By Rachel Stein
One of the unfathomable nonbiblical mysteries of Judaism is the affinity of many Jews for Chinese cuisine. Reuven Michoel Robbins, the owner of Chai Peking, shares a glimpse of life inside the longest-operating kosher meat restaurant in Atlanta.
Those of us who frequent Kroger in the Toco Hill Shopping Center can’t imagine life without Chai Peking. The devotion, concern and patience of Robbins and his wife, Trudy, while serving customers are part and parcel of Jewish life here.
AJT: What are the roots of Chai Peking?
Robbins: Twenty years ago my wife, Trudy, and I were in Los Angeles during winter break. We dined frequently at Chick’n Chow, a kosher Chinese to-go restaurant. During that time, I was interested in changing jobs and had my eyes open for a new employment opportunity. “What do you think of bringing a kosher Chinese restaurant to Atlanta?” I asked Trudy, and she loved the idea.
Gary Lubowski, Kroger’s capable manager, was equally enthusiastic and approached his superiors with the idea. The powers that be were ready to run with the project, but 18 long months passed until they were ready for us to open.
AJT: Why did it take 18 months?
Robbins: 1996 was the year the Olympics came to Atlanta. Kroger was very busy opening additional stores to accommodate the expected overflow of consumers. Although the extended wait seemed difficult at the time, ultimately the year and a half proved beneficial, giving me the time I needed to learn all I could about the restaurant business.
AJT: What was your motivation for establishing a kosher Chinese restaurant?
Robbins: Giving something back to the community, making it easier for people to keep kosher, and providing an adequate livelihood to support my family were the three main catalysts for launching my new endeavor.
One writer penned an article condemning us to fail before we ever opened our doors, and another prominent individual called my vision a “pipe dream.” With G-d’s blessings, we are currently in our 18th year.
AJT: How do you relate to Chinese workers and their understanding of kosher?
Robbins: My workers know we have to check eggs for blood spots, vegetables for insects, and to wait for us to turn on the flames before they begin cooking. They are very astute and respectful and have a great love for the many, varied Jewish holidays. Who wouldn’t anticipate paid vacation?
My head cook has been with us for 17 years, and my second cook is with us for almost two years. I’ve told my cooks, “You don’t work for me; we work together. I just call the shots, but we’re a team.” They work with loyalty and devotion, and we’re grateful to have them on board.
AJT: What lessons have you culled along the way?
Robbins: Sunday was predicted to be my busiest day, but sometimes it’s slow. To my surprise, different days can be jam-packed. Throughout these 18 years, I’ve come to realize that G-d is running the show. Sometimes people ask me if the competition hurts my business. “Of course not,” I assure them. I know the secret: My income is determined by G-d on Rosh Hashanah, and no one can take away what’s supposed to be mine. The challenge is keeping that focus no matter what’s going on in my life, but I know it’s the truth, and I do my best to internalize that reality.
We’re employed by our customers; they continue to support us. If we take care of our customers, they’ll take care of us. Like anything in life, what you give is what you get.
I’ve learned to keep my mouth closed and do my best to listen to what our customers are saying and what they are not saying. It’s important to be a good listener. And patience, patience and more patience is an invaluable commodity. Because when Jewish people are hungry, watch out! I know not to take things personally and have developed a thicker skin. Often customers simply want their food and need to go; they’re not trying to be curt.
AJT: Do gentiles frequent your store?
Robbins: Thirty percent of my business is non-Jewish, whether they are Muslims or other nationalities. We also cater to people who are gluten-free and to those afflicted with celiac disease. The app Findmeglutenfree has helped us immeasurably as we endeavor to provide for varied dietary specifications.
AJT: What are the origins of Thursday night cholent?
Robbins: Can it be that there are families in our community who don’t have enough food to eat? Startled and dismayed by the discovery, my wife and I conceived the idea of making and selling cholent on Thursday nights, with 100 percent of our proceeds going to support Yad L’Yad, a local organization that benefits our Jewish friends and neighbors who have come upon hard times. Cholent nights have become an opportunity that enables us to give tzedakah on a regular basis.
AJT: Are your customers strictly local?
Robbins: Our customers come from all over the U.S. People come to Atlanta for business, and they always come back to Chai Peking. Many years ago we did a function in Nashville for 150 people. Someone flew a private plane to pick up the order, part of which included 28 gallons of soup. I had never seen such a huge quantity of soup in my life. We used to fly orders out on dry ice, but FedEx regulations make it much more difficult to do so, claiming it’s a fire hazard. We’ve driven food down to Jacksonville, Fla., using coolers. If people want our food, we’ll get it to them.
AJT: What are some memorable moments?
Robbins: One lady was very ill with cancer and was not able to tolerate most foods. She would order our egg drop soup, insisting that it made her feel better. Those were the best moments, the ones that will last a lifetime. We still have the thank-you note she wrote.
It’s very gratifying when people enjoy your food. When New Yorkers confide, “Your Chinese is better than any of our Chinese restaurants back home,” it’s uplifting.
Meeting people from all over the world is a broadening and spectacular experience. People come from all over, returning every few years, and we develop relationships. Sometimes I’ll forget a name, but I never forget a face.
The number of part-time boys who once worked for me and now have smicha (rabbinical ordination) is incredible. I’m not sure what the connection is between Chinese food and the rabbinate; it must be another one of those imponderables.
When a reporter called from The New York Times to interview us, we wondered if we were dreaming. That interview led to our being featured in a book called “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” which was, hold on to your seats, ladies and gentlemen, on the New York Times best-seller list. Chai Peking was written up in the chapter titled “Why Is Chow Mein the Chosen Food of the Chosen People?”
AJT: How is working with the Atlanta Kashruth Commission?
Robbins: Atlanta Kashruth works hand in hand with me, and we enjoy a congenial relationship. As long as we do what we’re supposed to do and follow their guidelines, everything proceeds smoothly.
AJT: What are some challenges?
Robbins: We wish we could offer a broader menu but are restricted due to space limitations.
AJT: What is your vision for the future?
Robbins: I would like to open Chai Peking in Israel and hope to fulfill that dream after our children graduate high school and middle school.
AJT: Any closing remarks?
Robbins: I can hardly believe 18 years have passed since we opened. When a huge line snaked in front of our counter on that awesome first day, I reminded my team, “Don’t look at the line and feel overwhelmed. Just look at the person standing in front of you.” With that in mind, we could properly tend to each person’s requests and have tried to continue in that vein ever since. We are deeply appreciative to G-d and our clientele, who have supported us for so many years. We are also grateful to our vendors and to our landlord, Kroger. Without their support throughout the years, we wouldn’t be here today.