Junzi Kitchen has three big disadvantages right now. It’s a restaurant. It’s in New York City. It sells Chinese food. The first two need no explanation. Chinese restaurants have been hit particularly hard, because in consumers’ minds decisions are often made based on spurious correlations. The pandemic started in China equals: Avoid Chinese food. Despite these disadvantages, the future looks bright for Junzi.
The restaurant and its founders have one huge advantage. Ambition. Junzi CEO Yong Zhao said in a recent interview with NPR that his team is building something big. The fact that a restaurant with five locations has a CEO already says a lot. Zhao is looking for ways to expand, even during the pandemic. He envisions Junzi managing more than a thousand restaurants eventually.
How, though? Especially right now, the future of the restaurant business doesn’t look bright.
First of all, the Junzi team has some money to work with. Their ambitious plans have landed them funds from investors, including $5 million they received last fall.
Second, the team seems to try out every possible opportunity to grow. For example, Junzi wants to purchase and operate older Chinese restaurants currently run by owners that want to retire. The team would retain much of what made the current restaurant work, but also co-brand with Junzi and introduce new marketing and branding strategies.
Junzi is also special in how it looks for opportunities. It performs research as a large corporation might. For example, during the pandemic it has looked for inspiration from China. Since the pandemic hit there first, China is ahead of most countries in opening back up. That gives Junzi the chance to see what has worked, and what hasn’t, for restaurants in China. While not every idea will be useful for the US market, it’s still a rich source of inspiration as Zhao also discussed in the NPR interview.
During the pandemic, Junzi has done more than just offer take out and delivery. It has started to offer larger meal packages intended for families and for those looking to order more than just one meal at a time. It also offers a way to buy a meal for frontline medical workers while you order something for yourself.
Junzi now live streams every week on Instagram, something it calls “Distance Dining.” Customers purchase a three-course meal and can then join on the live stream to hear about how to prepare and present the food from the head chef. The idea is to get some of the restaurant experience even when eating at home.
Just because there’s a crisis out there, doesn’t mean our meals at home can’t be opportunities for creative collaboration and cultural exploration. So, beginning March 25, we’re going to be offering special meals through our first crisis pop-up: “Distanc… https://t.co/FiTTPLMs4n pic.twitter.com/8dkagxjXH5— Junzi Kitchen (@JunziKitchen) March 25, 2020
This doesn’t mean that every restaurant can use similar methods and succeed. Many restaurants will close for good during this pandemic through no fault of their own.
It looks likely that restaurants will feel the effects of the pandemic for months and possibly even years. Some think customer habits could change permanently, ending the possibility to pack restaurants and bars full of people. Trying out strategies similar to Junzi’s might be required just to have a chance of surviving in the post-pandemic restaurant industry.