Vite Ramen 2021: ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING.
On December 10th, 2021, I was officially diagnosed with severe Adult ADHD, Combined Type. This was, in some ways, a relief. It was something I had long suspected, especially since Tom’s diagnosis, and yet, even as the doctor’s voice faded into the back of my consciousness talking about dosages and timings and the like, I wondered to myself-- What does this change?
Depression. Anxiety. Panic attacks. Stress. Chronic pain. On and on the list goes, and yet today, it grows just a little longer. Someone was finally confirming to me that yes, another one of these problems exists, that it was “real”. Without the diagnosis, without the medications, without revealing to the world the eroding body and fraying mind that makes up my being, I have been able to push forward all of these years, and put up a happy, smiling mask.
I am well, I wail to the world, I am whole. I’m fine.
Believe me. Trust me. Convince me of what I tell the others.
I am crumbling, splintering, fracturing at the seams.
I always have been.
I have, since the establishment of Vite Kitchens, spoken strongly about our emphasis on well being, on mental health, on the past that has driven our decisions to create the company in the way that we have.
And yet, I spout these messages hypocritically, shielding my own troubles from the world, petrified of the responses that I may receive, scared of the laughter that might ensue, the rolling of the eyes and clicking of the tongue.
Just be stronger. Snap out of it. You’re the leader. Don’t bring the mood down.
This overview of 2021 and the history of Vite Kitchens is not about the events that have plagued us through the year. It is an unabashed look into the mind of a small business owner clawing to survive, the thoughts of an individual burned and burdened with the integrities of profitability, and the damaged dreams of a boy who once just wanted to make some noodles.
These words are penned by my racing mind for the sake of my withering sanity and battered fortitude. I seek no pity, nor condolence or sympathy-- It is to tell my personal story, so that others who may tread the same path may understand that, while they may go the route alone, they are not alone in their experience and thoughts. These are words and stories that I have told almost no one, and that most even within the company do not know of.
But they are necessary stories. They’re not glamorous. They’re not stories of underdog success and brighter futures. They’re stories of the sacrifices, the tears, the sleepless nights and breakdowns endured just to tread water, just to stay clawing and fighting and gasping for air as you’re threatened to be pulled under by the next pitch black wave.
This is the story of my headspace, my disorganized mind, and the cacophony of my consciousness.
Sometimes, I’m often asked the question-- Why do you do what you do with the company? You could do these things that are so much more profitable, do these things that everyone else does, and ease your pain and workload.
I could remove the mental health time. I could not pay people for the times when our machines aren’t working. I could not approve all time off, could use pressure sales tactics, could outsource overseas, could not have our own facility, could use lower quality ingredients, could take on an investor, could...
I could do so many of these things and my mind would be much more at ease. This enduring, perpetual stress that burns at the back of my head each and every minute of the day would flicker, would diminish, maybe finally begin to smolder away and leave me with a moment of clarity, a desperate moment of respite.
Is it Passion, they ask? Is it because you have a beautiful, vivid dream that you work towards, a fairytale story of the underdog entrepreneur, a marvelous desire that drives you to push yourself? Do you love what you do, and never have to work a day in your life.
And in the interviews, in the smiling facades of cameras, under the uncomfortable stares of strangers and the microphones taped just inches above my lungs, under the piercing luminosity of the stage lights, I feel the pressure, the fear, and year after year my lips can’t help but curl upwards in a smile, and I say:
But this is not my dream.
This is not my passion.
A strange thing to hear from someone who works so hard, spends so much time and drains the vitality from his body day by day for this company. Yet, it’s a relief to say to the world. A terrifying, yet freeing thing to admit.
I am the sole owner of a successful, innovative ramen company. These recipes have sprung from my mind, these machines raised from the ground with my wearied, dirtied hands, and these processes refined through years of repeated failures and tribulations. My title is CEO, my achievements boundless, and awards pile up year by year.
And still, this is not me. There is an idea of Tim Zheng, the CEO, some kind of abstraction, but it is not me.
My eggshell, off-white entrepreneur self is no different than the bleached bone tale spun by another peppy underdog flexing their jaw in the next interview room.
We are assailed from every angle about hustle culture. Turn your hobby into a job, make the thing that you rely on for relaxation, the thing you derive self-actualization from into a pressure cooker to keep you living.
“Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” is said by someone desperately trying to convince themselves that they are happy. You can enjoy work, you can find pride and strength in your skills and ability to do that work, but work will always have tasks that you don’t want to do. That’s the nature of work, and why it’s work. Hobbies, off time, things that aren’t work you are not compelled to accomplish. You can pick it up later. You can do things on your own accord. Work has a relentless rhythm, a ceaseless, constant tension no matter how much you previously enjoyed the activity. It is the burden placed by the responsibility of livelihood-- We do what we must to survive.
The company Vite Kitchens was not a passion project. The story of Vite Ramen is a fun, cheerful one, one of the underdog, of wanting something better nutritionally, so I could work out, lead the collegiate Overwatch team, and still have time for college, become the #1 edible food kickstarter ever, and all the lighthearted, lively tales we’ve spun over the course of the years. Haha, fun, inspirational, motivational, beautiful!
It is not what I love.
I was a line cook at a Michelin Star restaurant. I graduated at the top of my class in culinary school, and I genuinely believe I excelled at what I did. The life is a brutal one, and one I’ve talked about before. Few breaks, no vacations, low pay, an air of tension strung tight across every second of service. Anxiety, breaking points, and fiery tempers fueled the sweltering air. We had our pride, and we clung onto it, used it as another tool to push us through the nights of desperate services, the pristine perfectionism, the fires of burnout.
And we loved it.
Or we convinced ourselves that we did. Now, it is a bygone memory, something to look at through a rose tinted glass, devoid of the pain that came with it.
This painful pride of passion is not what drives me today. I remember the love of the craft, the passion and stress and strain of the moment, and the elation when we conquered the day. Business and entrepreneurship is not like that-- There is no touchdown moment for me today, no satisfaction of a job well done for the day. There’s always the gnawing, conceited future that never lets you sleep, the projects yet to come and the work left unfinished today.
What, then, drives me to endure still?
““Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” is said by someone desperately trying to convince themselves that they are happy.”
The company, Vite Kitchens, was established in 2016. Through years of effort, research, and hardships, we had managed to create the noodle recipe that we still use to this day, along with building the manufacturing facility from scratch that we still produce out of. I did most of this alone, as Tom had made the difficult decision to move to Ohio to be with his partner and would be mostly taking care of our digital presence.
Even by the end of 2017, I was already nearing the end of my rope. I was in my final year at UC Davis in 2016, and had been doing this all while completing the last projects and studying for finals. Spring of 2017 is when I finally graduated, but to no respite-- 2017 was a brutal slog of building, research, establishing supply chains, and getting permits and licenses, as well as getting the required certifications for myself to establish these things.
We launched our store in March of 2019, after our successful Kickstarter of April 2018. Even after the successful kickstarter, we began to encounter problem after problem after problem. This isn’t unusual, and relatively expected of any new business, especially one like ours that had big dreams and an abundance of inexperience. We were ready to take those problems head on, to continually be in a state of fixing things, and yet, this doesn’t make things any easier when things break, when things go wrong, when all your time and effort disappear without so much a trace, and you’re forced to start from scratch again.
During all these years, I was working the line full time, 40 hours a week, making our noodles in the most physically demanding position. Simply put, my culinary skills made me by far the most qualified for the role, and we had deadlines to meet from the wildly successful Kickstarter. I had begun training someone else for the role, but even if they were able to accomplish the role, they did not have the speed and consistency of I, who had gained these from my years in the professional kitchen.
We simply didn’t have the time, or the money, and that meant the only thing left to do was to burn the candle at both ends, to put in the knowledge and labor in yourself. I still did the accounting, the R&D, the supply chains, the repairs, the cleaning, and everything else needed to run a business during this time.
In 2019, we had to take on our first instance of large capital debt from a loan company. The money from the Kickstarter had long since dried up for inventory purchases, renovations far more expensive than we had planned for, and more.
And, most of all, we needed more people.
My bones ached. My mind struggled to make sense of the simplest things. I woke up each day bleary eyed, fingers curled into knots from restless hours making noodles and constant typing, staring up at the pebbled white ceiling hoping to recall what new work I had today.
I couldn’t do it. Not anymore. These 80-100 hour weeks were breaking me. I hated the idea of debt, but for me, numb from the grind, there was no other choice. When we took on that debt, we naively believed a phrase that I had uttered then, and still remember to this day:
“We just need to survive until November.”
We had thought that if we survived until November 2019, we could pay off that debt, we could start really growing and wouldn’t have the immense pressure hanging over our head and the loan repayments digging into our cash flow.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. It never is. As we expanded, we needed new machines, new processes, more space, and the thin profit margins we were already running on made it difficult to be able to invest in these things with such an expensive upfront cost.
And so, the November loan turned into more, and more, and more, ballooning into 2020. But that was okay, we thought. It was necessary to fund the growth. We could pay it off quickly as the business expanded. 2020 would be our year, the year where maybe, finally, I could rest, take a vacation, and breathe.
In December of 2019, China began to close cities and lock down. The rest is a history that we are still living through to this day. It hit us hard, and hit us deeply, more than even what our previous blog article had described.
Every business fought for survival. Small businesses went under left and right, and we stared down at the fallen, wondering when it was our turn even as we looked up towards the increasing mountain of debt.
Right then and there, I could’ve declared bankruptcy. I could’ve done what so many others had done, and gave up, gave in, and finally been rid of this burden. With the experience and accolades we’d gotten, no one would fault me if we fell in 2020. I could get a six figure job in any number of sectors. I could rest.
But I didn’t.
“There’s always the gnawing, conceited future that never lets you sleep, the projects yet to come and the work left unfinished today.”
What drives human motivation? What compels us to do what we do, in the face of all odds?
There are expressly logical responses to actions, cold hearted calculations at the action that yields the most reward. There are actions that avoid the sunk cost fallacy, and view the future without any reverence for the past, and generate greater utility.
Yet, were I to be this person, I would not be me. It’s easier by orders of magnitude to be ruthless, to be motivated purely by the numbers and the data, and it’s easier to choose not to understand the human side of things. There are many who cling to these ideals, eschewing their moralities and idolizing the church of numbers, graphs, and spreadsheets. It is easier than facing your own weaknesses, easier than understanding why you feel the way that you do. Equations are black and white-- they work, or they don’t.
Our hearts are not so simple.
A purely economically sound, utilitarian decision with the fundamentals learned from my Managerial Economics degree would point towards the consumption of resources utilized, the labor required, and yes, even the emotional cost of continuing to run the company. I am severely underpaid for the skills I now possess, the degree I went to college for, the strain I put myself through. The marginal return on my marginal cost far exceeds what should, economically speaking, happen.
And yet, here I am.
Were this an entrepreneurial motivation story, I could point to a number of things that continue to drive me, even if it isn't passion. I am now responsible for the livelihoods of more than a dozen others, and must carry on this responsibility, especially in this economic climate. It would be noble to say that was the primary reason, wouldn’t it?
And what about discipline, in absence of the motivation of passion? The discipline to continue working out, to eat healthily, to continue running the business despite the trials and tribulations. Surely, I possess this trait in spades, or I would not be able to do what I do, with the clutching hands of depression pulling down at me, the incessant noise of ADHD cluttering my thoughts, the rattling cage of anxiety threatening to render me useless at any moment. I have, out of all else, discipline to coerce my limbs to move, force the rusted gears to turn, extract every ounce of blood from the stoney, wearied mind I possess.
Surely, I could say these things.
And surely, they are part of the puzzle, pieces that begin to bring some clarity to this withered mind.
2021 was not the reprieve that we wished for. It was everything 2020 was, but dressed in another’s livery, bringing the sensation of hope for the most fragile of moments before casting it to the floor. The supply chains continued their sluggish, lethargic nature, the pandemic hit again, and again, and again, with new variants mutating stronger, more infectious, and the tech giants mustering their titanic strength to clash against one another with small businesses locked squarely in the middle to catch the fallout. Burnout was inevitable as everyone in the world was pushed to their limits, and in 2021, even my brother, Tom, left the company so that his health could recover from years of lifting a mountain of stress.
In uncertain times, we cling to a semblance of familiarity, and look for any type of consistency we can find. We crave comfort, even in the strangest and darkest of places, and we wish for normalcy. It is not so glamorous, this work of mine, this perpetual labor I bring to myself. It is not so noble, or so aspirational in the rosy eye’d tales spoken so often. It’s more simple than that, more rote, boring, and yet, strange.
After these long years, this is now all I know. The irony of such is that this struggling existence, these days I spend ruminating on what I can do next, where the company will go, and feeling the pains of burnout is what I am now used to, and strangely, comfortable with.
I work now, as I am, in the state that I am, simply for that it is all I know how to do now.
And yet, if I were to look at myself objectively, this is not where I should be. This is not where I should be content, and comfortable with. I should want better for myself, deserve better for myself and what I do. I should.
I have burned out, a long time ago. I don’t know when. Perhaps it was early, even in 2017, or earlier than that, when I left the culinary industry, or earlier than that, when I graduated high school by the skin of my teeth. I cannot remember the last time when the muscles in my neck didn’t feel like ribbons stretched to their limit, or the last time my mind didn’t feel frayed and on the verge of collapse.
Am I okay? No. Not really. I don’t think I have been, for a very, very long time.
“I continue, as I always do. One foot in front of the other.”
I am a CEO of a successful company. I work out and can deadlift 405lbs off the ground, with six pack abs a few months out of the year. I have reached Masters League in Starcraft 2, Grandmasters on multiple accounts in Overwatch, Onyx in Halo Infinite, LEM in CS:GO, and Diamond 2 in Valorant(and hopefully on the way to Immortal). I am in a committed, loving relationship of 12 years and going, have the support of a loving and strong family, and a group of friends who I can trust with anything and everything.
I have come forged from the fires of a Michelin Star restaurant, graduated at the top of my class in culinary school, trained in martial arts and parkour for years, appeared in a TV show with T-Pain, have knowledge and skills and experiences so far beyond all of this.
And I say this, and I look at this person, and I do not recognize him. He is not who I see myself to be. I only see the tired man approaching his 30s who cannot bring himself to work out consistently, who’s plateaued at the same weights lifted for years, the man with aggravating wrist pains and lack of focus that prevent him from achieving higher ranks, the man who apologizes too often and too much to family, friends, and a partner who deserve so much more than what he can give. I see a man who struggles, a man in pain, a man who doesn’t remember when he became a man and became no longer a boy.
So, there comes a certain irony in the tales I tell of myself in those interviews, in those rare public appearances in which I wax poetic about entrepreneurship or whatever else it is the talking heads want to hear that day. I tell the story of an aspirational form of myself-- Not a lie, but an angled perspective, something I may yet strive to become. I weave a fable of someone who might yet be to come, and someone who may yet exist inside myself. These are tales that I one day may believe, and hope that I may endeavor to become.
There are embers, still, the smoldering coals that defy all expectations to continue onwards. They are small, they are fragile, and they are enough. These embers may yet light other fires of passion in others, or spark themselves once again into a roaring bonfire. So long as they exist, so long as they remain, there is a chance. There is hope.
Funny, isn’t it? In the end, we come full circle again-- Perhaps the discipline, motivation, responsibility, and the fairy tales we craft and the white lies we tell ourselves aren’t so bad after all.
So, what happens from here? What does this all mean for Vite Kitchens?
To be perfectly honest, not much. I continue, as I always do. One foot in front of the other. I have a wonderful team, some experienced and seasoned veterans that have been here from the beginning, and some fresh and eager to make their mark on our history. I hope 2022 is truly different this time.
It’s a strange thing to say, I think, but 2022 is where my resolution is to be more open, more vulnerable to the world. There is comfort in venting to the world, so the pressure in the bottle is released, and there too is value in the kind of openness that lets others know that they are not alone in how they feel. Of course, the blogs of Vite Kitchens may no longer be the best place for these more personal stories.
There are many aspects of business and life that I must tread lightly with, of course. Certain happenings would remain under NDAs, other dealings may cause issues if I were to speak openly about which party is at fault, and so, there still will be some form of restraint in the exactness of information.
I think, then, what will happen is an expression of emotion, thoughts, and ruminations in many forms. As I’m sure many may have noticed with this piece and many other articles, my preferred expression is through writing, and that has always been one of my greatest loves.
These expressions will be of many forms-- Of poetry, of prose, of storytelling through characters and worlds built from the experiences and encounters I’ve lived through. The events I live through, after all, will be wholly unique to me, and yet, the emotions and thoughts as I make my way through these years may resound with another.
In these expressions, I hope I may yet inspire greater empathy. In these words, I hope that someone else may learn from my experiences. And most of all, I hope that, with these words, here and forwards, I may still create a form of solace and comfort, and give a drop more strength to someone who needs it to carry on.
If you, dear reader, are interested in following my more personal story, reading some of the poetry and prose, or any of the other thoughts I have, then I would be grateful for your ear and your attention.
They can be found here: https://twitter.com/TimJZheng
For now, I bid you farewell, and thank you for listening to the heart of one who’s kept it shielded for too long.
-Jian (Tim) Zheng, CEO/Founder of Vite Kitchens