Michelle Wang, the creator and force behind the Columbia-area Miyo’s restaurant empire, has a Chinese saying she is particularly fond of these days: “When you are at the age of 40, you’re no longer confused.”
Now 43, with eight thriving restaurants in the Midlands and two more scheduled to open this year, the mother of three believes those words capture her life. “It’s a true reflection of the state of my mind. I think the past 16 years I’ve been dedicated to trying to perfect my business and concentrate on my family. But more so, recently I’ve gotten a lot more involved in public service. It’s really broadened my mind. I felt like my work has become more meaningful,” she says. “I feel that my purpose is not just growing my own business and people and products, but to help others grow on a larger scale.”
It would be hard for anyone to think of Michelle Wang as ever being in a state of confusion. Rather, she is a whirlwind of energy, ideas, beliefs, goals and dreams. And she is a woman who clearly seems to be enjoying the journey.
Michelle burst onto the Columbia restaurant scene in 1996, opening the first Miyo’s near the South Carolina state capitol. The Shanghai native had just moved to Columbia from New York and was expecting her first child. She could envision a restaurant that went beyond the traditional Chinese food known to most Columbians, seeing instead an Asian cuisine with healthy ingredients, fresh sauces and a light cooking touch. Miyo’s on Main, offering regional Shanghai and Szechuan cuisine, soon became a favorite downtown Columbia eatery.
And Michelle was just getting started. She followed Miyo’s on Main with M Café on Sumter Street and Miyo’s on Forest Drive. By the end of 2012, there were eight establishments in the M Gourmet Group, with the cuisine expanded to include northern and southern Chinese cuisine, Korean style barbecue, Vietnamese- and Thai-influenced dishes and Japanese sushi. This spring, she plans to open M Grill on Lady Street, a healthy gourmet experimental kitchen with an adjacent meeting room area she’ll call M Space. Also this year, M Kitchen will open near Columbiana Mall, featuring pizza and Peking duck ovens, a concept that will combine flavors of the East and West.
Michelle’s roots in healthy living were sown early, while watching her grandparents, who lived to be 96 and 94 years old. As a child attending boarding school, she would visit her grandparents on weekends. Their life in China was not always easy, she says, but their long lives were a testament to good genes, vibrant spirits and healthy eating. They shopped for fresh produce at the market every day, eating a wide variety of seasonal vegetables prepared with limited amounts of sodium and oil.
“What they ate was always based on the season,” she says. “I was immersed in that kind of environment so my palate was developed by them. I learned what to pair with food, how to feel the seasons coming with food, and how to use food to preserve energy by eating hearty in the winter and lighter in the spring.”
She also pays close attention to the health concerns of South Carolinians, especially the high rates of heart disease and cancer in the state. She believes she has a responsibility as a restaurant owner to improve the well-being of her customers by offering healthy choices.
“A lot of times people don’t know what to select. Lots of restaurants give people greasy, heavy, tasty food because they think that’s what they want. We can give people tasty, delicious food with a wonderful wholesome, healthy touch,” Michelle says. “And people’s palates can be cleaner.”
One of those customers is Miriam Barbosa, the artistic director of the South Carolina Contemporary Dance Company. She is a regular at the Miyo’s family of restaurants, and she appreciates what the eateries provide to the Midlands. “She is bringing something important to the community – healthy food. As a dancer, I’m concerned about what I eat and what the people who work with me eat,” Miriam says. “We use our bodies as an art form.”
Miriam says that she used to frequent Miyo’s on Main for lunch when she was teaching nearby at the University of South Carolina. “The food is exactly what we need – fish and healthy protein instead of carbs and processed food,” she says.
Now that she works at her dance studio on Lady Street in the Congaree Vista, Miriam is even closer to M Vista and the newest Miyo’s offering, M Fresh. M Fresh, which opened in 2012, was inspired by a trip home to China by Michelle and Rui “Ray” Cao, her husband, when she was again reminded of her grandparents’ love of fresh produce and green tea. Located in downtown Columbia on Washington Street just around the corner from M Cafe, it features a natural environment, fresh foods and organic teas.
“M Fresh is even closer to my approach of wanting healthy, organic food,” Miriam says. “Michelle is bringing a gift to the community.”
It’s a gift Michelle hopes to share in more ways in the coming years. The M Gourmet Group’s goal in 2012 was to promote healthy eating. Along with goals to make the M group the best regional restaurant group by 2015 and the best national group by 2020, she is expanding that to promote healthy living, with both eating and education as parts of the equation.
“I believe I have found a new purpose in my business – to promote healthy living. Eating is part of it, but education is a big part of it as well. It’s a calling.”
Michelle says that soon she will hand off some of the day-to-day operations of her restaurants to her staff, helping them grow professionally and giving her time to devote to new passions.
“I want to live 100 years. I want to help thousands of people have lives as rich as mine,” she says. “I never feel tired.”
It’s a good thing. She still has plenty of work to do.
The many flavors of Miyo’s
- M Cafe
1417 Sumter Street
- M Vista
701 Lady St. Suite C
- Miyo’s on Main
922 S. Main Street
- M Fresh
1237 Washington St.
- Miyo’s at Sandhills
715 Fashion Dr., Suite 1
- Miyo’s on Forest Drive
3250 Forest Drive, Suite B
- Miyo’s at Harbison
1220 Bowers Pkwy., Suite E-2
- Miyo’s of Lexington
5594 Sunset Blvd., Suite D and E