Senior Copy Editor
If you’re a fan of Asian food in Isla Vista and Goleta, chances are you’ve seen Sophie Xu one way or another: behind the counter, serving customers, cleaning tables, or even working in the kitchen. At only 27, Xu is the businesswoman behind local restaurants Uniboil, Phresh Teas, Su’s Bowl, Vons Chicken, and Kaiju Ramen & Curry.
Xu, who attended UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) and graduated in 2019, knew there was a niche in the Santa Barbara county food scene that needed to be filled.
“The reason we opened the first [restaurant] was because we couldn’t find anything we [could] eat every day. Every day the topic for me and my friends [was], what should we eat?” Xu shares in an interview with The Bottom Line.
While Santa Barbara county certainly is home to a bustling restaurant scene, Xu recalls a time when its Asian food offerings were limited. If she wanted quality Asian food, she and her friends had to make the long trek to Los Angeles. That’s where, through a friend’s recommendation, she tried a popular Taiwanese hotpot chain called Uniboil for the first time. It only took one taste of the tongue-numbing spicy pork feet hotpot for her to get hooked.
When her now-husband mentioned that his family members were looking to make American investments, Xu rose to the opportunity to franchise her first restaurant in June 2018. Uniboil, located in Goleta, was one of the first personal hotpot restaurants in the area.
Xu, however, is no stranger to business management. After graduating from high school in San Jose, she returned to China to work at her family’s international trading business for three years prior to attending UCSB. From working assembly on the product line to communicating with vendors, Xu was exposed to nearly every facet of the business. This time in her life gave her the confidence to open her first restaurant during her last two quarters at UCSB.
Regardless of prior experience, opening and managing a restaurant when you’re a student is no easy feat. As a new business owner who had never worked in a restaurant before, balancing a statistics degree course load with being a full-time manager was especially difficult for Xu. It took nearly failing exams and having to hire tutors for her to realize that she had to make a decision: commit fully to school, or to her restaurant?
When Uniboil’s opening few months were marked by unprecedented success — hour-long waitlists and praise from customers — she had her answer.
“At that time, I didn’t even care about my grades anymore,” Xu shares. “Because I know my future is here.”
Despite the crowded storefronts and high Yelp reviews, however, Xu doesn’t consider her restaurants successful just yet. To her, the restaurants are “stable,” which she credits to the people who work with her.
A few names come up time and time again in our conversation: Samuel, the head cook; Gary, the manager-in-training; Mitchell, the cook with potential. Xu is quick to defer praise of her restaurants to her staff, whom she describes as “honest” and “responsible.”
Xu describes a human-focused approach to management, which includes investing additional training into employees with potential and building close relationships with even her part-time workers. She shares that she doesn’t just see her five restaurants as separate entities — to her, she’s running a company. And just like a CEO, she feels an obligation to invest in and provide for her employees.
“My goal is not [just for] me to make money. Everyone who decided to start following me — they trust me. I don’t want to let them down,” Xu says. “I want to help them to build the life they want.”
Xu’s hands-on approach has gained her the trust and respect of her employees. When asked about her level of involvement, Xu simply answers: “Every bit of it. I’m always there.”
From making tea drinks at Phresh Teas to cooking Northern Chinese food at Su’s Bowl to serving customers at Kaiju, Xu can fill any role at any one of her restaurants. She’s also deeply involved in the pre-opening stage of each restaurant — every new food item must first be pre-approved by her. Even at her franchises Uniboil and Vons Chicken, where recipes are provided by the chain, Xu makes adjustments for taste as needed.
Dozens of Asian restaurants in the Santa Barbara county have come and gone over the years — it’s not a surprising sight to see buildings vacated after only months of ownership. Over the past two years, however, Uniboil and Phresh Teas have remained stable and bustling with customers. Between October and December 2019, Xu opened three additional restaurants: Su’s Bowl, Vons Chicken, and Kaiju Ramen & Curry.
What makes Xu’s restaurants different?
“We listen to the customers,” Xu says. “I try to talk to all my customers. I try to remember all their faces.”
That close and engaging relationship with customers is what makes Xu’s restaurants unique. If a dish isn’t up to par, for example, customers can simply text her with their suggestions. Xu sees that willingness to share complaints as a positive sign of customers’ faith in her — they complain sometimes, she says, because “they expect more of me.”
Currently, Xu has no immediate plans to expand her restaurant network. If all goes well, she may apply her current business model to other college campuses. But, she shares, she’d be just as happy stepping back from her businesses to start her own family and have more time to play with her two dogs.
The future is still uncertain, but Xu has one piece of advice to share with students.
“I really want to encourage young people — if [there’s] something you really want to do — you should do it. Because when I was little, I always dreamed about opening a milk tea shop. It was a small dream … I wanted to open a milk tea shop, maybe by the sea.”
When I comment that she made that dream come true, Xu smiles and shares a laugh with me.
“Yeah, and even better because I opened a milk tea shop and a restaurant.”
Interested in trying out Xu’s food for yourself? Here are some of her favorite dishes at each restaurant: at Phresh Teas, she recommends roasted oolong milk tea with boba. At Uniboil, she’s a fan of mixing the numbing spicy and tom yum broths. At Su’s Bowl, her favorite is the Chinese burger.
Keep up with Sophie’s Food Co on Instagram at instagram.com/sophiesfoodco.