Small Business Spotlight: MáLà Project

Restaurants and their employees have been hit hard around the world. Amelie Kang, the founder of New York City’s MáLà Project, is ready to bounce back.

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(Image credit: MáLà Project)

Women running their own companies? We love to see it. In our series Small Business Spotlight, we chat with independent fashion entrepreneurs about their journey to be-your-own-boss status. Here, tips for raising funds, developing a marketing strategy, navigating social media, and more—straight from women who have done it themselves.

In early 2020, Amelie Kang’s small but burgeoning restaurant business was growing quickly. Kang, who was born and raised in Beijing and who attended the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York, had opened MáLà Project in 2015. The Bib Gourmand restaurant in the East Village that specializes in Chinese cuisine and the traditional Sichuan dish Mala Dry Pot was such a success, she and her three friends-turned-business partners opened the doors to her second outpost, MáLà Project Bryant Park, in 2018. 

It seemed like things were just getting started. Then the pandemic hit, devastating the entire restaurant industry. 

“Everything was happening so fast,” Kang says, “from the moment the pandemic hit to the time we were ordered to shut down our operations.”

After weathering lockdowns and uncertainty with the first two MáLà Project locations, her third location in Midtown East opened this past November. But the last two years have been a challenge. For the month of March, Kang partnered alongside American Express and Resy’s “Every Resy Counts”— a month-long reservation drive that encourages millions of diners to make reservations in support of independent restaurants nationwide. 

Here, we spoke with the restaurant entrepreneur on how she stands her ground in one of the world's most competitive food cities.

On Bouncing Back

"The initial couple of months [post-March 2020] were really tough, because you didn’t know what to expect. We were definitely responding rather than being proactive. It was such a shock to everyone at the restaurant. 

We could have stayed open for takeout, but we couldn’t risk that. A lot of our cooks live in Flushing, Queens, so commuting was just a little too scary at the time. We closed for two months and then opened for takeout in June of 2020. We did outdoor dining when that became possible, we slowly worked our way up to indoor dining at half capacity, and then eventually, full dining service. We were blessed to be able to open up again and eventually we were able to hire back our staff who are so loyal to the restaurant."

On Growth

"I was just looking at photos from our first meeting. It was five people including one manager and our servers. I was doing the training for all of them. Three years later we have over 60 employees. We promote everyone from within, so everybody started as either a host or a server. My Director of Operations started as a host.

I want to expand the restaurant so that we can have a bigger platform for our employees to grow. I don’t want anyone to be a waiter for three years if they don’t want to. I want them to grow into new creative roles— for example, our Communications Specialist is helping us launch a YouTube channel."

small business spotlight

(Image credit: MáLà Project)

On Learning

"My team has made me a better leader— we are very open when it comes to communication and feedback. My chef and the older individuals in our kitchen have really helped guide me— especially in the beginning when it came to negotiating with landlords and contractors.

When I first started, I was only 22 years old. I was a newbie in the industry. I behaved like a kid, even though I was trying so hard to be a leader within the business.

Last summer, I hired a business coach. During that time I’ve felt myself grow as a leader, friend, and business partner. During the pandemic, I had to lead from afar. Now that the business is coming back, I have to deal with a lot of politics and social pressure. Each year has presented a different challenge to overcome. As the business evolves, I evolve, too. "

On Gender Diversity

"When I was in culinary school there was a lot of masculine energy in the kitchen environment. Now, it's when I mingle and network with other restaurateurs, that I’m reminded of the fact that this is a very male-dominated industry. 

I don’t feel that same way when I'm at MáLà Project, though. It’s a pretty well-balanced dynamic between men and women. Actually, the majority of the managers are women—it wasn't intentional, it just happened to be that way. 

Women in the restaurant industry are super supportive of each other, more so than men are, and sometimes that’s overlooked. The women here have formed a very strong support system and I'm thankful for that."

Sara Holzman
Sara Holzman

Sara Holzman is the Style Editor at Marie Claire, covering runway trends and tracking down the latest finds to buy and wear. When she’s not writing about fashion, she pens about the best places to jet-off to.