Asian restaurants in US serve up a feast of fast-casual
Build-your-own dining takes hold, but not every launch is a sure-fire winner
ELISABETH ROSEN, Contributing writer
NEW YORK -- With its shallow cardboard bowls of food, modern-looking white-tiled walls and smooth wooden tables Junzi Kitchen could easily pass for a branch of Chipotle, a chain of Mexican restaurants that has popularized the fast-casual business model across the U.S.
Like Chipotle, Junzi Kitchen combines the no-frills efficiency of a fast-food franchise and the quality promise of a sit-down restaurant. But instead of burritos, customers at this restaurant near New York's Columbia University line up for northern Chinese wraps called chun bing and knife-cut noodles flavored with bean sprouts and chili oil.
"I grew up on chun bing and noodle bowls. When the family got together we'd have a stack of chun bing and an order of noodles. It's very freestyle, just wrap whatever you want -- almost like tacos," co-founder Yong Zhao said. "In the canteen at Peking University, we'd eat them when we wanted something quick to go. It was a no-brainer food for me. So when I came to Yale, I missed that kind of quick bite."
While studying for a doctorate in environmental science at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, Yong and fellow Chinese Yale students Wanting Zhang and Ming Bai came up with the idea of creating a Chinese restaurant based on the American fast-casual business model. They spent two years developing the concept with a fellowship from the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, and opened the first restaurant in 2015 in New Haven, followed by a second in New York, which opened in June.
Prices are comparable to other fast-casual chains -- one chun bing at Junzi Kitchen costs $7.81, similar to a Chipotle burrito -- making the concept potentially scalable. In the long term, the team envisions as many as 1,000 Junzi Kitchen branches across the U.S., with perhaps more overseas.
Like Zhao and his business partners, an increasing number of entrepreneurs are adapting the Chipotle-style fast-casual model -- where customers build their own dishes by choosing from combinations of ingredients -- to Asian cuisines. This approach contrasts with the fixed menus of traditional Asian restaurants in the U.S. Chains with Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian variations on this flexible theme are expanding across the country, from Kigo in Seattle to Tandur in Nashville. The two largest, Bibibop Asian Grill and Tokyo Joe's, have as many as 30 locations.
"The public are demanding both higher quality and better ingredients in their fast-casual and quick-service restaurant concepts. When Chipotle came along, offering quick food that was predominantly made on site, it crushed the competition, which was selling mass-produced fast food," said Jason Kaplan, chief executive of JK Consulting, a New York-based international restaurant consultancy. "It was only a matter of time before restaurateurs would use the Chipotle-style concept and bring it to other cuisines, especially Asian food, which is very popular."
Yet not all of these ventures succeed. Chipotle-backed ShopHouse closed all 15 locations in March, perhaps a victim of the larger chain's financial troubles, which were caused by a series of food safety scares in 2015 that pushed down sales.
"If Chipotle had not struggled, they would have given ShopHouse a lot more time and runway. But with the core business getting absolutely crushed, they could not justify it to Wall Street," said Steve Hooper, the founder of Kigo, which has four locations in Washington state and one in Boston.
The previous October, the burrito chain had ended its investment in the ShopHouse outlets, which offered customizable rice and noodle bowls inspired by various Southeast Asian cuisines. "The problem was that ShopHouse lacked focus and authenticity," Kaplan said.
Some saw opportunity in ShopHouse's demise. All the chain's locations were acquired by Bibibop, a fast-casual rice bowl chain inspired by the Korean dish bibimbap, in which a bowl of rice is served with various toppings. Bibibop opened in Columbus, Ohio, in 2013 and now has 19 locations, which will rise to 30 by the end of this year with the ShopHouse acquisition. In the next three years, the goal is to open 100 stores, according to marketing director Andrew Shin.
Asked why Bibibop could succeed where ShopHouse failed, Shin pointed to the culture. "The only way to appeal to customers is to have happy people," he said. "When a customer enters, we greet them by saying, 'Welcome to Bibibop.' It seems almost like a silly thing to say, but it helps transcend that barrier."
Shin and his fellow restaurateurs acknowledge the challenge of staying true to traditional recipes while appealing to American consumers.
"We had to strike a balance between authenticity and approachability," Kigo founder Hooper said, explaining how he came up with the restaurant's format, which combines Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese influences using stir-fry bowls. Customers select components such as lemongrass chicken and shiitake mushrooms, which are pre-cooked and then stir-fried to order, in a bid to preserve authentic flavors while adding American-style efficiency. "A stir-fry is approachable. I think everyone has had a bunch of food tossed together with soy sauce."
Restaurants try to signal approachability by adding non-traditional ingredients and rebranding the names of Asian condiments so they are easy to understand. On Bibibop's menu, ingredients such as cheese and kale join rice and kimchi, and condiments include mayonnaise-based "yum-yum sauce." Similarly, Junzi Kitchen refers to Beijing sweet bean sauce as "sweetbei." However, a name can only do so much. Hooper once had to cut garlic lemongrass sauce from the menu because customers complained that it was "too lemony."
Similar thought went into the branding of Foumami, an "Asian sandwich bar" in Boston's Financial District.
"In the U.S., sandwiches are a staple food. Everybody eats bread. So when you offer a new sandwich, you're not really asking people to change what they eat. You're presenting an alternative choice," explained Michael Wang, the third-generation restaurateur who founded Foumami in 2010 and based its flaky shao bing bread, stuffed with fillings like five-spice braised brisket and teriyaki chicken, on old family recipes.
Unlike Junzi Kitchen, Foumami was conceived from the beginning as a franchise model, making design and branding particularly crucial. Wang turned down several offers from private equity companies to focus on streamlining operations before launching the franchising program earlier this year. Foumami plans to open 43 franchised stores in the next five years, with 30 additional stores in development. Most will be in locations in northeastern states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.
Like Zhao's team at Junzi Kitchen, Wang chose a bright, airy aesthetic intended to represent a deliberate departure from the Chinese eateries that diners may have grown up with.
"Chinese restaurants typically use a lot of red and gold, and the names are often Dragon something, or something Garden -- it's not the type of brand image we want to have. But if you go to Asia, a lot of restaurants are ultramodern and crisp. Look at Shanghai or Hong Kong. The restaurants are nothing like Asian restaurants in the U.S.," Wang said.