ATLANTA -- A kosher Chinese restaurant inside a Kroger store here entered the new millennium with an unexpected sales boost thanks to a little help from Charles Osgood and Dr. Laura.
Sales have climbed at a steady pace anyway ever since the operation, Chai Peking, opened here two years ago, said Raymond Robbins, owner and operator. But when radio personalities Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Charles Osgood told their listeners Chai Peking is a good thing sales went soaring. Indeed, January 2000's sales were up 30% over the same period one year prior, Robbins said.
"Dr. Laura was here in Atlanta for some kind of meeting and she sent someone over to pick up food for her," Robbins said. Later, Schlessinger raved about the food at least twice on her Dr. Laura radio show. Robbins said he wasn't sure of the time frame, but Charles Osgood also tasted Chai Peking's food sometime late last year and mentioned it on radio's Osgood Files.
Chai Peking, aside from the quality of its food, is notable for two things, Robbins said. It's the only kosher Chinese restaurant on the East Coast between Maryland and Boca Raton, Fla., and it's located inside a unit of Cincinnati-based Kroger Co.
Because it's kosher and because it's in a supermarket and because it's good, Chai Peking has attracted the attention of the likes of Dr. Laura and Charles Osgood, food magazines, and the local consumer media such as Atlanta newspapers, Robbins said. And every time the operation is mentioned in the media, a wave of new customers descends on Chai Peking.
"The day after the article about us appeared in the Atlanta Constitution [a daily newspaper that ran an article on Chai Peking Jan. 6], I could count at least 20 new faces myself," Robbins said. He explained that after two years, the huge number of repeat customers he has have become so familiar to him that he notices when there are a lot of new customers.
Robbins struck his deal with Kroger Co. just after the 1997 Summer Olympics here, and the news has been good ever since.
"We're happy and Kroger is happy. It brings more people into the store. The store manager here said he's pleasantly surprised we've done so well, so fast," Robbins said. The reason he launched the concept was partially to add his favorite Chinese dishes to his own kosher diet and also because he saw a need for a kosher, meat Chinese restaurant in the area, the restaurateur said. The Kroger store is situated in the heart of a community that's predominantly orthodox Jewish.
Choosing to locate the operation within the Kroger unit was a matter of survival. Robbins said he recognized that the captive traffic would enhance his chances for success, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
"There's the captive traffic, people in here doing their grocery shopping, and then our rent is good. The rent would be probably five times this in a shopping mall."
Robbins pays Kroger a flat rate for the 500 square feet he leases and then he also pays a percentage of his sales toward utility costs and other overhead.
The restaurant's location inside a Kroger store offers only one disadvantage that Robbins could think of. It's that he can't be open on Christmas Day because Kroger is closed.
"Otherwise, we would do a lot of business then. Dec. 25 is a very good day for a business of this type since Jewish people don't celebrate the day and a lot of eating places are closed. But all the other advantages of being where we are outweigh that one disadvantage," Robbins said.
The "mainly takeout" operation is positioned near the front of the Kroger store, near a seating area that's directly inside the entrance to the right. The Chai Peking service counter, which offers six hot entrees rotated each day, and 97 made-to-order menu items, is situated between the Kroger non-kosher deli and the non-kosher cheese shop.
"It's a good spot because those are busy departments."
Robbins' operation displaced a row of low-profile self-service cases that held packaged sandwiches and salads. Kroger now displays a limited number of self-service sandwiches in its deli and also has launched a made-to-order sandwich program in that department, Robbins said.
While some customers eat Chai Peking fare in-store in the seating area provided, most take it out, Robbins said. And the bulk of sales are skewed toward dinner time, with nearly two thirds of the day's sales tally rung up in the early evening.
"I think people stop in after work to take something home to eat," he said.
Keeping his operation "lean and mean" has enabled Robbins to keep his profits high and they, like his sales, are increasing as he learns more about the business, he said. Robbins is on the job at the restaurant, where all cooking is done on-site, everyday from nine in the morning until late in the evening.
"Remember that I was never in the food business before this, so I had a lot to learn. I overstaffed the place in the beginning, for example," Robbins explained. Nonetheless, Chai Peking was self-supporting from the beginning. Since then, he has also learned to purchase better, to save on labor costs in various ways, and he has also raised his menu prices, Robbins explained.
Most entrees are priced about $1 higher than a non-kosher Chinese operation would charge. That's because of the higher cost of kosher meat, Robbins pointed out.
Word-of-mouth advertising has been the force behind steadily increasing sales, Robbins said. And then, the recent media attention has been a boon. So are several Web sites that list Chai Peking among kosher restaurants.
"We're right off two interstates also, so when people hear about where we are, they know they can get here easily and get back on the highway."
The success story here has been bred sans advertising except for notices in synagogues and Jewish organization bulletins. There's not even a sign outside the Kroger store indicating Chai Peking is inside. A sign out front, however, does figure into Robbins' near-future plans since he already has an OK from Kroger and there's no zoning law against such a sign, he said.
Some unique items pull attention to Chai Peking's menu, Robbins said. One such item is a "Chinese hot dog." That's an all-beef frankfurter wrapped in pastrami, then wrapped in an eggroll wrapper, and then deep-fried. The retail: $1.95. Kosher hamburgers, added last year, are a popular menu item, too. But the best-seller is sesame chicken. Beef with string beans and onions, and chicken in black bean sauce tie for second place on the best-seller list, Robbins said. Entrees, in portions large enough to serve two people, range in price from $7 to $12.
Robbins said that when he recently located a source for kosher black beans, it enabled him to increase menu variety and he expects that to boost sales even further. His operation is the only kosher Chinese operation he knows of that is inside a supermarket, Robbins said. But he's willing to help other entrepreneurs establish such a business.
"Inside a grocery store is the only way we would do it. If we duplicated our operation here, with the same variables, then we could show them how to be successful," Robbins said.
He's not interested in franchising his concept, but would offer consulting to get others started in the business. Aside from making more money on a concept that has worked, Robbins said, his mission is "to make it easier for Jewish people in other communities to keep kosher."