2021 Leadership award winner for Business Leadership

Desmond Tan

Burma, Inc.
Business Leadership

Desmond Tan got into the restaurant business by accident. He was working as a head-hunter for tech executives in San Francisco and ate regularly at a hole-in-the-wall called Burma Superstar, serving beloved dishes from his homeland. Born in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Myanmar (formerly Burma), Tan was a young boy when his family immigrated to San Francisco in the late 1970s.

One Saturday in 2000, he and his then-girlfriend went to Burma Superstar for lunch and overheard a customer tell the 70-something owner that he’d heard he was selling the business. It was true. There was only one other Burmese restaurant in the city, not as good, and Tan’s girlfriend suggested he buy Burma Superstar.

“I thought, what the heck do I know? How difficult could it be?” Tan took the owner’s number and called him later that night. He was told someone had beaten him to it and was going to turn it into a Chinese restaurant. Tan offered to pay him 10 to 15 percent more to back out of the deal. The owner called him back on Sunday and invited him to take a more thorough look at the operation. It was in bad shape, but Tan was undeterred and signed the papers to buy the 55-seat space that Wednesday.

Tan kept the staff and pared down the menu, eliminating the Chinese dishes that catered to the surrounding Chinatown community of the Richmond district. Burma Superstar began to live up to its name, with lines forming out of the door.

He did not quit his day job, working nights and weekends at the restaurant, busing tables, washing dishes, seeing what people didn’t eat or want to take home. If a plate was half-full, that meant something was wrong and had to go or be tweaked. He had waiters ask customers for their honest opinions and continually urged his cooks to make adjustments. He also worked to educate customers, explaining where Burma was in Southeast Asia (bordered by China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh, and India) and describing the tea leaf salad.

“I wasn’t thinking about making money,” he says. “If I’d broken even, I would have been really happy.” He lost money the first year but started to make money toward the end of the second.

Tea leaves for the restaurant’s sensationally popular salad became a problem to source from war-torn Myanmar. Around 2008, the leaves were found to be tainted with chemicals and dye. Since the salad was such a big part of Burma Superstar’s revenue, Tan took it upon himself to travel to conflict zones to meet and work with the micro-farmers who produced the most high-quality product. He helped them form a tea farm association so they could negotiate better deals for themselves. Meeting FDA regulations and shipping it was complicated, but over the years the farmers slowly changed their practices and learned to take better care of their land.

Desmond started selling tea leaf salad kits at his growing empire of Northern California restaurants and in 2018 opened his own facility to produce them. They are now also sold in dozens of natural food markets and Whole Foods in the state.

“I’ve done it all out of personal interest,” he says, “and did not go about it strategically. My focus was to protect the food and my culture and employees.”


— 1992 Burma Superstar restaurant opens in San Francisco and tea leaf salad (laphet thoke) is introduced to the U.S.

— 2000 Desmond Tan buys Burma Superstar restaurant

— 2008 Burma Superstar opens second location in Alameda, California

— 2009 Burma Superstar opens third location in Oakland, California

— 2013 Burma Superstar Tea Leaf Salad awarded Best of the West by Sunset magazine

— 2016 Burma Love restaurant opens in San Francisco; Burma Love Foods (consumer food product division) opens for retail, wholesale, and foodservice business

— 2017 Burma Superstar: Addictive Recipes from the Crossroads of Southeast Asia is published; Burma Love Foods Tea Leaf Dressing wins the Good Food Award in the Pantry category

— 2019 Burma Club restaurant opens in San Francisco

— 2020 Burma Love Foods Vegan Tea Leaf Dressing wins the SFA sofi™ New Product Award in Condiments, Dressings, & Marinades category; Burma Bites restaurant opens in Oakland