Running late, in pain, Tyler Foggatt had to rush to the hospital for an appendectomy. But she first she had a stop to make on Broadway — for one last chun bing.
Foggatt stopped at an increasingly hot spot for late-night eats downtown, Junzi Kitchen, where business has grown so fast that an expansion is in the works.
At the hospital, the doctors and anesthesiologists asked Foggatt what she last ate.
“My last seconds before I went under were spent describing the ingredients of a chun bing to my surgical team,” she said. “I fell asleep thinking about the chive ash.”
Food that can do that is on its way to New York.
Foggatt, a Yale senior, has been a regular customer at the fast-casual restaurant since its opening one year ago. It quickly became her favorite in New Haven.
There is a sense of camaraderie and cooking for joy, rather than money, that is infectious for restaurant-goers.
“It’s Chinese people cooking Chinese food, not necessarily to turn a profit, but to further a cultural identity that they think is closer to their truth,” said Michael Park, a Junzi regular and a close friend of Chef Lucas Sin, who graduated from Yale in 2015.
Less than a year after Junzi opened its Broadway location, the owners recently announced on social media that they will expand to a second location, next to the iconic Tom’s Diner — featured on Seinfeld — near Columbia University’s campus by early 2017.
The expansion seems hasty to some, but Junzi’s founders have always had ambitious goals for their business. After Columbia, they are looking to expand to the Lower East Side, near New York University, soon. The goal was never just one outlet.
Reed Immer, Junzi’s marketing director, described the restaurant’s vibe as “cute and crazy with a thoughtful foundation.”
Junzi’s regular service menu features two options: chun bings and noodle bowls, both northern Chinese street food dishes. Chun bings are warm wraps, filled with the customer’s choice of protein, vegetables, garnishes and sauces. Those who choose the noodle bowl can add any of the same assembly line ingredients to their meals. Each meal is custom made and prepared in front of the customer in minutes.
The chefs, Sin and Eva Zhang, are constantly revising the ingredients, swapping spinach for cabbage or adding sweet potato based on seasonal availability. And “Night Lunch” — the restaurant’s late night food series — is even more improvised. Lucas decides the night menu at random, keeping within the Northern Chinese flavor palette, but taking risks with ingredients and combinations. These days, he’s serving scallion bings with bork belly.
“We want to give them complete creative control,” said Andrew Chu, the operations manager.
As marketing director, Immer makes sure there is order to the craziness that is central to Junzi’s vibe. Little things, like giving the nighttime series a name, tie the brand together, he said. Even the daytime menu, which allows patrons to pick and choose endless combinations of ingredients is cohesive.
“They should be able to make a decision about what they want to eat in about 30 seconds,” Sin said.
Ron DeSantis, director of culinary excellence at Yale and a longtime mentor of Sin, identified this cohesion right away.
“He came in one day and told me, ‘There are two things in here that are blowing my mind right now,’” Sin said. “I asked him if they were the bings and the noodles, and he said, ‘Of course not.’”
The two things were chive ash and shrimp salt, both garnishes available at the end of the assembly line. DeSantis told Sin that these two garnishes have a strong smokiness that is reflected in many of the other ingredients, including the proteins, which are the base of any chun bing or noodle bowl. Repeating that flavor, DeSantis said, is a way to ensure that anyone who goes down the Junzi line has a high chance of hitting the smoky, garlic taste emblematic of the restaurant’s northern Chinese roots.
It’s not just the food that has a thoughtful foundation. In late 2014, when they secured their storefront, Junzi’s founders hired a lighting consultant and a furniture consultant to help design the restaurant. The store is illuminated by hanging baskets that hold lights and plants. The stools where patrons enjoy chun bings and noodles were specially designed to resemble dovetails, a concept with Chinese roots.
“We wanted to make sure there was a compelling story behind all the aspects of the restaurant,” Immer said.
Even choosing the words to describe the place takes thought, Sin said.
“Right now, we’re really into the word, ‘chill,’” he said.
“Chill” is all over Junzi’s merchandise. These decisions might seem spontaneous, but they are in fact the result of long discussions.
Thinking Big, Staying Local
When Yong Zhao, Junzi’s CEO, was a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he was frustrated with his lifestyle. A native of Beijing, he was used to daily access to fast, casual, healthy Chinese food — something he couldn’t find in New Haven.
So, with the help of two fellow graduate students, Wanting Zhang and Ming Bai, Yong developed the idea for Junzi.
“We want to Chinese-ify American culture,” he said.
Yong described Junzi as different from other Chinese restaurants in New Haven and around the country. There’s nothing wrong with the Chinese food served at Panda Express or similar restaurants, he said, but the menu items all have the same flavor — and they’re often greasy.
“Everything that is not Western occupies a box,” he said. “Authentic, foreign, Chinese, Asian, all of these terms are boxes. We wanted to build a platform instead of a box.”
In 2013, Yong and his co-founders consulted the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute with a business plan for a franchise. They raised about a million dollars from various investors and got to work perfecting their flavor and their brand.
Michael, a customer and Sin’s friend since they worked together at Y Pop-Up — Sin’s series of student-run, pop-up restaurants in the Davenport buttery — attended some taste tests at YEI. The original chun bings were under-stuffed and wet because they were filled with the wrong ingredients, he said. The final product was the result of weeks of fine-tuning.
Under the business plan, Junzi must expand for its stakeholders to make a significant profit, Immer said. The restaurant’s overhead costs are unusually high for a business of its kind, since it employs a highly skilled management team, one Yong calls rare and unique.
All of Junzi’s seven managers have bachelor’s degrees, five have graduate degrees . Four are Yale grads.
“There’s a difference between being a restaurant owner and a brand owner,” Yong said. “We took the tech startup model and translated it to a food startup.”
But, for Yong and his team, building a local brand is as important as building a big one. Junzi Kitchen should adapt to the neighborhoods it inhabits, Immer said. In New Haven, this adaptation means close partnerships with university and city establishments. Junzi hosts regular dinner parties for New Haven chefs.
“We go door-to-door and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this thing: free food and free booze. We want to see you there,’” Sin said.
It was at such an event that Junzi managers met the chefs who work at Caseus and Union League Cafe, two restaurants they collaborate with.
Junzi also has a partnership with WYBC, Yale’s student-run broadcasting company and radio station. In exchange for free dinner and merchandise, Yale Radio develops the playlists for Junzi’s Night Lunches.
“I think for them it’s a chance to forge a connection to Yale,” said Chloe Tsang, a Yale senior and WYBC station manager. “We have an established presence in the Yale community.”
At Columbia, Junzi’s team will continue to think locally, managers say. Immer plans to reach out to Columbia’s student radio station for music as he did at Yale, and Sin, who will have a role in the hiring process, plans to encourage local hiring to ground the store in its community.
This is a process that has worked well in New Haven, he said. Most of Junzi’s 22 New Haven employees are young adults from the inner-city, some who have not even graduated from high school. But everyone is talented and willing to learn, Sin said.
“I’m a believer that people are trainable,” he said.
And Junzi’s managers are picky about who they hire. During the last hiring cycle, which in the winter, only about 4 percent of those who applied for a position got one.
“It’s harder to work at Junzi than it is to get into Yale,” Sin quipped.
Getting Off The Ground
Moving to New York will not be easy, said Chu, who leads operations.
The new location is three times the size of the current restaurant, which means a bigger, more customizable kitchen. It means more room to hold experimental sessions featuring improvised menus while continuing with regular service. But it also means suddenly shifting to a bigger operation and stepping into the food business in New York City, something none of the managers have done before.
The first step is going to be spreading the word about Junzi and its philosophy, Immer said. Junzi’s managers are starting to develop a partnership with the Columbia Spectator for publicity and hoping to reach even more student groups soon.
A few Columbians have already caught the bug.
Rachel Deal, a junior at Columbia, had her first chun bing last November when she visited New Haven for the Harvard-Yale football game.
“The food was so flavorful and nuanced, and it was only five dollars,” she said. “I can’t wait.”