Preston Thomas has been teaching English in China since 2011. In a bold career move, this entrepreneurial expat has just opened up a new restaurant in Beijing called The View 4109.
I had a chat with Preston to find out about his time teaching in China and his new career as a restaurateur.
Preston, can you tell us a bit about your career journey so far?
Well, my career journey has been based on a lot opportunities that I never said ‘no’ to.
I started out teaching English in Istanbul, Turkey. Then I went to my friend’s wedding in Beijing.
After I gave a speech as the best man, I was instantly offered a job in Beijing. Yes, instantly!
From there I have worked for two different schools, and then recently I have opened a restaurant with my business partners in Beijing.
My love of great food gave me the opportunity to do something bigger, so I took advantage of that.
You’ve been a Beijing expat since 2011. Why did you choose Beijing?
Beijing chose me actually.
If it weren’t for my friend’s wedding in January 2011, I wouldn’t be here right now.
I left with a promise of a contract at that school and the ability to work at the same place as my friend.
Since then China has been my second home. Beijing is a place that really grows on you if you give it a chance.
What have you learned about yourself while teaching in Beijing?
First, you don’t have to be the best teacher to make a difference in the lives of your students.
Second, always be yourself. I’m always smiling, happy, and joking around. That’s who I am.
When I fought who I was, I wasn’t as good a teacher.
Congratulations on opening up a new restaurant in Beijing! How did that come about?
I love food! Having so many options in Beijing to choose from, especially western food, inspired me.
Since I eat out almost daily, I know a lot of people in restaurants and have become a pretty harsh food critic.
If your food sucks, and I have your WeChat or know you personally, be ready.
I won’t tell you what you want to hear. I tell you what you need to hear, no holds barred.
One day I visited a restaurant called The View 3912 for lunch with my family. It was an awesome place but could have been better.
I gave my feedback to the owner and my now current business partner. She agreed with me and we decided to work together with a team on designing a new, bigger restaurant called The View 4109.
Preston Thomas and co-owners at the opening night of new restaurant in Beijing, The View 4109.
In June we’re going to reopen The View 3912 under a different concept. So I'll actually be involved with two restaurants, which is really exciting.
I couldn’t say no to working with this awesome team and giving up a chance to be in the restaurant business.
How are you going to juggle teaching and running a restaurant?
Thankfully, we have a great team. This means we all take shifts during the month to make sure everything is running smoothly.
Usually the shifts are at night after my teaching job. Shifts start around 6 pm and go to around 10 pm. It makes for some rough mornings but it’s doable.
We also have an amazing service team and kitchen. They work really hard and are dedicated to making this successful.
Do you need any Mandarin skills to do what you’re doing?
Good question! My Mandarin skills are actually quite poor.
I’m lazy, I must admit. I never took the time to work on it, mainly because I was always doing things in English.
This has handicapped me but I have managed to make it work.
All the other partners are Chinese and speak Mandarin. The staff have a limited understanding of English but we can make it work – usually by using Baidu Translate or hand signals!
Most of our customers are Chinese and actually speak some English. I am picking up more Mandarin though by being around Chinese speakers.
What advice do you have for people thinking about coming to work in China?
Be smart! Don’t work on a tourist visa. Make sure you get a business visa or Z visa.
China is like an onion: it has so many layers. You won’t realize it the first day, week, month, or even year.
The longer you stay, the more layers you are taken in to.
Beijing expat Preston Thomas teaches English during the day and runs a restaurant at night.
Accept the things you can’t change and adapt to them. Pollution? Wear a mask. Traffic? Take the subway. Baijiu? Drink wine or run away!
Seize opportunities, get out of your comfort zone, and don’t be afraid to say ‘yes’. Enjoy life in Beijing – it’s not North America, Europe, or Africa. It’s China and it’s special.
Apart from your restaurant, what are some of your favourite places to eat in Beijing? Any hidden gems you can recommend?
For fine dining – TRB, steak – O’steak, Mexican – Pebbles or Palms LA, Middle Eastern – Al Safir, Vietnamese – RollBox, healthy food – Nooxo or Mai Fresh, and for American food – 3 Little Pigs (best Reubens in town!).
(Editor's note: Although some of the links above go to Chinese websites, the address of the restaurant - next to the characters 地址 - may still be helpful.)
Where do you see yourself in the next five years, career-wise?
Honestly, I would like to be more involved in food and beverage, or sales and marketing.
Yes, that means retiring from teaching. But if I do change jobs, it needs to be the right fit for not only myself but also my family.
The View 4109 is located at SOHO A in Dawanglu - Exit B if you take the subway. The address in Chinese is 建国路88号(SOHO现代城A座4109号). They can be telephoned on (010) 8580 3837.