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Striking the Perfect Balance: Cultural Integrity and Customer Expectations

Season 1: Episode 23


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Customer expectations can be tricky and, as a business owner, they aren’t always in line with your own. Lucas Sin, owner of Nice Day Chinese in New York, meets this challenge by striking a balance between what customers expect and rigorously maintaining the cultural integrity of his native cuisine. Yelp reviewer and Brooklyn community manager Morlene C. also joins the episode to weigh in on Nice Day’s respectful take on popular Chinese dishes.

On the Yelp Blog: Learn more about how businesses in any industry can balance customer expectations with their mission and values.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every week I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind it. This week as we kick off Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, as a show, we want to acknowledge the long history of racism and hate that continues to target the API community. Here at Yelp, we’ve launched a new, searchable Asian-owned business attribute for Yelp Pages to help consumers support Asian-owned businesses as well as amplify the voices of Asian business owners. And in this episode, I’m excited to feature the story and success of a group of Asian immigrant entrepreneurs. These co-founders started a friendship in college and founded a business that is changing the very landscape of the American-Chinese Food scene.

Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.

MORLENE: I follow a lot of food news. I follow a lot of the major food publications, like Eater, Grub Street out of New York magazine, and of course Yelp. They were getting a lot of press and a lot of buzz on all of these platforms and certainly on social media too, maybe some influencers on Instagram have featured them. So I was getting hit with photos of their food at all angles and on all the platforms.

I think we eat with our eyes sometimes. So their food is colorful. It’s bright. And I actually didn’t grow up with American-Chinese food. I am culturally part Chinese, and I grew up with a different type of Chinese food. So this is sort of like a novelty for me. I was excited by the prospect of American-Chinese food.

So I’m sort of in the target demographic. This is a stepping stone for me into this cuisine that I’m sort of familiar with and sort of not familiar with.

EMILY: That’s Morlene, Yelp’s community manager for Brooklyn. She’s telling me about Nice Day Chinese, a restaurant serving American-Chinese takeout cuisine in New York with a unique mission. Let’s hear Morlene’s review.

MORLENE: I was admittedly skeptical of another restaurant touting American-Chinese food made with better, fresher ingredients, but this isn’t like the humongous gaffe that was the failed Lucky Lee’s—a non-Chinese person claiming to make Chinese food with ingredients that don’t make you feel “icky and gross”—but a restaurant that provides a similar business solution in a more respectful way. In fact, the team behind Junzi Kitchen created Nice Day in the spirit of carrying on the legacy of an entire generation of Chinese-American food business owners looking to retire soon. I admire it, and even without the backstory, the food is fantastic just for being delicious food.

I walked up to their counter to order, but I learned after they incentivize you to use their website or app with discounts. They even deliver in Manhattan up to 35th Street. The Shake Shake Shrimp was a stand out, with large pieces of shrimp made in a crispy and flavorful batter, pairing wonderfully with the chili sauce it comes with. The Mapo Tofu was also a winner, and my friends said the General Tso’s might’ve been the best they’ve ever had. High praise because I know for a fact they’ve had more than their weight in general tso’s maybe just that month alone.

They have a second location in Midtown, so if you’re a fan of American-Chinese food (and let’s be honest, do you want to be friends with someone who isn’t?), look no further than Nice Day.

EMILY: Morlene shared some important context in her review about the background and mission of Nice Day Chinese, while also focusing on flavor and taste. It is a restaurant after all! But I think it’s important to note that the approach taken by chef Lucas and the rest of his team is very intentional.

Let’s hear from Chef Lucas on how Nice Day and their mission came to be.

LUCAS: We have this broad goal of hoping to encourage mostly Americans to re-understand and approach Chinese food with a new light. The founding team at both Junzi Kitchen and Nice Day met in college and university, and all of us are from Hong Kong and China. And we were surprised early on that the understanding of Chinese food in the U.S. was largely quite singular and limited. On the other hand, American-Chinese food is so exciting to us. And to some degree it was new because we didn’t grow up with American-Chinese cuisine, but we quickly understood how important American-Chinese cuisine was to American food in general. It’s obviously outstandingly delicious. It’s very well demanded. It’s probably the second most delivered food in the U.S. after pizza, and people have a very nostalgic and intimate relationship with Chinese-American food. You know, there are these images in my head. What about eating Chinese food on the floor? In the living room, when they were watching a movie, or friends come over, they don’t know what to get, they get Chinese food. Chinese food is a huge part of different sorts of cultural events at Christmas for a lot of Jewish families, for example. But also as a cornerstone, you know, chicken wings and French fries have a place. And Chinese food is just so, so important to our understanding of the American life, so to speak to that, we want to look a little bit deeper into it.

And what we realized is that Chinese restaurateurs face unique obstacles in the American-Chinese food world, despite its popularity, despite its robust history in the last 150+ years. Chinese-American food, now today in 2021, faces obstacles that many other cuisines don’t face. A lot of it is an aging population of people who can cook this food. A lot of it is ingredients that are more and more difficult to come by, vulnerabilities along the supply chain and the business side of things that unfortunately we think might endanger the availability, the accessibility, and the continual evolution of Chinese food into the future. So we wanted to address it by trying to build a new type of Chinese restaurant that served Chinese-American food that was built off of the hard work and the history of Chinese-American food in the U.S., but was also future-proof. The question for us is how would you open a Chinese restaurant today in 2021?  Or rather 2020 and during the pandemic. The pandemic forced a lot of businesses like our own to make pivots, to make changes and to come up with new, interesting ideas, and Nice Day was our first stab at it.

EMILY: As chef and owner of a restaurant that has been well known in New York city for years, Nice Day wasn’t Lucas’s first venture into the restaurant industry. But even with that background and experience of his first restaurant, he saw the importance of trying new things out. Doing pop-ups for example. And a lot of that experience comes from his love of food growing up and knowing the importance and power of food.

LUCAS: My family isn’t from the restaurant world, but like most Chinese people and especially Hong Kong, people like myself, we have an obsession with Chinese food. And in particular for me, I think I’ve always had this sort of curiosity about the ability for food to tell stories, for food to be a starting point to think about deeper cultural issues and social issues and having it as a sort of a gateway into a larger conversation.

On one hand, I would love to see the food of Nice Day Chinese do that, right? I would love for people to read about our mission, understand our restaurant, and want to figure out a little bit more about the struggles of running a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. today, for example. But on the other hand, I also really appreciate that for many, many people, food is just food, and it needs to be delicious and hot and crispy, and I think part of the amazing thing about the American-Chinese food is that you can enjoy it in and of itself for its own purpose without this like massive sort of further thinking about history and all these things while you’re eating it.

To my young naive mind, oh Chinese food is just Chinese food, but the more you think about it, the more you dig into it, it’s more than nostalgia. It’s more than memory. It’s also a history, and it’s an evolving history. There is no better place to cook Chinese food in the U.S. now than New York.

EMILY: Honoring a long line of tradition and providing a high quality product. These aren’t the only tools that help Nice Day to be successful. Their customers have an expectation of the menu items, simply based on a name.

LUCAS: Chinese-American food obviously is a cuisine and business model that evolved out of a specific diaspora. And so I think it’s important for us to refer back to the generations and the people that came before us. A good friend of mine, or rather a coworker, grew up in Chinese-American restaurants. His father’s 90-something years old, can barely hear, but when we’re developing our General Tso’s recipe, I was confused about what in the world General Tso’s actually was because every time I ate it, it was a little different.

And so we used to call him and say, hey, so what’s General Tso’s chicken? We call when we were developing our sesame chicken and say, so what is the sesame chicken? And the funny story is, most Chinese-American restaurants, sesame chicken is General Tso’s chicken, but it has sesame seeds on top of it. It’s exactly the same sauce.

These things you would never learn and you would never know, you asked the OGs, you asked the legends that have been doing this their whole life and moved to this country to do this. So yeah, respecting tradition means involving the people that came before you into the business and into helping you, in my case as a chef, developing dishes, but also how do you run the restaurant? How do you keep food crispy? That sort of thing—a lot of that knowledge comes from the culture that precedes us, so it’s important to refer back to that.

EMILY: A balance of honoring tradition and culture, while also keeping the end product and the consumer experience at the forefront. At the end of the day, the food needs to be hot and flavorful, and for many of the “traditional dishes,” they need to actually be traditional. That’s the whole point! Lucas and his team had a vision for their dishes, but they reached out to the experts who came before them to learn how to make things the “right way.”

LUCAS: American-Chinese food is a classic type of cuisine, and you have to respect it as a classic, right? There are certain ways certain things are done, and there are certain flavors that are the way they are. And that’s not just because of some stalwarts. It’s not because we’re shackling ourselves with tradition, but it’s because if you want a General Tso’s chicken, and you order General Tso’s chicken, and it comes to you, and it’s not what you expected, then that restaurant hasn’t done its job in very many ways, right?

Now there are a couple of dishes on the menu that break from that mold a little bit. And instead of offering a twist, that’s invented, so to speak, oftentimes we’ll use techniques or use ingredients that refer back to the origin dishes that inspired the Chinese-American dishes. So I’ll give you one of my favorite things on the menu is chow mein.

Chow mein is very interesting. If you look in the Northeast, you’ll find chow mein as a deep-fried thicker noodle, sometimes used on top of salad, and it’s like a crouton substitute, right? Sometimes it’s crispy noodle that’s cooked in a sort of brown gravy. But the chow mein as I understand it, growing up in Hong Kong, is a sort of a stir-fried thin egg noodle that’s tossed in soy sauce and oyster sauce.

So, this type of chow mein is the type of chow mein we serve. It’s stir fried with the same type of oyster sauce and soy sauce. Its aromatics aren’t being threatened by all these vegetables. And then your choice of chicken, shrimp, beef, vegetables on top of it.

EMILY: Whether you’re a restaurant owner or in a different industry entirely, the takeaway applies. Your consumers have expectations. They may be set by tradition, they may be set by your website, they may even be set by your online reviews. But if those expectations are not met, people will feel let down. Being able to identify and set accurate expectations is the first step in creating positive and memorable experiences.

And then 1onestep further is creating that positive and memorable experience time and time again.

LUCAS: The name of the game and the name of the job of operations, store operations, is consistency.

So there are a couple of things that we do to help our stores guarantee certain consistency, especially when it comes to texture. On one hand, you know, for example, we punch holes in our paper boxes so that the steam can escape. So it can be delivered to you crispy. A small change, but really important.

On the other hand, there’s been a long standing myth in a lot of American Chinese circles that only Chinese people can cook using a wok. That only Chinese people can be successful cooking in a wok, for example. And there has been a resistance, it’s sort of like industry-wide, but culturally, against innovating on how we train people to cook Chinese food.

And so a lot of it for us comes down to us looking really detailed in the system. How do we train our employees so that the type of employees that work at restaurants around us, in our neighborhoods, should be the same type of employees that we can hire, and it’s our job to train them to make Chinese food in a way that is up to our standards.

It falls back on the restaurant and the training team and us to tell them that, hey, this is not an intimidating thing. And if you cook and use these tools properly, the food is going to come out more delicious and more consistently delicious.

EMILY: A consistent topic we cover on the show is the importance of customer service. Morlene explained to me that pandemic or not, Nice Day, and for that matter Chinese-American food as a cuisine, is made and taken to go or in to-go containers. The experience is more of a fast casual or pick-up and go. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of customer service, even for that brief interaction of pick up.

MORLENE: At the time there was no indoor dining, and they had a very seamless experience for pickup and takeout orders. I just went up to the counter. There was a friendly person greeting me and took my order, and I just waited outside.

EMILY: And from Lucas’s perspective, customer service is key.

LUCAS: Yeah. Customer service is really important, and especially in the pandemic/digital world, a lot of that customer service extends beyond just the transaction of the meal itself. So, on top of within the store, a lot of the customer service happens in responding to reviews, or engaging with people on Instagram, or making sure that our social media is showing people what’s happening inside the restaurant and the type of food that we’re serving, but also answering people’s questions. You know, when are you open? How do I order? How far do you deliver?

Looking at the customer’s experience holistically and trying to understand—in very many ways a UI or UX designer might be looking at their apps or their products—you want to put yourself in your customer’s shoes and imagine how people would experience not only your food, but your brand and your story outside of the walls of your restaurant.

And oftentimes, especially from a marketing or social media perspective, you’re going to engage with a lot of people who want to eat your food who won’t be able to. And if you’re a mission-driven restaurant, you have something to say about culture, for example, like we do, it’s important that people hear that story, even if they don’t get to eat at your restaurant. So I think it’s one of those tools that we really cherish and pay careful attention to.

EMILY: Paying attention to and engaging with your customers beyond the walls of your business is a theme we’ve heard time and time again this past year. Many businesses have been called to communicate through multiple platforms because of the pandemic, but many more businesses have been doing this all along. Sharing the story of their business. Telling the world their why. For Lucas and the rest of their team, it’s not just about honoring traditionally Chinese-American dishes.

LUCAS: I would double down and bring attention to the fact that Chinese-American restaurants face unique obstacles, and these obstacles are oftentimes the result of systemic racism. Many of these obstacles are a long time coming. They did not appear in 2020 because somebody said kung flu virus, right? A lot of the difficulty and the disadvantage oftentimes has been built throughout the years.

And it’s an entangled subject. It’s difficult to pinpoint, but I would hope that most of us Asian restaurateurs, and this is certainly what we’ve seen in New York, is that Asian restaurateurs are using both their platform and their business to do something about it in the long term.

I was very inspired in particular and worked on quite a few initiatives in the last couple of months, the most sort of well-known one being a campaign called Enough is Enough. Where within the span of a week or two a week, something like 20-30 Asian restaurants have banded together to raise money for a couple of charities and also to set up multiple meal donations to St. Jude’s and other shelters. And over the course of three weeks we raised something like $75,000 over the course of one event, which was kind of insane, but there are many other charities that we can support that are sort of related to the world of food that we certainly support.

I’m very proud to support because through the food lens, through addressing issues of food insecurity and addressing issues of the sustainability of businesses in areas like Chinatown, those NGOs, those organizations are doing a lot on a consistent basis. So they’re almost experts in the field now, and those are the organizations that we like to work with.

EMILY: Entrepreneurs continue to amaze me with their charitable efforts, the energy they can bring to community initiatives that matter to them, and the vigor with which they want to impact the place that they live and work. And we’ve seen consumers with strong initiatives to support their community and local businesses as well. Here’s Morlene expressing the importance of reviewing and a bit on the impact.

MORLENE: Writing a review sends so many signals. It’s different from writing in a private journal. It’s a public platform to write a review on a site like Yelp. And you have an audience of people who are curious about this business. Most likely they want to know, what did I like? What did I dislike? So when I’m writing a review, I keep the audience in mind.

And then part of why I write a review is also to signal to the owner and the business owner what I appreciated about the business. If I have any constructive feedback, I want to help the business, I will often offer that. I don’t think I offered anything critical for Nice Day. It was very simple and seamless, my experience there.

But when I do write a review, I try to keep those things in mind. I just want everyone to know about the new spots. And so I’m like everyone go to this place, support them, especially in New York. When the rents are high, the margins are slim. We want to do everything that we can to help small businesses survive.

EMILY: And operationally, reviews are important to business owners. But Lucas shared with me some important perspectives from his years of experience in restaurants—which on average, deal with a higher volume of reviews than many other industries.

LUCAS: Reviews are really important because they are one of the mechanisms, and one of the ways you get feedback on a consistent basis about how the team is doing, as you say, when you don’t have your eyes in the restaurant and you’re not physically inside of the restaurant.

I think many restaurants, including myself, we have a tendency sometimes to jump and change things really quickly based on negative feedback. Learning how to approach reviews in a helpful way and in a structured way has really allowed us to manage reviews as a mode of feedback.

I don’t know if this is extra. I don’t know if this is consistent with what everyone else is doing, but we respond to most of the reviews that people post. We’re very, very thankful, and we’ve learned a lo.

Sometimes you design dishes, and they don’t deliver the way that you thought they would be delivered, for example. There are many things that are beyond your control, and we, as a restaurant, can always grow from that feedback. Take things with a grain of salt. Don’t change your whole restaurant immediately just because you had one person say one thing, but we use qualitative reviews as much as we use quantitative data to keep a good eye on how things are going. And actually on the other hand, I’ve learned to really cherish our positive reviews and connect with people who are consistent regulars at our restaurant.

People who want to tell us, hey, I didn’t expect very much from American-Chinese food and you guys have changed my mind on this, for example. It’s one thing we hear once in a blue moon—that really matters a lot to us because that’s what the goal of the restaurant is.

EMILY: Lucas and his partners started their restaurants with very strong missions in mind. To honor and spread the access to, and appreciation for, a beloved cuisine: Chinese-American food, while also creating a product that is just plain delicious. In a traditional sense, and in a spice, texture, flavor, crispness sense, Junzi Kitchen and Nice Day Chinese play an important role in representation and high-quality food that makes New York, New York.

Being an entrepreneur is a different kind of hard work, adaptability, and out-of-the-box thinking, and being a minority business owner amplifies the challenges that many entrepreneurs face. To close us out, here’s Lucas sharing his view on entrepreneurship and what it means to him.

LUCAS: I think entrepreneurship is a very, very broad word, but at the very least, I think startup culture in entrepreneurship sort of encourages you to dive into a sort of acute problem, but try to solve it in a systematic way.

And I think that’s a lot of that workplace culture that we have at Junzi and Nice Day, is that everybody in the team here is not only concerned about making the restaurants and the meals and the dishes in front of us, but we’re also concerned about growing into the future and thinking about how a business can be a sustainable right.

The core of our purpose of opening Nice Day requires us to build a business model that is in some ways new and a little different from the type of Chinese-American business model that existed before. Because we want to solve for some of these supply-side, back-of house issues that we mentioned before. And in so doing, you have to test and you have to figure things out and make mistakes. And so the pop-up is a great way to test those things, in multiple senses of the term.

That’s the sort of entrepreneurial mindset, one of long term, but also, some degree of like recklessness, right? And diving into a dream or diving into a whisper of an idea.

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