The American Dream is alive and well at this on-trend asian concept. JW Lee found his calling early, watching his siblings enjoy dishes he had prepared. That was in Korea and, after six years of cooking in the restaurant industry there, Lee decided to immigrate to the U.S. for the “vast amount of culinary variety and the progressive thinking when it comes to combining ethnic foods.”
Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis – Lee sampled them all. “Now Denver is my home.” Here, he’s teamed up with two other ambitious immigrants, Yamaguchi Katsuhia and Munehiro Kitasato, both from Japan. Menya Group is a product of their collaboration: “Together we discuss ways to improve our product, evaluate the menu and create new dishes. We may not always agree on the process, but the end result is what counts.” According to Lee, Menya basically means “noodle house.” And Menya Group keeps adding houses to its QSR neighborhood.
“Shamrock Foods provides us quality asian products that reduce prep time and are consistent on flavor and cost with the items we offer.”
You started with full-service Wasabi Sushi Bar. What sparked adding a second concept?
JWL: Japanese cuisine was becoming very popular, and the west side of Metro Denver was lacking in that type of food. Wasabi was my first innovation and contained elements of my immigrant journey. Noodles were very popular there, and I wanted to expand on its success. Also, the Asian population is growing about 4% per year, which gives us a great opportunity to provide familiar foods to them. And our menu offers a delicious bowl of hot soup for everyone when temperatures outside are cold.
Ramen, sushi, and Hawaiian-style poke are at the forefront of cuisine today – anything else you’re looking at?
JWL: Of course, we’re always watching the industry and checking our ideas with trends. While we’re making our current concept stronger, we’re also looking at launching a mix of Korean fusion and the traditional Korean BBQ restaurant. Our leading role in this market is exploring and developing tasty Asian-American cuisine.
How does delivery play into your strategy?
JWL: All of our restaurants can deliver using Uber or GrubHub. Our downtown locations at times have a 30% takeaway rate due to office employees or apartment dwellers grabbing a meal.
You’re also making a play for local sourcing as you grow your business.
JWL: I’m looking forward to making all my ramen using Colorado products when available. Being able to advertise that Menya makes a ramen using all local meats, grains, vegetables and even the water would be unique in the marketplace.
How do you approach retaining employees in a tight labor market?
JWL: Proper and informative training is key to retaining employees who feel they understand the operation. We offer benefits and an opportunity to grow with the company. They’ll learn how to manage a team, the business of management and may have an opportunity to become a restaurant partner.
You say Shamrock Foods has dedicated ethnic vendors and carries about 99% of the items you need?
JWL: We’ve been partners with Shamrock Foods since 2007. Their growth with the Pacific-Rim division has helped us immensely; to get quality Asian products instead of ordering or making them ourselves has saved labor and shipping costs. Serving utensils are often forgotten when catering, and I know they have them. In fact, I source all my non-food items through Shamrock Foods.
And Shamrock Foods associates are your business partners, too?
JWL: I know I can contact Hubert Chang and Helen Yuen whenever I need products. My restaurants have very busy days, and if I run out of something they are always there to help. Hubert has been hands-on providing all materials. He has great product knowledge and truly wants to see us be successful.
Check out more at menyacolorado.com
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