
Yanan and Adam began working in the family business as young children, packing tea for their grandfather at the kitchen table.
Yanan: “I started packing tea when I was 12 years old. We had buckets of liquorice, goji berries and we would pack them in little paper bags and seal them. Then my family would then sell them at the store.”
They’d say, “Come, come. Why don’t you try packing?” They would say, “, come on, try it!”
Yanan, who is 19 years old, took on her first job at David’s Restaurant, which was named after her father.
Adam remembers the same memories from his childhood. He helped pack tea in the family business before starting to work in restaurants in his late teens.
“We were exposed to the industry very early. We started at home, packing teas. But when I began, I was 17-18, and I worked on the floor as a server, carrying dishes. Adam. “That was my first job. I then started managing restaurants at the age of 22.”
Learn the ropes
Yanan, who had spent years watching her parents and family members work together to create a number of successful restaurants, quickly realized that university was not for her. She decided to join the restaurants to learn everything she needed.
“When I watched that, I wanted to be in it. When I was at university, I was studying Business Management. I remember sitting in class, and my teacher asked, can you define business administration? At that moment, I thought, “I’m out.” “This isn’t my thing.” – Yanan.
It was a good thing that Dad asked, “Why don’t you see what it is really all about?”
This is your university. “You will gain the experience you are looking for, and I did.” — Yanan.
Yanan and Adam had been exposed to their family’s business since a very young age. However, actually learning the ropes in the company and working there was an entirely different experience.
Yanan has learned that while it is great to be innovative and to want to make changes in your business, you should always consider the team when making a decision.
“When you are 19, you have a lot of ideas. I learned the costs of not considering others.”
“One of the most important things I learned is that it’s not easy to change a team so quickly.”
Finding your way in a new job can be difficult, but Yanan and Adam are fortunate to work in an organization with solid foundations that allow them to excel in their roles.
“Adam and me were fortunate enough to go into a business with a lot structure and, I believe, consistent standards.”
Yanan: “I’m so grateful for the years I spent working at David’s. I gained a lot of knowledge about hospitality, including the do’s and don’ts, as well as the good parts.
Yanan and Adam, who have lived and breathed the family business since their youth both at home and work, have learned the ins and outs of hospitality. They have also seen mistakes and have been able to learn from them.
“We can also see the good they did and some of their mistakes. When I was younger, I used to observe how certain foundations were laid and also how certain things weren’t. This would have caused some harm down the road.” – Yanan.
Adam believes the work ethic that he saw in his family as a child has also influenced his work ethic and his love of business.
Adam: “We saw this happen when we were children… We saw them work so hard and it came natural for us.”
The same page
Working so closely with our extended families would be a challenge for many. Yanan and Adam, however, believe that it brings them together. Each family member is able to understand the struggles and joys of the business.
“I believe, sitting around the table, everyone speaks the same language. We face similar issues every day. Adam. “We’re all on the same page.”
I feel that our family is closer due to the family business. We understand what they are going through, and we can talk about it.
We understand the pressures and excitement of each other when they have a victory. We know how it feels.
Yanan agrees with Adam and believes that the entire team at Oriental Teahouse has become a big family.
Yanan: “I’m sure it’s cliche but many of our team members have been with us for more than five years and they feel like family.”
“I am very grateful to Oriental Teahouse, because it has been there since I was a child. It’s like a sister to me. It’s the hub for both our regulars as well as our team… I’m lucky to have it.”