Imagine coming to a new country, not knowing the language, and not having the vast network of social connections that you’ve grown up with. Then, imagine building up a business empire from scratch, while achieving a level in professional sport that others can only dream of.
Former NFL player Ron Lou’s success epitomizes the American dream. His parents emigrated to Los Angeles from China in the 1950s, where Ron’s father found work as a producer broker and his mother as a seamstress. As immigrants, their first goal was to survive, but their strong work ethic and drive led to them also owning various businesses, including grocery stores and cafes. Naturally, their entrepreneurial spirit rubbed off on Ron. “I was seven years old when I was first helping my father to sort and repack tomatoes,” he recalls. “My first paid job was at nine years old, when I delivered produce on foot before school, from 4.00 am to 8.00 am, earning $2 an hour.”
This early grounding set Lou up with a hard-working mindset and ambition that has ensured he’s no stranger to standing out and filling a niche in various aspects of life. The former Houston Oilers and Philadelphia Eagles player has spent 35 years creating various restaurant concepts, including the popular Asia -Cajun seafood boil franchise, Angry Crab Shack. With his first-hand knowledge of how vast opportunities have changed the lives of countless first-generation Americans, Ron believes it was his own experiences as a first-generation American which have influenced him to become such a successful entrepreneur.
How did your early life shape you into becoming a professional sportsman, the first American-Asian to play in the NFL, and then latterly a successful entrepreneur?
It was watching football with my dad that first got me interested in the sport. I played neighborhood football as a kid, flag football in seventh grade, and then got more serious about the game by tenth grade.
Even though I worked hard on the game, success was not handed to me right away. I was recruited to Arizona State University (ASU) but didn’t get a scholarship until right before the season. In 1973, I was drafted by the Houston Oilers in the 14th round. I played for Houston in 1973, 1974 and 1976. In 1975, I played for Philadelphia Eagles.
In my early football career, the challenge was fitting in. For example, college was a different environment from what I was used to, and things that were normal and second nature to other students didn’t come easy to me.
After I retired from football, my challenge was finding the right career – I felt a little lost at that point. But my parents had taught me to work hard and survive, so I tried a variety of different jobs including real estate, working at Home Depot, and even selling Christmas trees.
I believe my family’s immigrant experiences helped give me the confidence to try different things until I found the right business fit. And although it wasn’t something I’d ever even thought about growing up, I started to gravitate toward the restaurant industry when a friend introduced me to the concept in my twenties. I thought it was a good match for me because the product is visual, and restaurants are always in demand. I dove headfirst into my first project, the Little Dragon Chinese Buffet, in 1980, and then started C-FU Gourmet in 1994.
After 15 years in the trade, I came up with the idea of Angry Crab Shack during a hospital visit! I combined my knowledge of seafood with my Asian background to create a seafood boil concept that uses both Asian and Cajun spices. I then sold my C-FU restaurants in 2015 to concentrate on growing Angry Crab Shack.
Angry Crab Shack now has 18 restaurants in the U.S. and we’re about to open our first international location in the U.K. We’ve signed agreements in various stages of development in Georgia, Washington, Utah and Texas, and are working towards an overall brand expansion plan to have 100 stores open and operating by 2025.
Where did you find your motivation and self-belief to succeed?
My motivation to work hard and keep going came from my parents, and the work ethic I learned while working with my father. To my family, the American Dream wasn’t about getting rich or having a big house. It was about survival and making a living. My status as an immigrant gave me the feeling I needed to work harder to be successful.
What advice would you give to any aspiring entrepreneurs, especially if they don’t have a strong support structure?
Do your research by gathering information and reading as much as you possibly can. It’s important to find out what you’re passionate about and what drives you. Knowing your interests and strengths – and understanding if they would be put to good use in the industry you’re exploring – is important in gaining success when you make a career change.
Opening your own business can seem daunting, but so is coming to coming to a new country where you don’t know the language, and not having the vast network of social connections that you’ve grown up with. What do you do? You work hard, you learn the best ways to get the job done, and you don’t give up when things don’t go well for you.
What special qualities do you need to be successful in business?
I believe what sets me apart from others is my work ethic and my drive to succeed. As a first-generation immigrant, I was highly motivated to build something for future generations. Some of the traits I possess are skills that all entrepreneurs need and should strive to acquire. For example, being motivated to learn new systems and figure out solutions. Watching and helping my own immigrant parents acquire these problem-solving skills early in life were the best lessons for my own journey into entrepreneurship.
Why do you think first-generation immigrants make great entrepreneurs?
Experiences as an immigrant help provide strong leadership traits in entrepreneurs as they start their businesses. I’m hands-on with all my new ventures – even now I still keep up with daily operations and perform maintenance checks on restaurants. But I also allow management staff to do their jobs.
Passing on success
Angry Crab Shack supports its franchisees in a myriad of ways. Here Ron explains the formula that works:
- Our internal system, CrabLab, provides franchise partners and employees with everything they need to know about their restaurant’s operations – from video training modules to standard operating procedures. Our days of carrying jam-packed binders are long gone. We find it easier to use this portal to store and share information with our team members, even down to recipes!
- Meanwhile, our all-in-one restaurant growth platform, Momos, has made customer engagement and marketing a breeze. Guests are always just a click away and combined with other platforms like social media, no questions or feedback ever go unaddressed.
- Through Angry Crab Shack’s strong vendor relationships, we are able to help franchise owners maintain their inventory, stabilize pricing agreements, and keep our healthy profit margins afloat. At the same time, exploring additional partnerships is high on my list of priorities.
- Angry Crab Shack’s strategy is to proactively hire and get new employees familiar with the brand so that we’ll have a strong team in place as we grow, rather than after.
Charlotte Smith is an editor and writer for Global Franchise