From Beijing to the Brasserie: Helen Calle-Lin, restaurant.

AuteurBartram, Robert
Fonction Business: entrepreneur in focus

Helen Calle-Lin does not look or sound like a typical restaurateur. Nor for that matter does she look or sound like an incredibly successful entrepreneur. With her soft voice, unbridled enthusiasm and break-neck talking speed, one might presume that she is a school teacher. And vet in little more than a decade, Calle-Lin has created one of the most impressive and ever-expanding chain of restaurants in Geneva and beyond.

Trans-Siberian Express

Indeed, there is nothing typical about her at all. She is second-generation Chinese American, and spent most of her childhood in Texas. She came to Geneva in 1994 to be with her (now) ex-husband. They had met in Beijing, where she was studying for her Masters degree, and he was an exchange student. To get to Geneva, she was obliged to take the Trans-Siberian express, which along with the various connections from Moscow to Geneva took two-and-a-half weeks. Her parents were firmly against her coming to Europe and refused to fund the journey--and so a train ride, at just $150, was a much cheaper option than flying. It may have been cheap, but it wasn't comfortable: arriving in Moscow just as the coup against Gorbachev was taking hold, train tickets out of Russia were at a premium. Her ticket was sold five times over, so she was obliged to share her seat with five other passengers.

Once here, she quickly became involved in music festivals and opened Le Comptoir restaurant in 1999. The capital came from money her father had given her at university; when she revealed the true use to which it was put, she says that: "he almost killed me." After the success of Le Comptoir, which helped to begin the transformation of that part of Geneva's Paquis area, she created the Overground Festival, now in its fourteenth year. The KGB, a small club next to Le Comptoir, was opened in 2002 and then after having a daughter in 2003 and releasing three jazz albums, in 2006 she created the children's clothing brand Mimito and opened a fair trade clothing line in China; a boutique was opened in Geneva, also called Mimito.

Partnership with Swiss Wine Promotion

By now she had made something of a name for herself. In 2006 she was approached by the president of Swiss Wine Promotion, who asked her to save a project that was on the verge of going under. The Swiss Wine Promotion had opened a chain of wine bars, but without entrepreneurial expertise, found themselves bankrupt. Some restaurants were beyond help, and she was obliged to...

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