Written by Sophie X. Song
Translated by Sophie X. Song
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Café Mei, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “Don’t underestimate breakfast. A good breakfast can satisfy your appetite, and boost positive energy to help you meet the challenges of the day!”
Across Taiwan, Café Mei is a well-loved diner chain known for serving up unique breakfasts, lunches, and teas. And, while dishes may resemble American fast-food favorites in appearance, like burgers and sandwiches, Café Mei makes use of local ingredients, creating distinctive flavors that seamlessly unite Chinese and Western cuisine.
Because the diner has multiple locations, most people don’t realize just how much they’ll miss the familiarity of the café until they leave Taiwan. The same could have been true for Kandy Wang, the owner of the only American branch of Café Mei. If it weren’t for a paperwork error more than 30 years prior, Wang may not have delved into the process of expanding upon the flavors she’d always loved, let alone endeavor to bring the brand to the U.S.
A Dream in the Making
In 1989, Kandy Wang was about to leave Taiwan to study in the United States. She’d thought her green card was in order, and had already obtained a leave of absence from her school in Taiwan, but unexpected delays with her paperwork meant that she would have to wait a while before going abroad. In the meantime, Wang decided to take on a temporary job, which was how she ended up working with Café Mei’s research and development branch, and paving the way for future culinary endeavors. One year into her employment, Wang was promoted to technical director, and was responsible for training the owners of new franchise branches.
The experience gave Wang an in-depth understanding of the Café Mei brand and its business philosophy, and it was one she never forgot.
After leaving her position with the diner chain to study in the U.S., Wang realized how much she missed the Taiwanese breakfasts Café Mei served up. During this period, the idea of one day opening a new Café Mei branch herself in the United States began to take root in her mind. Wang has always been a morning person, getting up early and starting the day with a nutritious breakfast, and she knew the diner could provide a warm and familiar atmosphere for fellow Taiwanese expats who might miss the flavors of home, just like she did.
“Don’t underestimate breakfast,” Wang said. “A good breakfast can satisfy your appetite, and boost positive energy to help you meet the challenges of the day!”
Although Wang never forgot about this dream, more than 30 years would pass while she studied and worked. And, she knew the practical challenges she would face in order to achieve this goal. All of the ingredients used by Café Mei’s Taiwan branches are provided by the central kitchen, which would understandably not be the case for the American branch. And what’s more, none of the local Taiwanese ingredients that the recipes called for would be readily available in the U.S. As such, Wang’s dream remained just that until five years ago when she was reunited with an old friend.
Wenzhou Hu had opened a Café Mei location decades prior, and Kandy Wang was the one who trained him. Coming full circle, Mr. Hu also worked for the Café Mei HQ, where he was responsible for training new franchise owners. Through this, he met and became friends with Mr. Wu, the president of the central kitchen. Five years ago, after Kandy Wang and Mr. Wenzhou Hu reconnected through Mr. Wu, Wang shared her longtime dream with Hu, who understood her vision instantly and offered his support. The three of them hit it off, and decided to bring Café Mei to the United States. The first store was to be in Fremont.
Living up to the Taste of Home
Since there were no ready-to-use ingredients from a central Café Mei kitchen in the United States, everything for the American branch had to be created from scratch. Fortunately, all three partners were Café Mei experts. Wang recalled how they spent three to four months visiting California suppliers and experimenting with American ingredients to recreate the Taiwanese flavors she knew and loved.
Take the mayonnaise used for sandwiches, for example, she’d said. American mayonnaise has an entirely different taste from its equivalent in Taiwan, and could not be simply substituted. Bakeries across the Bay Area were similarly assessed in order to find the perfect bread for their signature sandwiches.
“The bread has to be beautifully shaped because we cut off the edges manually. If the loaf does not have a neat shape, the slices of bread will be very small,” Wang said. “I get up at four o’clock each morning to fetch the loaves, because bread from the night before would be too dry while bread just out of the oven would be too soft. The four o’clock batch is perfect for when we open our doors at eight o’clock. It’s just a sandwich, but it takes a long time and a lot of effort to get just right.”
Wang’s unwavering love, research, and preparations made Café Mei an instant hit in the Bay Area, and it continues to draw the attention of many Taiwanese American customers who wish to test the eatery’s homestyle flavors. Longing for the breakfast foods they grew up with, customers naturally have high standards. But with each bite, Wang’s careful creations invariably move the hearts of guests, who praise Café Mei’s recipes for being “like the flavors we loved in Taiwan.”
Wang was heartened to discover that American-born Chinese customers who’ve never been to Taiwan often come to Café Mei, almost as a pilgrimage, to taste the flavors their parents so fondly spoke about. Every time these customers exclaim, “So that’s what it tastes like, it’s delicious!” Wang’s joy overflows.
“Customers can tell if you are making an effort, if you are putting work into making everything taste just right,” Wang told Tzu Chi volunteers, and at Café Mei, all menu items are indeed infused with boundless care and attention to detail.
Expanding Vegetarian Additions
The traditional Café Mei menu does not have an abundance of vegetarian dishes. The most popular dishes — the breakfast sandwiches and burgers — all incorporate meat. California, however, had always seemed to be at the forefront of the vegetarian movement, and while Wang’s own Café Mei initially heeded the original selection, she was soon inspired to make a few more veggie-focused additions.
Among those vegetarian customers were Tzu Chi volunteers. Wang’s mother also happens to be a Tzu Chi volunteer, and Wang has personally met Tzu Chi volunteers, too. When volunteers expressed interest in trying Wang’s delicious vegetarian sandwiches, she readily packed some up and delivered them to the Tzu Chi office without delay. Kandy Wang was also happy to join the Very Veggie Movement, graciously offering discounts for those who sign up.
At the moment, Cafe Mei serves up two vegetarian sandwiches and vegetarian snack foods. In the future, Wang also plans to create her own version of the famous “Impossible Burger” using strictly vegan ingredients.
Currently, some customers drive more than two hours to taste Café Mei’s Taiwanese flavors, so when peaking of her next steps, Wang said, “I hope that one day, in any corner of the United States, a customer can drive at most 30 minutes before they’ll be able to eat at a Café Mei branch.” These flavors from Taiwan have traveled across the ocean and taken root in the U.S. due to a shared love for Taiwanese cuisine, and with the level of care and quality that Kandy infuses into her food, the franchise can only continue to grow.
Learn more about the Very Veggie Movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!