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Adaptive Cuisine: America’s Chinese restaurants are closing. Is Junzi Kitchen the solution?

Chinese restaurants in America have long led a double life. The strip mall joints my family and I frequented in our suburban enclave of Washington, D.C. could serve up a mean plate of salted duck or spicy beef intestines for its regulars just as well as any order from the Americanized side of the menu. The pan paid no favorites to what it cooked. When the wok was on, it was on, and takeout box after takeout box of lo mein or sweet and sour chicken would be delivered, steaming hot, to the counter. 

When I came home for Thanksgiving break last semester, my family and I drove to one of our favorite restaurants. Run by a family from Sichuan, it was mostly patronized by local Chinese families. Yelp reviewers often docked stars for its ambience. It was true the place was not much by way of appearance: the shingled corner seemed held together year-round by blinking strings of Christmas lights. Weekly specials, listed on a whiteboard in Chinese, were a shibboleth for nonfluent clientele. Couples stared almost fearfully at the mountain of peppers atop a volcanic fish stew, while others, in larger parties, ladled dishes from spinning glass platters. 

This time, however, we pulled up to a paper flyer taped hastily on its door, thanking customers for their business and announcing its abrupt closure. Its owners had been cooking and running the restaurant for years, and they had decided it was time to retire. 

Closures like this one have been mirrored thousandfold across the country. According to The New York Times, around 1,200 Chinese restaurants in the top 20 metropolitan areas have closed in the past five years, though restaurant numbers at large have been marching upward. 

But the team at Junzi Kitchen—an upstart Chinese fast-casual chain—thinks they can break this pattern. Born out of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute five years ago, the company is ambitious, youthful, and catching the eye of the industry’s au courant. 

At Junzi Kitchen, there are no paper zodiac placemats, no General Tso’s chicken, and frequently, no Chinese cooks. Located on Broadway in New Haven, Junzi Kitchen’s design is spare and unfussy, and its whitewashed interior could easily have been lifted out of a Scandinavian architecture catalog. To the skepticism of some purists, it has managed to squeeze a cuisine of shared dishes and intensive preparation methods into single-serving bowls cooked up by an assembly line.

Can bringing Sweetgreen to stir fry help save an embattled industry? 

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Yong Zhao FES ‘08 GRD ‘15, Wanting Zhang FES ‘11, and Ming Bai ART ‘13 first laid out a business outline for Junzi in a proposal for a Yale Entrepreneurial Institute accelerator program. As Chinese graduate students at Yale, they had heard of Lucas Sin ‘15, an enterprising young chef preparing pop-up dinners in his dorm room, who has since been the restaurant’s vital culinary talent. Since its brick-and-mortar opening in 2015, the chain has quickly expanded to include three other storefronts in New York City. 

Junzi prides itself on a vegetable-centered menu drawing not only from traditional Chinese cooking but also catering to a health-conscious audience. Its signature bing is the wheat-based Chinese equivalent of a burrito, but it is thinner and stretchier, swaddling sliced vegetables like bean sprouts and daikon. 

A bowl of noodles, doused in tomato and egg sauce, is another popular chef recommendation. An after-hours menu available on weekend late nights turns out glazed custard buns, scallion pancakes, and other indulgent snack foods, while a monthly ticket-based “Chef’s Study” with Sin sets the table for more creative fine dining. 

Junzi’s glass-paneled open kitchen reduces the mysticism of cooking and restauranteering and follows a distinctively fast-casual deference to customer choice. The build-your-own option, priced at ten dollars, breaks dinner down into familiar categories for a contemporary gourmand: base, protein, and assorted vegetables. Junzi borrows from the playbook of Sweetgreen, Chipotle, and a farrago of other health-forward, fast-casual chains while preserving staples of northern Chinese fare. 

Junzi’s culinary revolution doesn’t end with its menu. Loyal customers can opt into its rewards program, enroll in a monthly dining plan, or purchase Junzi-stylized tote bags and pop sockets. It constructs similar brand consciousness through its online and social media presence. It made immediate partnerships with third-party delivery apps like Grubhub and Seamless and jumped quickly at the opportunity to work with the ghost kitchen service Zuul Kitchens—a delivery-exclusive kitchen shared by different restaurants—in its fifth outpost in downtown New York. 

“From the beginning, we said that we weren’t opening just for one [location],” Zhao said in an interview with The Politic. “Some small fishes are always small fishes. Others become whales. This entire business has to be scalable.” 

A quick Google search for Chinese restaurants in New York City yields descriptions like “no-frills,” “low-key,” “laid-back,” and “small and humble”: even such terms of endearment insinuate their undistinguished place in the culinary industry’s pecking order. In mission, operations, and design, Junzi bears little resemblance to the antecedent wave of Chinese restaurants, owned largely by first-generation immigrants with few other available career paths. But Junzi’s mission extends beyond itself: the team believes that their model can help reinvent how Chinese cuisine is consumed, served, and conceived of in America. 

Last November, Junzi Kitchen accrued $5 million from investors in a preliminary funding round as part of an ambitious plan to buy Chinese takeout restaurants on the brink of closure and remodel them under the Junzi umbrella. Early investments poured in from venture capitalist groups like DOM Capital, LDY Ventures, and Uniwill Ventures, as well as Union Square Hospital Group CEO Chip Wade, who has worked with popular chains like Olive Garden. This plan is still in the works, but the Junzi team hopes to introduce new employee training, hiring practices, and kitchen technology.

“A lot of Chinese restaurants don’t have the budget to design the brand and want to sell their business,” explained Zhao. These are the restaurants Junzi hopes to purchase and renovate. “A lot of Chinese restaurants need an overdue facelift. We want to provide a new Chinese takeout model in America for the local community with greater trust and new operations as well as local staff. The menu items will be similar but with improvements: healthier options for new generations.” 

Junzi’s success has also inspired rising business owners like Sarah Mandelbaum SOM ‘19. In 2018, Mandelbaum created a plant-based dumpling brand called Brazen Eats with the support of Yale’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“The Junzi team came to speak over lunch one day. My biggest takeaway was they had a very clear mission to build better understandings between cultures, with a high-level story and a strong target segment,” she said in an interview with The Politic. “You feel so connected, like, if you eat at Junzi you make the world a better place.”

This strategy—what CEO and co-founder Yong Zhao likes to call the “Chinesification of American restaurants”—looks like it’s working.

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The obstacles ahead of the Junzi team, however, are numerous. First is the massive footprint of existing Chinese restaurants. There are upwards of 40,000 of these establishments in America: surpassing the number of McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King franchises combined, as Jennifer 8. Lee points out in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. They dot highways in the Midwest, bump shoulder-to-shoulder in the Bay area, and are near-ubiquitous fixtures to suburban shopping plazas. And then there’s the history: these menus are a striking fossil record of changing tastes and perceptions.

Chinese cooking arrived in the United States alongside the first stream of immigrant laborers from southern China in the early 1800s, but large-scale consumption of Chinese cuisine was beleaguered by persistent anti-Chinese sentiment. Around the turn of the 20th century, chop suey—a curious marriage of Cantonese cooking methods and American flavors—soon heralded a new age of American-Chinese cuisine. While the fusion dishes soon won over the public, decades of restricted immigration, bracketed by the the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, increasingly detached American-Chinese cooking from mainland cuisine.

With the relaxation of immigration policy in the 1960s, however, new waves of Chinese immigrants in the country brought more regional, traditional flavors. Many, with limited access to other professional opportunities, turned to the labor-intensive restaurant industry out of necessity. Now, as these immigrants push on the age of retirement, their children have fewer incentives to continue the business. The New York Times reports that self-employed second-generation Chinese immigrants are far more likely to work in industries like tech, dentistry, or consulting rather than in food or construction.

“There’s sort of a crisis in the family-owned restaurant as the children go to medical school or the parents aren’t that interested in the kids continuing a business that’s hard and non-professional,” said Paul Freedman, the Chester D. Tripp Professor of History at Yale, in an interview with The Politic. Freedman’s recently published book, Ten Restaurants that Changed America, features Cecilia Chiang’s famed San Francisco establishment, The Mandarin, which helped introduce Americans to regional Chinese cuisine.

The impact of these small businesses reach beyond the families who own them: restaurant work often involves grueling conditions and long hours. “We need to think about how those Chinese owners are complicit in contributing to the exploitation of labor,” said Annie Cheng ‘20 in an interview with The Politic, pointing out that Chinese restaurants have long been under fire for underpaying and overworking their employees, including vulnerable undocumented workers. Cheng spent last summer as a culinary apprentice with the Junzi team, playing a role in recipe development, and herself plans to build a career in the restaurant industry.

Be it the waning of an era or a phenomenon of upward mobility, the erosion of these family-owned restaurants—along with the increase of Chinese-born students and working professionals in the United States—is opening up opportunities for a youthful contingent of restaurateurs like Zhao and his colleagues.

Junzi, of course, is far from the only representative of this new generation of Chinese restaurants. Asian food halls are exploding. Some popular mainland chains are venturing into the states. In recent years, New York’s hip East Village has become a veritable Chinatown of its own. But Junzi’s assembly line production system and restaurant renewal initiative affirm an unwavering commitment to its own model.

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“I had a lot of opinions about my mom’s food—constructive ones. But I soon took matters into my own hands,” said student chef Andy Zhao ‘23 in an interview with The Politic. He landed his first job taking shifts at a smoothie bar and spent his junior year of high school behind an open counter at a Japanese restaurant. At Yale, he spends Fridays in the Silliman buttery as part of the cook team for Y Pop-Up, the Yale student-run pop-up restaurant concept, which Sin first launched as an undergraduate. 

When Andy’s family visited him at college, he took them to Junzi. His parents took one long look at the restaurant and decided to leave. “They saw the fact that the people working behind the counter weren’t Asian and saw it as not authentic,” explained Andy. 

Still, “while it’s not exactly authentic, it’s not sticky and sweet. I don’t see why Junzi can’t do the same as [Chipotle],” said Andy. “Its dishes are forward-thinking but not unusual. Customers want a recognizably distinct Asian food but they don’t want to be scared by it.”

Junzi’s investment in aged Chinese takeout restaurants not only presents opportunities to revitalize local businesses, but also a chance for Junzi to broaden the palates of those who have previously only dined at Americanized Chinese restaurants like Panda Express and P.F. Chang’s.

Chinese-born immigrants like Andy’s parents may be dubious about the pragmatism that Junzi embraces. But Junzi’s goal isn’t to replicate tradition for tradition’s sake. Although their flavors are familiar to Chinese customers, they are also purposefully accessible to those with less experience with Chinese cuisine.

Despite Andy’s mother’s qualms, teaching Chinese culinary methods to local non-Chinese employees is essential to Junzi’s mission. 

“The goal is to make Chinese food really accessible to everyone, not just eaters but makers,” said Cheng. “Anyone can understand Chinese food and Chinese flavors, and it is actually an avenue to understand Chinese culture.”

“We’re rewriting a new textbook for beginner markets,” Yong Zhao said. 

By contrast, one of the most prominent chainlets in the Chinese fast-casual industry—Xi’An Famous Foods in New York—is operating under a radically different restaurant model. When it opened in 2005, customers huddled in a Flushing basement stall to purchase a bowl of noodles festooned in spiced cumin lamb and chili oil. Intrepid crowds found the hole-in-a-wall appeal as another springboard for its authenticity. 

Fifteen years later, Xi’An Famous Foods is still a family-owned institution, albeit a popular one. Its website firmly reprimands visitors, “No, we do not franchise.” It does not deliver nor take orders by phone: the owners are quick to acknowledge that the noodle dishes don’t do well after being left out for an extended time. Forgoing Junzi’s innovative campaigns for a loyal customer base with urbane tastes, however, may make Xi’An good business for cosmopolitan New York, but less popular in other regions of America. 

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Junzi’s innovations in the fast-casual market may also herald one of the most elusive dreams of Chinese chefs: representation of Chinese cuisine in fine-dining. 

Professor Freedman offers that the absence of Chinese fine-dining restaurants, compared to other international cuisines like French and Japanese, is related to the “endearing image of the country and the people immigrating from it.” Other scholars and economists have similarly suggested that prevailing ethnic stereotypes have stunted the growth of Chinese restaurants beyond the takeout model. 

One less political obstacle is that high-end restaurants tend to lend themselves to small group dining, whereas traditional Chinese dining is festive, and for some, ostentatious. “In Chinese restaurants somebody is always entertaining. You all partake in the same possibilities,” Freedman said. “[A high-end Chinese restaurant in America] would look probably like a Japanese restaurant. Modern, minimalist, Asian but in little touches.”

But would the inclusion of Chinese restaurants in broader American dining entail a sacrifice of their authenticity?

Authenticity, however, is a slippery idea, and Yong Zhao is quick to offer a dose of reality. To survive and expand as a business, for Zhao, isn’t just about taste but adaptability. He said, “[In China], you pay [with] WeChat and it’s done. There are no fights over checks anymore. We don’t see that as being authentic anymore. These are common memories, but you have to accept changes. Sometimes you mix nostalgia with authenticity.”

In the coming months—the most significant litmus test for the restaurant industry in recent history—a forward-thinking business model and culinary imaginativity will not only be a competitive edge but a survival strategy. And while forced closures and high unemployment rates portend a shaky future for the industry, Junzi’s healthy serving of pragmatism translates into community and cultural empowerment. They know as well as anyone that more than a bowl of noodles is at stake.