Future Food: The Rise of Chinese Fast-casual Restaurants

7 February, 2020

Fast-casual eateries have been one of the success stories of high-street dining over the past 20 years and they continue to expand in cities throughout the world – meeting the ever increasing demand from time-poor diners for good quality food served quickly. From Middle Eastern to Indian and Thai to Mexican, diners can now eat their way around the globe without leaving their local high-street. Yet given this, there remains a curious lack of representation for Chinese food – one of the world’s oldest, most varied and well-known cuisines.

Although Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous throughout Western cities, they tend to be fairly traditional, with extensive menus and labour intensive dishes that don’t lend themselves to a fast-casual style of service. Also in many Western cities the number of family-run (as they often are) Chinese restaurants and takeaways is shrinking as original owners retire and their children venture into different careers (about 10 percent of America’s more than 28,000 Chinese-American takeout restaurants closed their doors in 2018) – so a re-imaging of Chinese food may well be necessary to ensure it continues to thrive and appeal to the new generation of millennial diners. As such there’s a large gap in the market for a modern, fast-casual take on the cuisine.

One restaurant trying to fill this gap is Junzi Kitchen which launched in 2015 and now operates four sites as well as a stand-alone ghost kitchen to fulfil its home delivery orders. It was set up by Yale graduate Yong Zhao with the aim of modernising Chinese cuisine and making it accessible to people of his own generation. Junzi Kitchen achieves this by having a simple menu that can easily be scaled up, and although it keeps flavours fairly traditional, a number of its dishes such as noodles and bings are also customisable. By having such a menu and also introducing cutting-edge machinery and automated technology (something most traditional Chinese restaurants lack) they have been able to cut back on labour costs, an important consideration for any successful fast-casual restaurant. In addition it has updated the food presentation and aesthetics of the overall restaurant design – the dining room is stripped back, bright and modern, and most importantly looks great on Instagram.

So far Junzi Kitchen has proved extremely popular, so much so that Zhao has just raised US$5m from investors to expand his concept further. His plan is to not only open identikit braches of his fast-casual restaurant but also to invest in established, but poorly performing, family run Chinese restaurants and takeouts, and update their business models using the Junzi Kitchen template.

The long-term aim is for Junzi Kitchen to become a place that is accessible to all with a presence on multiple high streets outside of traditional Chinatown areas, while still maintaining a distinct Chinese personality. To achieve this Zhao has had to broaden the definition of Chinese food. For example traditional restaurants don’t serve raw vegetables, but in order to appeal to the US demographic Junzi has introduced salads and healthy bowls, such as squash salad with ancient Chinese grains. As head chef Sin Yong puts it ‘Junzi is by no means a traditional Chinese restaurant, especially in the U.S., but it is an ‘authentic’ one in that it based on our understanding of Chinese food and how Chinese food should be in the U.S’.

Other examples of fast-casual Chinese restaurants:
Panda Express, Various locations in Los Angeles, USA
Meta Asian Kitchen, Denver, USA
Zai Lai (Taiwanese), New York, USA
Bao (Taiwanese), London, UK
Yin, London, UK
Noodle & Beer, London, UK
Baozi Inn, London, UK
Bing Boy, Various Cities, Aust

Other cuisines that have the potential for a fast-casual makeover:

West African
Existing examples include:
Teranga, New York, USA
Chuku’s, London, UK

Peruvian
Existing examples include:
Llamita, New York, USA
Peru Mix, Various Cities, Colombia
Ceviche, London, UK
Chicken Station, Houston, USAC

Images courtesy of @junzikitchen via Instagram