An Interview with David Zhao

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with David Zhao, an awe-inspiring entrepreneur who is the founder of a series of hot pot restaurants in the U.S. including Chubby Cattle, managing partner of NXT Group, and a recent Penn alum. David’s self-enterprising spirit began at a young age, and his perseverance and willingness to go out of his comfort zone is present in each of his endeavors. In his mission of bringing hot pot to the mainstream, he has expanded from the more traditional hot pot experience to include robot servers, wagyu beef and more! 

It was an amazing experience to not only eat at Chubby Cattle, located right here in Philadelphia, but also to speak with David over the phone. Here are some of the interesting tidbits I learned from him! 

Photo from Chubby Cattle Philadelphia.

Can you tell us about Chubby Cattle and how it all started? 

I took two gap years before coming to Penn, where I ran a bilingual ad agency for many hospitality groups. One client asked me to invest in one of his ventures, the Little Lamb in Flushing, NY. My partner and I eventually bought his hot pot business, and that became the foundation for Chubby Cattle in 2015. It wasn’t until 2017 that we became profitable, and that’s when I came back to Penn as a freshman. During my time at Penn, I was also full-time running multiple restaurants and the ad agency.

Where has your business taken you now? 

In 2020, we opened the X Pot in the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. We had a $2 million dollar incentive to do so, and the X Pot is a fine dining hot pot restaurant. It is one of the top 20 grossing restaurants in the U.S., with sales of $22 million. We added another X Pot location in Chicago. Another hot pot concept we have is the Wagyu House by the X Pot, which is located in LA. On top of that, I am still managing the ad agency, which is primarily female run! 

How were you able to balance your college/school life with running a business? 

It was definitely very challenging. I was also part of a fraternity and traveling to New York 3-5 times a week. Remote learning helped a lot and I eventually took another gap year as well. 

Why did you decide to open a hot pot concept?

It wasn’t an active decision, but now I have grown to understand the unique space that hot pot occupies as well as what the American community likes. I understand the culture of both sides, which is very valuable. 

How has the restaurant industry changed in the past 5 years? What do you predict will happen in the next 5 to 10 years?

Overall, there is a growing market size, especially in delivery. People are also becoming more adventurous in their food taste, and you see more and more people who know what hot pot is. There is more variety in Chinese cuisine as people are becoming more educated about different cultures. My goal is to improve education in different cultures and bring people together. 

That is great to hear – I’m a huge proponent of bringing people from different cultures together through food. 

What are your next steps?

I’m hoping to bring karaoke to the U.S., as it’s a huge part of the nightlife in China. It would definitely be very high tech and innovative with DJ booths and robotic servers and Las Vegas as a likely first location. Chubby Cattle is opening in more locations such as San Francisco and New York, as well as overseas. X Pot is also looking to expand to more cities. For myself, I am eventually hoping to go into the pharmaceutical industry and venture capital. 

I am definitely looking forward to trying more of your restaurants! 

My final question is: What advice would you give to your younger self at the start of your career?

Looking back, I would tell myself that there is no right path. I would try to have less self-doubt and enjoy the experience and the journey more. Try to care about more than the results, keep doing you, keep doing what you believe is the right thing. Don’t look into the perceived images of success – especially at Penn where there’s the pressure to go into consulting or finance. There are different ideas of fulfillment, and after college, you will have a larger worldview and perspective. Everyone is successful in their own way. 

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