Jun 06, 2011

Texan’s BBQ Takes On Beijing

Tim’s Texas Bar-B-Q owner Tim Hilbert confronts a member of China’s City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau. Three men from the bureau confiscated tables from the front of Hilbert’s restaurant on June 1 for not complying with district code. Photo by Claire Cardona

By Claire Cardona
For Reporting Texas and ChinaInFocus.com

On a hot June evening, waitresses carried margaritas and plates of specially prepared Texas-infused Chinese dishes to a crowded table outside Tim’s Texas Bar-B-Q in Beijing’s central business district.

“This is my family,” said restaurant owner and native Texan Tim Hilbert, gesturing to his friends and former and current employees crowded around the table.

As diners helped themselves to another bacon-wrapped egg roll, a truck pulled up and three men in security uniforms piled out. They began to load the tables from the front of the restaurant into the pickup and take photos of the scene.

The men represented the City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, or Chengguan, established to crack down on low-level crime. Notorious for corrupt practices, the Chengguan has stopped by Hilbert’s restaurant frequently — about 15 times in the past year — and to Hilbert the visits haven’t seemed random.

Hilbert wrestled a table from the back of the truck and a man in a blue uniform confronted him. Dealing with these officials is a part of life for many owners in China’s food and beverage industry, especially foreigners.

“Foreigners sometimes may have more problems than [Chinese food and beverage operators],” said Michael Dardzinski, a counsel in the Beijing office of Reed Smith law firm. “They do not adequately protect themselves at the outset of their investment in an effort to get around the very burdensome regulations restricting foreign investment in China.”

Despite the constant annoyance of the Chengguan, Hilbert rents the restaurant space, not the outside, and is subject to the laws of the Chaoyang District where his restaurant is located.

He alleges someone may be alerting the Chengguan, possibly his landlord, because they show up within 20 minutes of him setting up chairs and tables outside.

“The whole landlord and real estate issue in this country is a real problem,” said Hilbert, originally from Seguin, Texas. “Some are corrupt and if you’re doing something that’s successful they will try to take it away from you.”

Hilbert opened a Beijing branch of an IT firm, which he left in 2004 to pursue the restaurant business. He opened Tim’s Texas Bar-B-Q in October 2006 and Tim’s Texas Roadhouse a year later.

He lost the second restaurant in 2008 when the Chaoyang District government forced him to close. Following a protracted legal battle, Hilbert said he has yet to receive the compensation owed to him for the 2009 incident when his two-year-old restaurant was torn down because its location on Super Bar Street was slated for development.

Some people might try to manipulate the rules or the system to take advantage of foreign business owners, but according to Dardzinski, “it is about money.”

Hilbert said business owners can get the licenses required for a foreigner and study all the regulations, but the district regulations may be interpreted differently from expected.

“You conduct business the way your neighbors have been conducting business for the past 10-15 years and that’s what we did,” Hilbert said. “I don’t think anybody knows all of the rules and we prepared as well as we can prepare.”

After more than five years of dealing with these issues, Hilbert seems worn down.

“For the first eight years I was gone, when I’d go home [to Texas] I’d feel weird when I’d get back on the plane to come back to Singapore or China that was going home,” he said. “Since this restaurant debacle two years ago, my feelings started turning the other way.

“Now when I get on an airplane from here to go to Texas I’m starting to feel like I’m going back home.”