Fulfilling a long-held dream in Shanghai
The road to being a successful female entrepreneur – be it a restaurant owner, a designer, a gallery owner or a retailer – can be bumpy. In this series, "She Power," we talk to women from different countries and different backgrounds about their experiences and stories of setting up businesses in Shanghai. One thing these amazing women all have in common – they all yearn to build a brand that does good, that gives purpose and fulfillment, and even a palpable sense of joy.
When Camden Hauge moved to Shanghai in 2012, she was fascinated by the city's vibrant food scene and saw the potential to fulfill a long-held dream of hers – to open a restaurant. A decade has since passed, and Hauge has gone from launching the monthly Shanghai Supperclub to now operating a hospitality group named Happy Place.
Before we talk about your company – would you please introduce yourself?
I'm Camden Hauge, an American who has lived in Shanghai for over a decade. I have a dog named Happy and my favorite food is salt and vinegar chips.
Why, after living in Shanghai for a few years, did you decide to strike out on your own to build up a food and beverage business?
I had barely been here a month when I saw the potential to fulfill a long-held dream of mine – to open a restaurant. I had loved cooking and feeding people since I was little, reading cookbooks before bed, religiously tearing through every vintage issue of Gourmet magazine, and printing menus for dinner with my family in our home kitchen. But I had grown up around New York and then London, both very intimidating food cities, and so I never thought it would be possible for me to get into the game.
Cut to arriving in Shanghai 10 years ago, when the market was a very different place (only four cafés with espresso machines other than the still-nascent Starbucks franchise!) and I realized that this could be the place to try my hand. So I left my advertising job and started a monthly Supperclub to meet chefs and customers while I worked on opening in 2015 what became my first restaurant, Egg! Since then, I opened other venues / brands (Bird, Bitter, KIN, Lucky Mart, LA MATCHA, Maiya, Lucky Diner) over the course of the past years, all under the banner of my hospitality group, Happy Place. In parallel, the Supperclub grew into a full-scale events and experiences agency, SOCIAL SUPPLY.
What makes Shanghai's business environment so remarkable?
Shanghai is a very special place – from its founding as an unremarkable small harbour town, through its subsequent transformation into a city in the mid-19th century, as it ripened over the next decades, and even until now, it's always relied on the dynamism of the people who choose to be here. People travel from their relative parts of China or around the world, bringing their experiences, ideas, talents, and energy, and come together, melting into a stew of innovation. And that creates a special breed of entrepreneur and of customer. It's a city of bold, forward-looking hustlers who are actively trying to realize their dreams, and open-minded customers hungry for these new ideas.
What were you trying to bring to the local community?
Since I arrived here, initially starting Shanghai's first roving monthly chef's table Shanghai Supperclub, and then in each of my restaurant openings, I sought to bring something new to the city, and meet an opportunity that I perceived existed in the food and beverage scene. Selfishly, I would often start with myself – what do I miss while here that I enjoyed in other global cities, or where do I wish I could go as a customer? As I expanded my hospitality group and as we started launching events like the annual food festival FEAST, I always sought to fill a gap or solve a real problem.
What are the biggest challenges setting up a business here? How do you stay motivated?
The biggest challenges in opening a business here are what I would imagine the challenges most small owner-operators around the world would face: finding a location that is good value for rent, ensuring consistency of product and, most of all, sourcing and retaining talent. One challenge that is perhaps more particular to Shanghai, however, is the customer's short attention span – Shanghai is always full of new options, with new restaurants and bars opening every day, which is only exacerbated by social media's "daka" mentality, and there's also a lot of market churn, with many hard-earned "regulars" eventually leaving for another city. So staying relevant, consistent in vibe, and engaging is difficult. It's important to nurture a genuine community.
What was the moment made you most proud?
I had long-dreamed of uniting all of my venues into a formal hospitality group, and so the founding day of Happy Place Hospitality Group in 2020 was likely one of my more proud moments. But every time I see one of my former team members start a new project also makes me very proud. One of my biggest goals has always been giving my team the tools to succeed on their own terms, and I've been lucky enough to watch many of them open their own venues or start their own businesses.
What are you working on?
Now that I have reduced the size of my Group (I sold some of the venues at the very end of 2021 – very lucky timing!), I am available for consulting projects, and working on publishing a book about the contemporary Shanghai food and beverage scene, as well as exploring the Chinese wine market and its potential overseas.
Who is a female role model who inspires you?
The Shanghai community is incredibly supportive, and so I would have to say that my most valuable role models are those I've met here in Shanghai. Michelle Garnault (owner-operator of M on the Bund, which only recently closed after an astonishing 23 years) is a formidable, fearless visionary who has given me brilliant guidance while reminding me how important it is to keep your sense of humor; Kelley Lee (chef + founder of Boxing Cat Brewery, among other projects) paved the way for many of us to open the then-"new wave" of restaurants after 2015. These mentor figures plus countless peers both in and outside of the hospitality industry have helped me grow and kept me relatively sane for the past decade. Also more literally close to home, my grandmother and mother were probably my first role models for what true "hospitality" means, always generous in putting others' needs before their own, not to mention wonderful cooks and entertainers.
Do you have any advice for women entrepreneurs?
Solve a problem. If you identify a real gap in the market and start your business to solve an actual problem, you will always have those who need what you're selling … and hopefully you make the world a better place in the process!
Level up. What is your "north star," the overarching purpose driving your business? If you want to sense-check if a new development is right for your business or just need a push to keep going, you should have a bigger "why?" to keep you heading in the right direction.
You're a human being, not a human doing. Start practicing detachment from what you accomplish as your identity as early as you can. Create and maintain joy in parallel to your career.