The science behind making Junzi

| by Katie Shipp
The science behind making Junzi

Yong Zhao is not a foodie. He's a scientist with a degree from Yale. Fellow Yale graduate Lucas Sin, however, has deep knowledge of food operations given his experience working in a pop-up restaurant in an abandoned Hong Kong newspaper factory when he was 16 and having operated a secret restaurant from the basement of his dorm.

While their backgrounds are different, it's not surprising the two friends, who met during their time at Yale, are now running their own restaurants, called Junzi. What they have in common is a shared passion for Northern Chinese cuisine.

The first Junzi (which means noble person), opened in 2015, in New Haven, Connecticut, the second September 2017, is at 2896 Broadway, New York City. Junzi will open its third location on July 16, at 170 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. 

The partners decided on their first location for several reasons.

"In New Haven, there was only one American-Chinese takeout place and a bunch of faux-fusion noodle shops; the kind of Chinese home-cooking we grew up with — the kind that represents simple, nutritious, and flavorful Chinese food — simply did not exist," Zhao told Fast Casual in an email interview. 

Junzi's menu reflects Northern Chinese cuisine and tradition, according to the founders, and is the result of lots of testing

Junzi co-founder Yong Zhao. 

"I set up control groups and experiments in my tiny apartment, and borrowed equipment from my downstairs neighbor, who happened to run an American-Chinese takeout restaurant," said Zhao. "I continued testings all day and all night (and called my mom for help) until we finally got the first M.V.P, the first item on our menu, the beef cucumber chun bing." 

Sin takes a month-long research trip to China each year to gain deeper insight on the cuisine so that Junzi is always up to date. During his time at Yale he established  the organization Y Pop-up, a student-run chef incubator, that still is in operation.

The Junzi restaurants use an ‘assembly line' dining format. More than 4,000 bings and noodle bowls are served up each week to over 500 daily customers at one location alone. 

Bing is unleavened dough that results from mixing flour and water. Chefs flatten it into a circular shape and form chun bing which is a thin wrap that can house all sorts of seasonal ingredients. Shave it into boiling water, it becomes noodles that are perfect vessels for difference sauces. Dumplings are bing that are stuffed and boiled. 

The co-founders have a five-year plan that includes opening more than 50 stores around the country.

"For us, the interpretation of "junzi" is at the core of our ethos: honesty, empathy and curiosity. Striving to be a junzi is the guiding principle for everything we do: from how we make our food to how we relate to the world," said Zhao.

The fact that Zhao doesn't consider himself a foodie hasn't impeded his passion for Northern Chinese Cuisine and cultural understanding of how food plays into the society

"We deeply believe food is the most accessible entry point to start an open conversation. No matter where you are from, what religion or political view you subscribe to, we can all sit down at dinner table and enjoy a meal together," said Zhao, noting that's exactly how the founders met and started Junzi. 

The past three years of opening and running restaurants have taught both founders more than a few lessons — one was how much time a fast casual restaurant operation requires.

"We quickly realized we have to go above and beyond, and work 20 times harder and faster to meet our hungry customers' appetites," said Zhao, adding they also run an elevated monthly dinner series featuring five courses, three nights a week for 18 guests. 

"This is where we get to experiment and elevate what we do. The expectation of our customers, both in terms of cuisine and in terms of service, experience and design, is exceptionally high. As a restaurateur and a startup team, you have to always stay culturally open and stay at the top of your game."

One big challenge has been finding good staff and cooking talent.

"Hiring the right people and with your brand that obviously is very important given the vision is beyond just great food — are you finding hiring challenging — are you doing anything unique or innovative to find the right people?," said Zhao. 

The founders realized early on that hiring may pose a challenge and created the first three Junzi restaurants near universities, where thousands of students looking for jobs.

"We started a Junzi summer internship program and collaborated with over 50 institutions across the U.S. to attract talent in all three main functions of our company: business intelligence and data, culinary and operation, as well as graphic and architecture design," said Zhao. 

"We want people who share our obsession to join us. As we grow, we are looking for specifically this type of people whom we call ‘t-shaped' talents. They have a broad interest and general problem solving skills, and they have developed a specialty may that be marketing, culinary R&D, data science or UI/UX design."

Going forward the partners not only envision more locations but a much broad Junzi brand.

"We are expanding the Junzi product eco-system to include catering services, events, pantry products, and digital products like mobile apps, a docu series and guide books. We see Junzi growing to be far beyond just another fast-casual restaurant brand. It'll be an integral part of our customers everyday experience around food and culture," said Zhao. 

Cover by Junzi.

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