ATLANTA (May. 26)
The Far East meets the deep South here, where a thriving kosher Chinese restaurant serves customers who hunger for eggrolls, won ton soup and chicken with cashews.
Tucked in one of the city’s busiest supermarkets, the tiny business has been so successful since its November debut that owner Raymond Robbins says he’s considering franchising.
He and his staff dish out more than 700 pounds of chicken each week and more than 300 pounds of rice. Customers gobble at least 700 eggrolls rolled in Atlanta with skins shipped from New York.
Word of Chai Peking is spreading quickly through cities across the South. Robbins has sent meals by Greyhound bus and private van to parties in Charlotte, N.C., and Memphis, Tenn. Robbins says residents of Savannah, Ga., have driven for several hours for a kosher Chinese dinner.
The former senior vice president for an international shoe franchise, Robbins says his restaurant’s popularity caught him by surprise. But now he’s thinking that maybe the concept would flourish in other communities too.
Robbins, 48, says his own craving for Chinese food prompted him to find sesame chicken he could eat. When he began observing the laws of kashrut about six years, he stopped patronizing Chinese restaurants.
“I wanted Chinese food and I couldn’t get any,” he says as a line forms at Chai Peking’s steam table near the Kroger supermarket’s produce section.
After he organized a few well-received Chinese dinners for his synagogue, congregants began to urge him to expand the concept.
“Everyone said, `Why don’t you open a Chinese restaurant?’ I said, `Ain’t no way I’m opening a Chinese restaurant!'” Robbins says with a laugh.
But the idea percolated. Robbins did some research. He figured kosher Chinese food could attract enough patrons in Atlanta, which boasts the South’s fastest- growing Jewish population.
It would thrive, he thought, if he could keep prices competitive, appeal to non-Jewish customers, too, and limit his expenses.
“My emotional side wanted a sit-down restaurant, but my business end said no way,” says Robbins, who has also been a department store buyer.
“The Jewish community here has not been able to support fleishig (meat) restaurants, probably due to the numbers of what I call `kosher stomachs'” – – people who keep strictly kosher.
Before he spent his bank loan, Robbins visited Yaakov Portnoy, owner of the Mainly Chow Chinese Restaurant in Passaic, N.J., for a crash course in “How to Run a Kosher Chinese Restaurant.”
“It was like getting a four-year degree in three or four days,” Robbins says gratefully.
Portnoy generously shared his expertise about everything from how to properly package a take-out order to how to find a supplier of kosher water chestnuts.
When he returned to Atlanta, Robbins hired Moon Get “Jimmy” Lee as his cook. He employed five workers and opened for business Nov 25 in a supermarket in one of Atlanta’s Orthodox neighborhoods.
The Toco Hils Kroger supermarket is in northeast Atlanta, a few miles north of Emory University and about a mile from an Interstate 85 exit. The location in a 24-hour supermarket meant Robbins could pick up business from non-Jews who wanted a convenient and affordable nosh while shopping.
About 40 percent of his customers are not Jewish, he says. They probably do not know that Chai Peking is supervised by the Atlanta Kashruth Commission or that the restaurant serves only g???att kosher beef. But for customers who do keep kosher, those facts matter.
“Chinese is a good idea,” says Michael Strizhevsky, an Atlanta math professor who says he visits Chai Peking weekly. Before it opened, his only options in the city were a kosher vegetarian restaurant and a kosher pizza shop.
“It’s good,” he says, sitting in a supermarket booth as he polishes off a meal of chicken with rice. “A little too spicy, but generally speaking, it’s all right. Unfortunately, we don’t have much to choose from.”
Other Southern cities have even fewer choices. That may help explain why residents there are willing to order from a kosher Chinese restaurant hundreds of miles away.
Mariashi Groner, director of The Jewish Day School of Charlotte, N.C., arranged to have Chai Peking cater the school’s Purim dinner for 200 guests.
She paid a driver $100 to make the four-hour trip through three states to pick up and deliver large foil pans of moo goo gai pan, egg rolls and fortune cookies.
“It was delicious,” says Groner, whose 185-student school is the city’s only Jewish day school. “I thought it was very good.”
The meal was a treat for Charlotte Jews who keep kosher, she says, because residents can buy only deli sandwiches from a small kosher market.
Joanne Kahane, a Memphis speech pathologist, became another out-of-state customer after a friend tempted her with a few of Chai Peking’s eggrolls.
Her order of sesame beef, vegetable lo mein, vegetable chow mein, wonton soup and eggrolls made an eight-hour trip via Greyhound bus. Packed in dry ice, it needed only to be reheated, she says.
“The sesame beef was out of this world. Really unbelievable,” Kahane says, admitting: “He’s come as close as I’ve tasted to the non-kosher kind.”
She has received several phone calls from friends who want to place a bulk order, which makes her think that Tennessee’s Jews would support their own Chai Peking.
“I’m really trying to convince him to open one up here in Memphis,” she says of Robbins. “We have a Kroger right around the corner from my home. I’m waiting for him!”