Stepping off the airplane onto Chinese soil for the first time, Scott Minoie was geared with a friend’s e-mail, a backpack and $600 – his life savings.
Scott Minoie says running a restaurant with customers you’d get to know by name is his goal with Element Fresh.
It was 1999 and the then 26-year-old Bostonian had just left the United States to take a short holiday in China before starting a new position with a natural foods supermarket back in the US.
|But he never showed up for that job.
Now 38, Minoie is the founder of Element Fresh, one of China’s most profitable Western fine-dining chains with more than 11 outlets and 1,200 employees split between Beijing and Shanghai.
“Within two weeks in China I basically said to myself ‘I’m not going back. This place is too cool, it’s too much fun,'” he says.
With his small hoard of cash nearly depleted, and his arrangement to sleep on a friend’s couch only short-term, he struggled with the question of how he would make ends meet.
“I started teaching English and everything – but I had to move on from that. So after about six months, I decided to go back to what I knew, which was food,” which he has loved since assisting in his mother’s kitchen on Boston’s South Shore.
Scraping together about $1,000, Minoie trekked to a local restaurant supply store and purchased a meat slicer and a stainless-steel table.
Converting a spare room in his small downtown apartment, he called on his experience as a 15-year-old cooking summer barbecues for local dinner parties in Boston to set up a catering business.
“There really weren’t many expats in Shanghai at the time. I really got that feeling that I was out in the Wild West,” he says.
Minoie began waking up every morning and preparing deli meats and cheeses before carting them off in a taxi to clients.
A year into his operation, Minoie got an opportunity. He was commissioned to create a cafe in the kitchen space of an abandoned Gold’s Gym.
But there was a catch – the restaurant name had to be gold-themed, named after the gym.
Eventually Minoie and his partner, the friend whose couch he had first stayed on, put their heads together and came up with “Element 79”, named after the periodic table of elements’ classification for gold.
He would later re-adapt the moniker to the award-winning franchise his restaurants hold today, Element Fresh.
Element 79’s fresh food quickly attracted a horde of local businesspeople, mostly expats, looking for an easy lunchtime option.
But rent was high in the prime location and the size of the restaurant kept Minoie struggling to pay bills.
In the end, it was the warm setting and loyal customers that helped him take the next step.
In July 2002, Minoie opened the doors to the first Element Fresh, downtown to the Shanghai Center, and was met with resounding success.
“There were people waiting for the tables the first day,” he says.
|He has since gone on to open 11 more outlets and win awards in local magazines. He still keeps six of the original eight staff from his days at Element 79.
In late September, China Business News listed Element Fresh in the top seven safest places to eat, due to its focus on fresh food and health-conscious cleaning methods.
Plans for 2012 include three new outlets in Beijing and the first outlet to open in Guangzhou.
“I never though too much about it when I was starting that it would become what it is. But for me I’m just having fun,” he says.