That’s how many names and accompanying job descriptions appear under the “Our Team” section of Junzi Kitchen’s website.
When scanning the page, words like, “Business Intelligence”, “Marketing and Technology”, and “Real Estate Development and Architectural Design” pop out. Not exactly typical job descriptions normally highlighted on a restaurant’s website. And, after talking with some of this team, I learned that Junzi Kitchen in New York is not exactly a typical restaurant. It’s a movement.
“The biggest problem is branding,” explains Yong Zhao, Co-Founder and CEO of Junzi Kitchen. “The idea that Chinese food is cheap is a problem. We needed to build a brand where people believed that they can pay a higher price. Our team, from the beginning, has had a big picture. What is the future like when you change the cultural image of Chinese food in America?”
This incredible undertaking all started with three students in a business incubator and an undergraduate chef who began an underground popup restaurant in a dorm room at Yale.
“What’s supposed to happen is that we come here, learn a bunch of things, and then go back and contribute to society,” Chef Lucas Sin, Culinary Director of Junzi explains. As thousands of foreign students do annually, they come to American universities to study hard and take their knowledge back to affect change within their own countries. But for the founders of Junzi Kitchen, there was something to be said about affecting change about their culture within another country.
“If food is the first step towards understanding, why not learn to run a food business?” he asks.
The Illicit Pop-Up that Started It All
Chef Lucas Sin was no ordinary undergraduate student at Yale. When he was in high school, he opened his own restaurant in an abandoned newspaper factory in Hong Kong, where he grew up. When he came to Yale, his cooking skills began to gain popularity and he started to host pop-ups by request. This quickly turned into an all-weekend concept with 20 students cooking to feed 250 others.
“It became the only thing I knew how to do,” Sin reflects, simply. “I spent all my summers and winters cooking at Michelin restaurants in Japan.”
By his junior year, Sin had realized that he wanted a deeper connection to the food that was his background. “It was in my blood.”
Fate soon brought four students together. Ming Bai, Yong Zhao, and Wanting Zhang were all graduate students studying business and finance. Together, with Chef Sin, they began to hatch the idea of a culture-driven restaurant.
“We wanted to complicate it. We wanted to add to the dialogue of Chinese food.”
Despite Sin’s heavy training in the fine dining scene, the four purposefully chose a fast-casual approach.
“Our mission was accessibility. We’re in the fast-casual segment specifically to reach a wider audience.”
Director of Business Intelligence, Fiona Zhu, adds, “Our team has very different ideas about fast casual. There’s a lot of intentional thought for the food design, the operations, the marketing.”
Drawing inspiration from the late-night eateries where students often gathered, the Junzi team saw great power in community building.
“Especially around drunk food for college students,” Sin laughs. “We included that in our business model early on. We did stuff after hours in university locations…cocktails, fried chicken.”
They even began doing cuisine collaborations. “I was really interested to see how Chinese food interacts with other cuisines. Like, how does Chinese food interact with Dominican cuisine? We’d do collaborations and tell stories. It gave us a deeper dive into the esoteric parts of Chinese cuisine.”
With Sin being the only founder with any culinary experience, the team had to learn quickly and on the fly.
“As entrepreneurs, you learn as quickly as possible.”
Since they were still students, they did receive a lot of support from the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute.
Teamwork Makes the Dreamwork
“We see an opportunity to change a very traditional industry. To do that, we have to bring in talent that breaks barriers to make something totally different,” says Yong Zhao.
The hiring approach was as thought out as their original business plan. When thinking about the type of people they needed to build this company, they wanted a strong balance of art and science.
“For the arts people, it’s thinking about what a human being wants and needs. We wanted philosophers and creators to help ideate a product and experience. For science, we wanted people to analyze and validate to make sure the ideas are making sense and how to make it happen.”
Junzi Kitchen is Only the Beginning
With four locations under their belts, all serving different menu items and demographics, Junzi Kitchen is only the beginning.
“I certainly believe that now is the best time to cook Chinese food, more than ever before because of how exciting Chinese food has become,” explains Sin. “It’s a combination of Asian-born Chinese chefs who are trained in French or Italian techniques now opening their own restaurants.”
The Junzi Kitchen team wants to be a massive bite of America’s burgeoning fast-casual space but also wants to expand.
“These are our baby steps,” Zhao confirms. “We want a large part of this space but also of other markets. The question is, can our first brand survive one of the most competitive markets in the world?”
With their internal efforts on business intelligence, they just might. “It’s broader than just data,” Zhu says. “It’s cost management. Marketing efforts. Product metrics. Seeing a return on investment. It’s all very intentional.”
If all goes well for the Junzi Kitchen team, we may just see a whole slew of new products in three to five years. Their goal, ultimately, is to create a movement which readjust how Chinese food and culture are viewed by American consumers. Seventeen people for a goal that big doesn’t seem so crazy after all…