The Wok Shop
How The Wok Shop Makes Traditional Chinese Cooking New Again
Published August 2016
Woks, Asian cooking tools and utensils sold online and through a retail store in Chinatown.
2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest Winner
The Wok Shop
San Francisco, CA
From the moment that she came into this world, Tane Chan has blazed her own path. She was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Chinese immigrant parents who instilled her work ethic at an early age. But, the first time she visited San Francisco, Chan discovered the place where she wanted her life story to unfold. “I fell in love with the city and knew that, when I came of age, I wanted to live there, even though it was very much against my mother’s wishes. At the time, Chinese boys could go off and live their lives; the girls were supposed to stay home, do chores and support the family,” explained Tane Chan, owner of The Wok Shop. “But, I was a different breed.”
Chan attended San Francisco State University, met her husband, and eventually had three children. She also became an entrepreneur, opening a souvenir shop called Yum-Yum with her husband, just outside of Chinatown. Ironically, they did not sell goods from China, as the United States was not on friendly terms with the nation at the time. But, in 1972, when Richard Nixon made his historic trek to The People’s Republic of China, everything changed. As Nixon was wined and dined, U.S. citizens sat, glued to their television sets, watching the action — mesmerized by the cooking vessel producing those glorious meals.
“We started getting calls for woks, so we bought a few and immediately sold out,” Chan said. “The response was so great, I knew I had to expand my line and learn more about wok seasoning and cooking myself. Even though my dad had a restaurant in New Mexico, I never cooked. The daughters waited tables and washed dishes.” The more Chan learned about wok cooking, and the more woks she sold, the more she saw an opportunity to fill a real market void. She could specialize in Asian cooking supplies — woks, steamers, utensils — all of the unique items that newly exposed U.S. consumers craved.
Location, Location, Location
Chan wanted to open The Wok Shop in Chinatown, and found the perfect location not far from the gift shop on Grant Street. But, at first, the building owner wouldn’t give her a lease. “He said, ‘You don’t speak Chinese; you are not part of the community.’ I told him, ‘I will pay the rent like anyone else,’ but, he would have no part of it,” Chan said.
Then, he asked Chan where she was from, and wanted to know her parents’ names. As soon as she answered, his face softened. “A family member of his died in Albuquerque on his way to Texas. At the time, the family couldn’t afford to send the body back to California, so my parents gave this stranger a decent burial. Because of that good deed, he let me have the store, at an affordable rent, for as long as I wanted to stay,” Chan said. “For my family’s honor, I had to make it work.” And work, it did.
The Wok Shop soon became a popular tourist destination, as well as a favorite haunt of chefs and restaurateurs. Just when Chan thought she was on top of the world, her husband passed away, leaving her a single mom with three kids to raise, and a retail store that was open literally every day of the year — including Thanksgiving, Christmas and Chinese New Year. True to form, she kept everything going.
She Was e-Commerce Before e-Commerce Was Cool
In 1999, Chan’s son, Mark, who has a degree in computer sciences, came to her with a radical idea. “He told me that I needed to sell my products online, that that was the wave of the future. He said that I had so many unique items that I needed to expand my sales beyond Grant Street. That I should reach out to the world,” Chan said. “I told him, ‘I did my part; I put you through college. Now, it’s payback time. Build me a website.’”
Ten months later, The Wok Shop became one of the first mom-and-pop retailers with a functional, optimized e-commerce site. “The online store took off immediately. Mark built in a lot of search engine optimizations, so we immediately came to the top of search results. We’re still using many of the basic elements he created today,” Chan said. “Orders that come in by 3 p.m. are still shipped the same day. And all the fulfillment is done from our basement.”
Chan also found a way to replicate the high level of personal service customers get when they visit The Wok Shop online. To teach the basics of wok seasoning and cooking, she created a “Wokology 101” section on the site. But, for those buyers who need a little extra help, a personal response from Chan is always just an email away. “To this day, I answer all of my customer emails, address their questions and thank them for their business, just like I do in the store,” Chan said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t get pictures with captions like, ‘My first wok meal,’ or ‘I seasoned my new wok, what do you think?’”
Winning a FedEx Small Business Grant
Chan has long been a fan of FedEx, specifically her drivers who skillfully navigate the narrow streets of Chinatown, without fail. When they arrive each afternoon, she’s often waiting with a cookie or candy to “give them a little energy for the rest of the day.”
However, Chan originally wasn’t even planning to enter the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest. “I saw it and thought that I was too busy. I’m also not a person who usually enters contests. I sell lottos, but I don’t buy those either,” she said. “But, five hours before the contest closed, something made me enter. “
When she got the call, telling her she’d won a grant, boy-oh-boy, was she happy she took the time. “The day I found out I won, I went out and hired a part-time webmaster to make improvements to our website, and make it more user friendly,” Chan said. “We want to ship more products worldwide. We want to connect to more people and, with the grant, and someone focusing on our site, I think we’ll be able to do that.”
After 44 years, a rigorous schedule, and the joys and heartaches that come with running a small business, Chan is still going strong. More than a figurehead, she is the face of The Wok Shop, still greeting every customer; still helping each shopper discover the joys of Asian cooking in a very real way.
“I have a real passion for what I do,” she said. “Every day, I sell products and meet people from all over the world. What keeps me going? I’m blessed to have good health — and a sense of humor helps, too.” With that level of commitment and energy, it looks like this small-business owner is going to be making her mark for a long, long time.