Reuven Michoel Robbins has had a winding career path that led to an enduring kosher Chinese restaurant inside Toco Hills Kroger. Landing in Atlanta in 1974, he was a fur buyer for Rich’s, then he ran shoe repair shops. Before the ’96 Olympics here, he knew the power of a big box store and was looking to hitch his shoe repair into Walmart for obvious ready-made economic benefits.
Concurrently, his light bulb was signaling that Gary Lebowsky was the Jewish manager at Toco Hills Kroger, smack in the middle of Atlanta’s largest Orthodox neighborhood. Robbins said, “Gary did the selling for me [to Kroger corporate] and offered me an unused space in the store. Thus Chai Peking’s birth in November of 1997.” It celebrated its 22nd anniversary last month.
Since Robbins is a competent connector, he realized that an important part was missing: how to make the food! He was friendly with the Ing family, which owned the Lotus Garden Restaurant on Buford Highway adjacent to Snack and Shack, then the nexus of a large Jewish crowd affectionately called “The Juf.” Robbins said, “The Ings helped me hire cooks and [provided] recipes. Twenty-two years later, I have five full-time employees, some of whom have been with me for 21 years. My philosophy is, ‘If you take care of your employees and customers, they work for you in return.’”
Robbins assures that everything is strictly kosher. For example, there can be no oyster sauce. Since most Asian food does not include dairy, he has a huge menu and multiple traditional categories. With 35 percent of his business non-Jewish, the food is as authentic and tasty as a non-kosher establishment’s. Of course, no pork or shrimp. According to Robbins, “Most everything is made on site from our four master sauces. Egg roll skins and wrappers are shipped from New York. Also, we respect peoples’ diets and have a gluten-free menu with items like udon noodles and substitute soy sauce for celiac-sensitive diners.”
Doing retail business inside a busy store has advantages: it’s closed only on Christmas Day, though Chai Peking closes on Friday at 1:30 and all day Saturday to observe the Sabbath. Robbins does a huge volume on Friday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
He likes that he is positioned on the right at the front of the store to begin the shopping experience. “That way people can pay, grocery shop and return to pick up the order. Anything located by the cash registers would not get as great of a response as people are tired and want to exit. We cook while they shop. They get into the store and realize that sometimes it’s easier to pick up food than to cook from scratch. The good news is that Jews traditionally like Chinese food,” he notes.
Since Atlanta is the Jewish hub of the Southeast, Chai Peking caters brit milah, weddings, b’nai mitzvah, and even events at the Merchandise Mart. “I did a bar mitzvah in Asheville, and once shipped 28 gallons of chicken soup to Nashville. We sent seven dozen egg rolls to Missouri. I like the ‘people part’ of the business. Sometimes I recognize customers twice a year who come to Atlanta on business or on their way driving kids to summer camp.”
The menu is extensive: appetizers, soups, chop suey, low mein, hot and spicy, steamed, moo shu, veal, curries, fish, American fare. … The most popular item is General Tso Chicken.
“Our dumplings are very popular. We steam, deep fry or pan fry them. We often take customer’s ideas to expand the menu like the Chinese hotdog, wrapped in pastrami inside an egg roll and deep fried. The colorful zucchini, squash and chicken dish is light and popular with women.”
A man of faith, Michoel notes, “I’m not in competition with anyone. On Rosh Hashanah, it is determined what I get. I do the best I can to make a living and make it easier for people to keep a kosher home. On a lighter note, when I see customers eating, I ask ‘Is anything ok?’ That’s an old Jewish joke.”