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Along Wu Hsing Street Market in Taipei, Taiwan, thousands of Chinese shoppers weave their way through grime and gridlock to buy leatherhandbags, fresh flowers and red ocean fish. Sitting in the midst of the market is another unlikely Chinese favorite, Uncle Bubba’s Southern Fried Chicken.
Sean O’Neal left his job at the Pentagon in 1989 to open this restaurant, which generated nearly $300,000 in gross sales in 1996. “It hasn’t been peaches and cream. It’s been a long, bumpy road,” says the 33-year-old Dartmouth graduate. As a political military and economic analyst of Asian affairs at the Pentagon, O’Neal had no previous business experience but was familiar with the economic activity in Asia as well as the language (O’Neal studied Chinese for five years in college, including one year of Taiwanese, and worked in a shoe factory). That experience whet his appetite for entrepreneurship as he viewed a booming retail economy. Believing his earning potential as a government employee was limited, O’Neal decided to carry his skills overseas to set up shop in Taipei.
He toyed with the idea of opening an English language school, but that market was already saturated. So after seeing successful sidewalk food vendors, he decided to sell food. O’Neal says he wanted to sell a product with a consumer friendly name (Uncle Bubba’s Southern Fried Chicken translates to Uncle O’Yangs in Chinese) and a distinct American taste. But he also wanted a product that would have market potential beyond the initial novelty phase. He watched other restaurants and made a note of which types of food sold successfully. He also talked to customers about what foods they liked to eat.
After extensive surveys, O’Neal used a family recipe for fried chicken nuggets, but he still needed capital to get started. Unable to afford the $40,000 cost of a permanent store location, he did what thousands of other Chinese do in Taipei- he opened a sidewalk vending stand for about $4,000.
After securing food suppliers and coming up with the store name, O’Neal was open for business by 1990. Selling spicy and mild drumsticks and wings, he generated $100,000 the first year. In 1991, O’Neal was looking for a permanent location. Unable to secure a bank loan, he sought help from the Dartmouth Alumni Association, which found him potential investors. “They ran me through the gauntlet for four months,” says O’Neal, who was grilled about past revenues and future market projections. He was also observed closely, noting that sometimes he’d look up from serving chicken to see one of the investors watching from a parked car across the street. “Then one day, the investor said, `I’m impressed with your work,’ and he wrote a check.” O’Neal owns 65% of the business and operates it along with eight other employees.
He suffered a loss when he opened a second restaurant in 1995. Due to a bad location, he had to dose the eatery last June. But business has not stopped booming at his first store.
Uncle Bubba’s Southern Fried Chicken, Wu Hsing