Face Behind the Place: Jacob Chi of Chi Restaurant Group
If you have lived in Central Arkansas for any amount of time, then you know the Chi name is synonymous with restaurant royalty in these parts. Now run by managing members Dr. Jasen Chi and his brother, Jacob Chi, the Chi Restaurant Group has six restaurants under its umbrella — Chi’s Chinese Cuisine, Chi’s Asian Cafe, Sushi Cafe, Sushi Cafe West, Prospect Bar & Grill, and Lulu’s Seafood Kitchen. The journey started more than three decades ago for the family, and while it’s never been easy, the Chis continue to battle through an often unmerciful industry.
“Our family moved to Little Rock when I was about 4 years old. We’ve been in Little Rock for nearly 38 years,” Jacob Chi says. “My mother worked three jobs while my father worked the import/export trade. Like most first-generation immigrants in the United States, putting food on the table was the most important job.”
Two years later, his parents put together enough money to open the family’s first restaurant on Geyer Springs Road called Cuisine of China.
“Like many Asian families in the United States, one of the only options available in owning a small business was to start a restaurant,” Chi says.
And his parents did everything, from formulating recipes to constructing booths by hand to hiring the first team members. Even Jacob and Jasen had a role in the new business.
“My first job was being the dishwasher,” Chi says. “I would stand on an empty 5-gallon soy sauce bucket to do my work. My brother served tables and helped every way he could.”
Being part of the restaurant industry is all Chi has ever known.
“It’s part of our DNA,” he says. “We will likely always be involved in the restaurant business. My brother and I are simply stewards of our family’s place in the Central Arkansas restaurant industry.”
That responsibility has weighed heavily on Chi over the past six years, a period filled with heartache, due to the loss of his wife, Valerie, and his mother, Lulu, the matriarch of the family.
“My mother was always the glue that kept our family together. She was our foundation and the hub that kept the wheels turning,” he says. “Similarly, my wife was the controller for our organization. So many things were cross-checked and monitored through our system by my wife. We lost them both to separate bouts of cancer.”
The values his late wife and mother instilled in him continue to guide him to this day.
“My mother taught me how to work and keep moving forward,” Chi says. “My wife taught me how to love and emphasized the importance of being present in times of life that matter the most. Losing the two most important women in my life taught me more than a few lessons. That experience has not been easy by any stretch of the imagination. Both women would often tell me that it’s not about how many times you get knocked down but rather that you get back up to keep moving forward. God has given me the great gift of getting remarried and for our family to continue to grow. It has been a very hard-fought six-year period for our family. But we honor my mother and my late wife by continuing their work and their legacy through our efforts. That will never change.”
And neither will Chi’s ability to navigate the business through the most challenging of times, like what he’s faced over the past two years.
“Our primary focus throughout the pandemic has been to keep our workforce employed,” he says. “Most of our team members have been with us for many years. They and their families depend on our businesses to put food on the table. One of our main functions throughout the pandemic has been to adapt and make swift decisions in order to keep our team in place. Doing so while maintaining high standards and consistency in product and service to our customers has been the biggest challenge.”
As with most good leaders, Chi also does not shy away from voicing his opinion on matters, both related to his business and society as a whole.
“I think, over time, I’ve chosen to speak up about certain issues in an effort to bring unity and solidarity,” he says. “I feel that it’s very easy for the average person to have an opinion about a certain issue. But to do so without being educated on that issue is certainly a trap that many of us fall into. My family has always been passionate about doing things together. I often feel disheartened as I see people aggressively divided on specific issues. Being in the restaurant business is about bringing people together. It’s about managing a team that serves others in an effort to celebrate and enjoy experiences together. So, when I see division, oftentimes I have a real passion to speak up in order to bring people together on some common ground.”
There’s a respect for the past, his family’s values, and the determination it took to build a successful group of restaurants, but, as with any business, an eye is always towards the future. But what exactly does that mean for the Chi Restaurant Group?
“With the unprecedented environment that most restaurants are facing, you’ll see our restaurant footprints get smaller in future locations,” Chi says. “We’re also making many changes in product delivery methods to our customers. Our team has spent the last two years going digital with online ordering for all off-premise orders, including takeout and delivery. We’re also making more investments in digital and social media marketing. As our customers become more tech-savvy, our business model and value proposition to our guests has to adapt as well.
“Our team is also developing a new brand that will feature a menu that fuses Asian flavors and family recipes with textures and profiles that we’ve historically not ventured into. The new brand will also include multiple locations. We’ll be making announcements about this soon. Our family and team are very excited about the future.”
As are we. And even after all these years, Chi and his family are still driven to serve our Central Arkansas community.
“The way we see it is that asking customers to come to our restaurants is like asking our guests to come into our house to socialize, celebrate and enjoy the experience of breaking bread together,” Chi says. “Our family has spent the past 36 years getting to know our guests and their families. So, for me, the most exciting part of my job is watching our guests spend time interacting with each other and our crew. We get the opportunity to be responsible for serving the food our guests feed their families and friends. Having the privilege to take part in that and delighting our guests is the best part of being a restaurateur.”
Here’s to another 36 years.
Quick bites with Jacob!
What are a few of your favorite musical groups?
I am a product of the ’90s, so alternative music and the occasional popular hip-hop song from the era are often on my playlist. My ears are also very fond of Van Halen, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
Are you “forced” to listen to the music your kids love, or do you take a stand?
My children’s musical tastes generally line up with my own. However, I draw the line at listening to mumble rap. Also, if Green Day is playing and my radio is touched, my children and I tend to disagree. If my younger children are in the car, Paw Patrol and Disney songs usually rule the realm.
Where did you travel on your last vacation?
I was fortunate enough to take my family to central Florida for a theme park trip.
Do you personally enjoy cooking? And if so, what’s your favorite thing to make at home?
I enjoy cooking when I have the time for proper preparation. Steaks, burgers, fried catfish and some Italian dishes are mostly what I’ve had the most success in not messing up. I’ll also cook the occasional family recipe, but my family members are often much better at this.
What are two binge-worthy television shows that you’d recommend?
The Sopranos and Game of Thrones.
What is one thing about yourself that most people do not know?
Cycling is one of the things I enjoy that I wish I had more time to do.