By Trista di Genova, The Wild East
Rock Starkey, owner of Tin Pan Alley, talks with The Wild East about his entrepreneurial experiences after setting out with a mobile pizza truck in southern Taiwan. He urges expats to pool their efforts and start their own businesses
THE WILD EAST: What brought you here to Taiwan, and what has kept you here?
ROCK STARKEY: I came to Taiwan on my way back to Greece where I lived a couple of years prior to Taiwan. I fell in love with the wild ways of the early days here and stayed. The 90’s in Taiwan have really got to compare to just about any insane artsy scene from anywhere and anytime in history. I really just got comfortable with the laissez-faire attitude of Taiwan’s people and authorities and have been able to do (get away with) lots of really fun things and have even had the good fortune of getting the government to pay for most of it. I’ve thrown several free parties that got budgets from the government but still turned out to be pretty wild events. That sort of thing made the idea of leaving Taiwan laughable. To do what? Go home and get hassled by the man for driving without a shirt on?
THE WILD EAST: Why and how did you start a mobile pizza joint?!
ROCK STARKEY: I’ve always planned on having a food establishment, always planned on it having some kind of stage so as to host musical events as well. That’s what we have going now as Tin Pan Alley in Tainan. We started off in a Pizza Truck, and we did the night markets here for about a year before we found a great location in the middle of everything and built the place ourselves.
THE WILD EAST: How is that ‘panning’ out?
ROCK STARKEY: Actually, we’re still kind of building on it. It seems like we’ll never be totally finished, but that makes it a fun ongoing project, and means that we change with the times and to fit new needs and wants.
THE WILD EAST: Where has your mobile pizza joint traveled?
ROCK STARKEY: When we were mobile we went all over Taiwan really. We lived in Wulai for most of the mobile days but, when we came down to Tainan for the MayJam which happens every year, we fell in love with the Tainaners and the Tainanese, and of course in May the weather is still pretty nice. June-August is boiling, uggh.
THE WILD EAST: Did you have prior experience in pizza-makin’ or starting a business?
ROCK STARKEY: I actually have about as much experience running a business in Taiwan as doing just about anything else I’ve done here. I had my first restaurant in Taichung about 10 years ago. After that I opened a kindergarten with no license which lasted about a year and a half before the lack of license prevented our remaining open. Then I drifted around Hualien and Taipei for a while before starting the mobile pizza truck. The original idea with that was to hit every festival in Taiwan, sell pizzas, sell beers, what-have-yas hotdogs and shindigs. That was awfully fun, then my wife got pregnant and we decided it would be better to settle down.
THE WILD EAST: What have been the greatest challenges, payoffs to doing this?
ROCK STARKEY: I think operating a restaurant in Taiwan is exceptionally challenging for a foreigner. Really, the money you can make as a teacher is about as good and some months better for about 1/4 the hours worked. The stress is sometimes just not really worth it, but then, I can’t really imagine punching a clock for a person who treats children’s education as an assembly line affair.
THE WILD EAST: How has it worked out so far?
ROCK STARKEY: I don’t know, I’d like to someday be able to say it’s working great and I feel totally free, but the truth is a job is a job in the end and we’re pretty much all in the same position since we aren’t smart enough as a group to put our efforts together and reap the benefit of collective living and working. Instead we all separate our resources (our brains) and work helter-skelter, mimsy-pimsy all over the place, and let our efforts help other people get rich. Pretty stupid if you ask me, but I can’t find people brave enough to collectively start a school, for example. It doesn’t cost much to start up and if it were entirely teacher-run, imagine how fun and effective it could be. Sigh.
THE WILD EAST: Is it like the only decent pizza joint in Tainan?
ROCK STARKEY: We aren’t the only pizza in Tainan, but we are the only place that has served for example homemade hummus and goat cheese with sun-dried tomatoes on a curry infused crust with the option of spicy beef vindaloo on top. We’re the only ones who do that kind of thing.
THE WILD EAST: What is your experience like as an entrepreneur?
ROCK STARKEY: We pay our taxes like good citizens and we have to as we have competitors who keep us on our toes by calling the cops for any possible infringement. Fortunately we dotted our I’s and crossed our T’s. The sad part for us is that we opened where we did because we are in a business district and we expected to be able to make plenty of noise. We don’t have neighbors for blocks and blocks, but we still have to deal with noise complaints, because, it only takes one asshole calling the cops to stop a party. It’s easy to find a person willing to be that asshole since when we opened we made a pretty big splash on the scene here in Tainan and drew the wrath of competing businesses. We’ve been talking with the cops and with local politicians (I actually got to chat with the guy who recently smacked a KMT guy and as a result the Chinese delegate wouldn’t come to Tainan; that was cool). Anyhow, we’re hoping to be able to get away with more this summer, but we’re going to have to build back up to it, test the waters and see if there are still any snakes.