Yong Zhao is the Founder and CEO of junzi kitchen, a modern fast-casual concept that makes homestyle and everyday Chinese food accessible.
Yong was born and raised in Liaoning, northeast of China. He received a Bachelor degree in Life Science from Yuanpei School at Peking University, and then received a MESc and attended the doctoral program in environmental science at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
In 2014, Yong founded junzi kitchen and has been leading the team as CEO ever since. Being the mastermind and visionary of junzi kitchen, Yong Zhao is harnessing the tide of quick-service Chinese food with his quickly expanding restaurant concept and leading the omnichannel shift in eating with innovative solutions such as ghost kitchen. With locations in New Haven and Manhattan, the team most recently opened their fourth location near Bryant Park, New York, and the first delivery-only location at SoHo.
Junzi is currently one of the highest rated Chinese fast-casual restaurants in the U.S, and has been featured in mainstream media such as Vogue, Forbes, The New York Times, Bon Appetit and more. Junzi was named one of Fast Casual Magazine’s “Top 20 Fast Casual Brands to Watch in 2019” and “Top 100 Movers & Shakers”, and QSR Magazine’s “The 40/40 List for 2019: America’s Hottest Startup Fast Casuals”.
What inspired you all to create this company?
When I first arrived at Yale for my PhD in Environmental Science, despite that I lived above a Chinese restaurant called Great Wall, and that’s how I was introduced to a vernacular Chinese cuisine called American Chinese food, we missed the freshly-prepared, vegetable-forward, homestyle Chinese cooking we grew up with, which was not available anywhere in the US. So we built junzi kitchen, the first fast-casual Chinese restaurant concept dedicated to customizable homestyle Chinese food. Junzi menu features build-your-own Chinese noodles, rice bowls, salads, and wraps, so a tasty and nourishing meal can be quick, healthy and affordable.
Over the years we came to understand and appreciate American Chinese takeouts. But we saw a significant shift in the economic and education status of China-US immigration: an entire generation of American Chinese restaurants like Great Wall is going to close or retire in the next five years. In 2018 alone, the total number of Chinese restaurants in the US declined by 10%. In 2019, junzi closed $5 million Pre-A, and a part of this funding is dedicated to research and prototype a new-generation American Chinese takeout restaurant.
What distinguishes your company and product in the market?
Junzi is the first fast-casual Chinese restaurant brand in the US with a focus on bringing vegetable-forward, homestyle Chinese food to the many. We believe in a good meal and its power to bring diverse people and communities together.
First incubated at Yale Entrepreneurial Institute four years ago, we now own and operate five locations and are one of the first to partner with delivery-only ghost kitchens in NYC. junzi is loved by both Chinese and non-Chinese guests: we are lucky to have an average of 4.3-star reviews on Yelp and Google, one of the highest ratings for Chinese restaurants in the US, and has been featured on Vogue, Forbes, The New York Times, Bon Appetit and CBS. In 2019, Chef Lucas received the StartChefs Rising Star Award, and was named Eater Young Guns and Forbes 30 under 30, while junzi was named one of Fast Casual Magazine’s “Top 20 Fast Casual Brands to Watch” and “Top 100 Movers & Shakers” as well as QSR Magazine’s “The 40 America’s Hottest Startup Fast Casuals”.