CAVIAR: Reinventing Fast Casual Dining
by Chloe Sorvino
Jason Wang has been holed up in Japan since March. He stopped there on his way back from a 10-day scuba-diving vacation in Indonesia, and because of Covid, decided not to return to his Bay Area home for a while. Despite the detour—and the pandemic’s disastrous impact on the restaurant industry—this West Coast fast-casual restaurateur’s mini-empire is in expansion mode.
Wang was up many hours past midnight in Tokyo last Wednesday, counting down to the grand opening of the latest location of his Thai chicken-and-rice chain, Rooster & Rice, in the Westfield Valley Fair mall in Santa Clara, California. One of the largest shopping centers in Silicon Valley, the mall has limited foot traffic to 25% but restaurants like Wang’s are open for food pickup. “It’s now probably the worst location a new restaurant could be—and the rent's expensive,” Wang says.
Turns out, customers still found the restaurant, which pulled in about $1,000 in sales on the first day. And as unlikely as it sounds, Wang thinks this mall store could become the top performer in his expanding network of restaurants, which he hopes will eventually grow beyond the Pacific region.
“Given that the mall is still closed and people can only come in for pickup orders until next month, it’s as good as we can get,” says Wang, 33, over Zoom, a few hours after it opened.
As founding CEO of Caviar, a delivery app for fine dining with a hungry user base, Wang helped make it radically easier for high-end restaurants used to white-tablecloth customers to digitize for delivery before selling that business. Now he’s on the other side, operating restaurants and working with his former competitors, DoorDash and Uber Eats, as well as Caviar.
These big on-demand delivery apps connecting restaurants, drivers and customers, have been criticized recently for taking more than their fair share from restaurants struggling to survive the Covid-19 crisis, cutting into roughly 25% to 30% of their profits per order. Wang says do the math—he needs them. “If I lose 85% of the revenue because I don’t want to pay the [app] fee, like, we’re done. We’re out of business.”
Still, he’s trying to take back some of the margin, launching a bespoke app for Rooster & Rice. So far, it’s just for pickup orders, but in just two months, it now accounts for a third of Rooster & Rice orders.
Wang, 33, has now spent more time operating restaurants than he did launching and running Caviar, which he cofounded in 2012. In just two years, after raising $15 million in venture capital from elite firms like Tiger Global and Andreessen Horowitz, Caviar was acquired by billionaire Jack Dorsey’s Square for $90 million. In 2015 Wang made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.
“It really paid off,” Wang says. An insatiable entrepreneur, he’s applied that money—and vision—to his many new endeavors. With Caviar’s three other cofounders, Wang launched a venture fund, Beluga Capital, focusing on early-stage food tech investments in 2015. He also created a restaurant investment firm called Umai, a Japanese word used to describe food as good.
That’s how Wang came to franchising. In September 2016 he acquired the rights to franchise Halal Guys in Seattle—at the time “the hottest franchise deals in the U.S.,” Wang boasts. In January 2018, he added a San Jose location of Korean fried chicken chain Bonchon to the mix.
The second Seattle location for Halal Guys, on the ground floor of an Amazon office next to Facebook and Apple, just opened this month. “It’s a ghost town right now. There’s no one on the streets. But we’re surviving, surprisingly.” Wang says, explaining sales for his restaurants are slightly up for the year. “Our food is built for takeout.”