CONNIE ZHANG: Breaking Through Stereotypes As CEO

BY NATALIA KOZIKOWSKA
Staff Writer

Today, Connie Zhang is the CEO of one of the most successful Chinese restaurants in the Borough, but her journey to success was not always so smooth.

When she was just 12 years old, Zhang came to the United States with her family from a small little village in Fuzhou, China. Like many immigrants who leave their home countries, Zhang’s family had aspirations of running their own business, striving to achieve the ‘American Dream.’

Connie2When she first came to America, Zhang lived in Maryland, where she would stay for 16 years. It was during her time there that she first was exposed to the restaurant business.

“It all started with my parents, who ran a little carryout in Maryland,” she said.

Realizing that there was more business potential in New York City, in 2005, Zhang and her family moved once more.

“We found that New York City is a bigger place and there were more business opportunities,” she said. “So I moved there to help them with the restaurant.”

At first, Zhang admitted that she was not immediately drawn to the food industry.

“I thought I wanted to go into another field, like an office job, but eventually I realized it was best for my family to stay in the restaurant business,” she said. “I didn’t really have a choice.”

With a few years of experience under her belt, Zhang, along with a partner, took a leap of faith, and in 2011, she made the bold move to invest in a Chinese-American-style restaurant in Flushing – an area that was heavily populated with people of Chinese decent.

“I never thought that I’d be managing a restaurant by myself because I didn’t have much management experience,” she said. “But when we began construction on Grand Restaurant, I saw there was not good management.”

Learning valuable lessons about management from her partner, she soon worked her way to the top as the CEO.

“When I was watching him and learning about how to manage a restaurant wrong and right, I learned a lot,” she said. “I learned a lot just from watching, but at the same time, I was learning a lot by myself. I spent a lot of time in this restaurant.”

Despite having worked her way up the corporate ladder, Zhang said that her gender has sometimes made it difficult to run a business, especially when working with shareholders.

“Especially in the Chinese community, it’s very hard for women to stay in business in front of men,” she said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to deal with shareholders. As women, men think we can never be the ones on top, so these types of negotiations can sometimes be a problem.”

Zhang also admits that running a business with kids at home can be difficult as well.

“I always try to take a day or two off in the week to try and spend time with my two kids. It’s hard to manage this place, especially a place this big,” she said. “I think in the future it will be better, but right now, it’s difficult for me to spend time with my kids and sometimes, I feel like a bad mom.”

Despite managing such a large-scale restaurant, Zhang remains committed to her children and after a long day of work, she said she still finds the energy to come home and cook for them.

When asked why she thinks she runs Grand Restaurant so effectively, Zhang said she feels it is her ability to communicate with her employees – an ingredient necessary for the recipe of success.

“I want my employees to be happy every day. If my employees think there is a problem here, that means my company has a problem,” she said. “So I told them, if you feel that I’ve done something wrong, feel free to talk to me about it.”

Reach Natalia Kozikowska at (718) 357-7400 Ext. 123 or nkozikowska@queenspress.com.