How I Did It: Yuchen Zhang, Founder of Pulse Café

My mother and I are complete opposites. I love to ask questions and seek logical advice; she makes decisions based on emotions.

I’m not afraid to be blunt; she doesn’t say harsh things, even to mean people. We partner well, though. My mother has out-of-the-box instincts, and I excel at transforming them into executable ideas -– fast.

Then there was Grandma Wang, who I resembled in many ways. Two months before Christmas 2011, my grandmother was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer.

We were hopeful, but the passing of Steve Jobs a few weeks earlier to pancreatic cancer was far from comforting. The first question my grandmother asked was, “What did I do wrong?”

She exercised tai chi every day, slept 8 hours a day and had an endless support network of friends & family near where she lived in Philadelphia. We told her to think positive and ask instead, “What should I do?”

The doctor gave her medicine and treatment, and we supplemented with a plant-based diet and smoothies. I had read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, a book that influenced former president Bill Clinton’s plant-based diet.

Our mission was to create nutritious concoctions for her that tasted good. My mother and I brewed soy milk from scratch and added fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and other natural ingredients.

Grandma Wang and I, both fans of hot drinks (we order hot water when we eat out), didn’t like the cold mixes, so we created our first ever Hot Smoothie.

There was no magic cure – Grandma Wang passed away Christmas Day, December 25, 2011 — but we were grateful, because in her saddest hours, the smoothies gave her energy.

If only we could have given her that energy earlier.

Risky Business

I moved from New York to Santa Monica –- from the city that never sleeps to the city that never stops doing yoga.

I love change, as does my mother, who joined me in the healthy and eco-friendly city that allows the luxury of using only bikes (and an electric tricycle) for transportation.

We continued making almond and soymilk and began offering our Hot Smoothies to friends, spilling our secret that we always dreamed of starting our own venture.

With surprisingly rave reviews, the idea to begin Pulse Café was born, with the name representing the many definitions of “pulse” – legume, beat and vitality. My mother would be the smoothie chef, and I, the saleswoman.

We picked our location across from a Whole Foods in Santa Monica because of its healthy and family-friendly vibe.

Soon after we opened, we received a string of customers mistaking us for a sandwich café, a cake house and a coffee shop. Turns out, this prime location of ours had seen three changes of ownership within one year.

Faced with such a history of good luck, we worked even harder to succeed in this risky business.

Inspired by celebrity nutritionist customers, we started making our own hemp milk in addition to almond and soy. Shortly after, we debuted our entire line of 15 non-dairy milks brewed from scratch.

Our innovation pipeline is still churning.

Gotta have that BOBA

When we first opened, Boba wasn’t on the drinks menu. Boba has a reputation for being full of artificial powders. But our customers, and our struggling revenue charts, were craving Boba.

My mother cared more about nutrition than taste, but I wanted us to satisfy young palates.

We experimented and found a way to compromise by making healthy Boba (almost as mind-blowing as Hot Smoothies). We transformed the popular, fun indulgence to be good to the palate and the heart – a win-win for all.

The lesson: Give the customer what they want. How you do it, though, is up to you (and your partner). And how you market it.

My mother is a believer in patience and word of mouth. I want to see results now. She wasn’t interested in advertising. We found a way to advertise by way of mouth – free samples.

With my mother as the idealist and me as the practical one, our customers become the reality check.

My challenge will be to figure out how to push her to adapt to the realities of business.

Ingredients for Success

If I learned anything, it’s that there is no secret sauce and no smooth(ie) sailing. A few simple ingredients for success I’ve picked up along the way:

Ingredient #1: Friends are everything
Our friends supported us from Day One. We wouldn’t have come up with the names of most of our smoothies if we didn’t have bursts of “Dating anyone” and “Comfort” from creative friends to spur ourselves to “Buck the trend.”

Ingredient #2: Be flexible
In the beginning, I named our cacao, hazelnut, chia, date, agave smoothie “Bean happy.” There were zero sales of “Bean happy.” Names can’t change? Who says – My friend Eric changed it to “Be happy.” It immediately became our most popular Hot Smoothie.

Ingredient #3: TBD
My mother and I are glass half full people (probably why I left the corporate world for this risky business). We’re still in the early days of Pulse and will keep you posted on #3.

We’re optimistic, despite all risks, and hope you are too.

Life is too short to not be.

About the Author

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Yuchen Zhang graduated from Princeton University in Economics with highest honors. She worked in management consulting in New York prior to moving to Santa Monica. She founded Pulse Café with her mother Tanya Chen to promote health with delicious innovation. Pulse Café on Montana Ave in Santa Monica serves the World’s Only Hot Smoothie, gluten free homemade buckwheat noodle and quinoa energy bowls, healthy BOBA and 15 non-dairy milks – fresh brewed from organic grain / nuts like hemp, chia, cashew, hazelnut, walnut, soy, almond, flax, sunflower, amaranth & more.  

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