“When we opened, we knew we had to have good Chinese food, and it had to be kosher,” Chai Peking owner Raymond Robbins said during a visit to his small, brightly colored eatery inside Kroger at the Toco Hill Shopping Center.
Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Chai Peking does not advertise that it serves only kosher meals.
“At the beginning we thought that might be a deterrent to business. We just wanted people to try the food without negative thoughts. This way they would have an open mind,” Robbins said. “So if you serve good food, that was the key, because then you can attract everybody. Jews would see the name (chai means life in Hebrew) and identify with that. Otherwise, nothing says we’re kosher.”
Robbins tapped into other markets and avoided depending solely on Jewish customers because a relatively small number keep kosher, he explained, and because the Orthodox community has limited spending money.
“We have repeat and loyal customers within the Jewish and Muslim communities, and now a lot of business from the gluten-free community, people who have celiac disease, those who are on the fad of no wheat — we cater to those groups also. We get new people all the time,” he said.
The 20th anniversary coincides with Chai Peking having its best year since opening, though it went through hard times after 9/11 and during the economic crash of 2008. Robbins said people were afraid to spend money during a crisis, but his landlord helped him through the ups and downs.
He came to Atlanta from Florida in 1974 after graduating from the University of Florida, working first as a fur buyer for Rich’s and then as the manager of retail operations at Perimeter Mall.
“I’ve done a few things,” said Robbins, 67. “This is my seventh career since I’ve been here, and it’s the most gratifying one because I make it easy for Jewish people to keep kosher and for Muslims and others to have kosher food. I feel good about that.”
The advantage of being inside a supermarket is the natural exposure to pedestrian traffic, but Robbins said his reach is far wider, with Chai Peking having established a solid reputation in New York and even as far away as Israel.
He also revealed that Chai Peking is now for sale because Robbins wants to spend more time with his grandchildren and eventually move to Israel.
“We’re very thankful and grateful to everybody around us: G-d, suppliers, employees — they all work to make us successful,” he said. “You must be willing to listen to others. You don’t have to do what they say, but you can’t know it all.”
Robbins knows how to get attention as well. He asked on Facebook for customers to make donations for tzedakah to mark the anniversary day in mid-November, then posted that he received more than $30,000. In reality, it was $40, which went to charity.
“That was a joke,” he said. “Everyone flipped out. It created conversation.”
In any case, his restaurant is not just about turning a profit. “It’s not always about the money,” he said. “You need it to live and pay your bills, but if you can do something for someone else at the same time other than just for yourself, then I think it’s a better deal.”