Bringing Taiwanese Food to the Financial District: A Conversation with A-Pou Taste's Doris Yao

At the heart of the Financial District sits a huge red cube sculpted by Isami Noguchi, a prominent Japanese-American artist and landscape architect. Surrounding it are several food vendors, most of whom serve halal food and hot dogs. Each vendor has to compete with the one to his right and another to his left, making his task of attracting customers all the more difficult.

Hidden to the side of a cube, however, is a small food cart called A-Pou’s Taste, whose owner, Doris Yao, serves something entirely different. Whereas her competitors sell halal chicken on rice, Yao sells Taiwanese pot stickers. Yao is aware that she must market her food effectively in order to make a decent profit, but in a crowd of halal stands, she is confident that her food speaks for itself. Her noodles and dumplings have become such a hit in the area that she can recognize almost every single one of her loyal customers.

Read on to learn more about Yao and A-Pou’s Taste!

1. Can you talk a little bit about yourself and how you got into the business?

I’m from Taiwan, and I was in the fashion business. This is an entirely different business. I was under a lot of stress because I supplied to all of the chain stores. It was a lot of pressure, and I was sick. I got a thyroid problem. The doctor told me there were two ways [I could go]: One was the casket that was waiting for me and the other was to stop the business.  I chose to stop the business and to [treat] my thyroid.

For four years, I didn’t do any business. [By then] my thyroid was gone already. I was a busy person. I seldom said to myself, “Relax.” So I said, “What do I do next?” I found out that a newspaper had an advertisement that said that there was a food cart for sale. It caught my eye because, at that moment in this country, they only had hot dogs and halal food and not too much Chinese food. I asked [the seller] for his locations, and his locations were pretty good. I thought this was a good opportunity.

I’m proud of myself.  Our food has no MSG. Everything is handmade and natural.

2. Where do your recipes come from?

When I purchased the business, the recipes came with it. There was a guy who had already set up the food cart business. I just bought it, ready to go. The recipes came from Taiwan.

We made [several] improvements. We eliminated lots of stuff like artificial flavoring. We guarantee that we don’t use MSG. That’s a really strong part [of our food], and I’m confident about it.

3. How did you learn to cook?

I love to cook. I learned to cook from my family. My mother is a good cook. My aunt is a good cook.

4. Where do you usually get your products?

Domestically. The Health Department requires that we buy from certain suppliers.

5. In a crowd of halal stands and hot dog vendors, how do you make yourself stand out?

There are so many vendors. Some customers just love our food. They come every single day. Sometimes, we won’t come one day, and they’ll say, “Where were you yesterday? Why didn’t you come? I couldn’t find food to eat!” I really appreciate their support.

Usually, every food cart has two people. It’s the same two people because we want to keep the experience personalized. If a customer sees us change people all the time, they’ll say, “What happened?”

6. What is your most popular dish?

We have a lunch special: Five pot stickers with lo-mein ($6) or 10 pot stickers with lo-mein ($8). That’s really cheap for [the customers].

7. Can you talk about the pros and cons of being a street vendor?

This business really relies on Mother Nature. When the weather is good, business is good. When the weather is bad, we barely can make a living. Rainy days, snowy days and windy days are really difficult.

When you get a compliment from a customer, that’s a really positive thing. We feel really proud and really happy. When you see the same customer keep coming back, that’s really positive. That makes me smile and happy.

8. I just wanted to talk a little bit about the street vendor protest that took place in front of City Hall several months ago. What are your thoughts on it?

Actually, we protested because the city gave us high fines that were close to $1,000. For a street vendor, to make $1,000, we have to spend a lot of energy. When we don’t make a $1,000 and we get a $1,000 ticket, that really kills the business. That’s what we were protesting. We can’t make enough money to pay for those tickets.

[The Health Department also] did not give us any regulations regarding the inside of a food cart. Inside the cart, for example, you need a fire extinguisher, and you can’t have extra propane. The Health Department did not tell us that. They did not give us these step-by-step rules.

The more I have stayed in this business, the more I have learned. I’ve been in this business for a year and a half only.

9. Why did you choose to become a street vendor as opposed to renting a space or working at a restaurant?

I thought I didn’t have to pay rent while working on the street, but then I found out that the tickets were so high and the Health Department kept coming to check [on us]. Luckily, we keep our cart clean. I don’t really get that many tickets.

10. Do you plan on working in this business for a while, or do you plan on changing course?

I’m thinking about buying a food truck if I get the chance. I can drive it around [as opposed to this food cart]. This is too difficult for me. I have to rely on the boy to push the cart every time. It’s more than 2,000 pounds! To push it around, I need to have two strong guys. Sometimes, when the boy doesn’t come in, I really cannot come out.

Check out A-pou’s Taste on Broadway and Liberty Street (open Monday thru Friday, from 11am to 6pm)

Photos: Justin Chan