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Organic Chinese restaurants hunger for acceptance

In the San Gabriel Valley, where cheap Chinese food is plentiful, some restaurateurs are going against the grain by offering more healthful but more costly fare.

March 07, 2013|By Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times
  • Bella Lau, head chef at Farm Cuisine in Monterey Park, fills a bowl with organic corn soup. Owner Jonathan Tam says friends think he’s doomed, but “I’m surrounded by hundreds of Chinese restaurants, and I have no competitors.”
Bella Lau, head chef at Farm Cuisine in Monterey Park, fills a bowl with organic… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

As a doctor, Jonathan Tam has a message for San Gabriel Valley residents: Eat your vegetables.

Farm Cuisine, his new organic restaurant in Monterey Park, is trying to get cost-conscious Chinese diners to buy healthful organic takes on traditional Chinese dishes.

But the pricier meals are a tough sell in the heavily Asian American valley, where more than 500 Chinese restaurants are in a pitched battle to offer authentic dishes at ever lower prices.

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Area restaurants wear B and C food-safety grades like badges of honor, and diners line up for cheap fried pork dumplings and dim sum at $2 a plate. Tam's dumplings cost $7 and come steamed, with organic spinach wrappers.

Even some of his friends think he's doomed, Tam said. But he said he is exactly where he wants to be.

"I'm surrounded by hundreds of Chinese restaurants," Tam said, "and I have no competitors."

Chinese organic restaurants face unique challenges, said Jillian Cam, the head chef and co-owner of Green Zone in San Gabriel, one of the first organic restaurants in the area.

"Chinese are really stubborn and traditional eaters," said Cam, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. "Our culture is really centered on taste. It's got to be healthy, but you have to give them something that they can remember from their childhoods."

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Organic dishes didn't click with customers when Green Zone opened in 2006. Customers wanted to know what constituted organic food. Was it grown in Cam's backyard? Was it fertilized with manure? And wasn't that dirty?

Preaching the benefits of organic food and sustainable farming was fruitless, she said, as was trying to explain what genetically modified produce was.

"If you bring all that out, they don't want to hear it," Cam said.

Cam labored to create traditional dishes without using unhealthful fats, and she avoided monosodium glutamate, a common additive in many Chinese dishes that has been linked to such side effects as headaches and thirst. But customers had trouble paying a few dollars more for benefits they couldn't see. "Chicken is chicken," they told Cam.

Now, though, Cam, Tam and others may be tapping into a growing market of health-conscious, socially responsible Chinese food lovers, according to a January report from market research firm Mintel Group Ltd. in London.

Asian Americans are the ethnic group most willing to eat healthful food and to advocate sustainability of food sources, the Mintel report found.

But using organic ingredients can drive up a restaurant's food costs as much as 5%, said Nima Samadi, a restaurant industry analyst at market research firm IBISWorld in Santa Monica. That cuts deeply into profit margins that already are razor thin.

The median before-tax margin at full-service restaurants is 2% to 3%, according to the National Restaurant Assn. Figures for organic restaurants weren't available.

Industrywide, organic and natural restaurants are gaining market share, said Nick Setyan, an analyst for Wedbush Securities.

But in the San Gabriel Valley, diners still resist new food trends.

David Gong, secretary of the American Chinese Restaurant Assn., knows exactly how difficult it can be to get Chinese diners to pay more.

For years, Gong figured that the intense price competition among Chinese restaurants was causing unnecessary declines in profits, food quality and service. In 2006, he opened the Kitchen, a 5,000-square-foot restaurant in Alhambra that offered more healthful versions of Chinese classics along with more modern dishes.

Lauded by critics but shunned by price-conscious diners, the restaurant closed after three years, Gong said.

"The competition was too fierce, and [competitors'] prices were too low," Gong said in Mandarin.

Even so, Tam, whose first attempt at a health-food restaurant flopped about 10 years ago in Pasadena, envisions a whole chain of Farm Cuisine franchises in the future. He and a partner invested about $250,000 in December to lease the space formerly occupied by Ace Kitchen, a conventional authentic Chinese restaurant.

At Farm Cuisine, a fresh smoothie accompanies each lunch, sauces are made fresh in-house and monosodium glutamate is nowhere to be found. Lunches are priced at $10 to $15, and dinners cost a little more. But customers aren't quite plentiful yet.

"The most common question I get is, 'What is this?' " said Tam, an obstetrician.

The food, though, is popular with younger diners, a key target for organic restaurants. If Chinese restaurants can find a taste that is equally authentic and organic, "it's fulfilling a somewhat needed niche in the market," IBISWorld's Samadi said.

Cam found a balance in a single dish: organic Hainan chicken.

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