Andy Fung and Hon Long Siu worked at Panda Express as executive chef and director of operations, respectively, in the 1980s and ’90s. Having more than 40 years of experience in the restaurant business, they decided to venture on their own, and took their culinary and management experience and opened the first Rice Garden in Long Beach, Calif., in 1994. The partners wanted to bring freshness and quality to Chinese food in a convenient, economic and quick way. Today, Rice Garden covers nine states with 38 locations and the company plans to continue growing and expanding.
In 2007, the Rice Garden founders brought in a private equity partner and decided to take a step back from managing the restaurants. Arbor Investments, a firm that specializes in the food and beverage industry, came in to continue what Fung and Siu had started, respecting the quality of the food and putting together new growth strategies.
Kevin Dunn, a 30-year veteran of the food industry, was enlisted and put together a leadership team to establish new growth strategies. “I was thrilled to come on board after I met Siu and Andy and tasted the food,” explains Dunn.
Secret in the Sauce
Bill Sommers, vice president of operations, joined Rice Garden in 2008 and has decades of experience in the food industry. He says the freshness of the food is what separates Rice Garden from its competitors.
“We still make fresh many of our sauces in our kitchens,” Sommers says. “We take great pride in preparing everything fresh from recipes that our founder Andy Fung developed over years of work in Hong Kong and in the United States.”
“There is some prep work off site to maintain consistency and product safety and quality,” Sommers explains. “Much of our menu is prepared fresh in the restaurant.”
The quality and attention that food gets at Rice Garden is evident in two of its signature dishes. The secret behind the popularity of these two menu items might be their unusual preparation.
“Our signature dishes – barbecue pork and teriyaki chicken – are to die for,” Sommers says. “We roast them in an oven, slow cook them – anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes – just to cook them. In the fast-food restaurant industry, this is unheard of.”
Although barbecue pork and teriyaki chicken are two of Rice Garden’s most popular dishes, the chain’s offerings are varied, fresh and ever-evolving. Sommers says some of the new offerings that will come to Rice Garden this year include cold food options like noodle dishes, salads, wraps and soups. These new selections are in addition to what each restaurant tailors to its own consumers’ preferences.
Room to Grow
Rice Garden restaurants are located within a host, which could be a mall, college campus, casino, supermarket or similar location. The company’s approach to growth is based on its high-quality food and customer satisfaction.
Newton Hoang, marketing specialist for Rice Garden, is in charge of growing brand recognition and expanding the restaurant’s presence in different markets. “The main challenge we have is creating a larger sense of brand awareness,” he explains. “We are marketing the brand across multiple platforms, social media, direct print and through partnerships with our hosts and larger purveyors, such as Pepsi.
“What makes our brand stand out is our appeal through time-honored cooking techniques which humanizes us, and we leverage that tone in our marketing,” Hoang adds.
The company plans to launch an average of 10 to 20 restaurants per year through franchising. “Rice Garden also is considering expanding its offerings to large food management companies like the Compass Group, Sodexo Inc. or Aramark,” Sommer says.
Dunn explains that the ultimate goal is to be the primary choice when it comes to Asian food within host locations. “When a host is deciding what restaurants to choose, a Mexican place, a hamburger joint, etc., we want to be their Asian choice,” Dunn adds.