Jahzmin French has loved the food industry since his first job as a waiter in high school. Two decades later, the industry veteran came to Charlotte as the owner of the local franchise of JINYA Ramen Bar.
Newly opened on the ground floor of the Ally building on S. Tryon Street, the Japanese scratch food serves its namesake – the ramen noodles – along with bowls of rice, desserts and other inspired dishes. Japanese. The site can accommodate 125 people and has a full bar.[Also read: Uptown Charlotte gets a new Black-owned restaurant]
The Charlotte restaurant is the first in North Carolina for the Los Angeles-based chain, which was started in 2010 by Tomo Takahashi, a Japanese immigrant.
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French, who co-owns the Uptown franchise with her business partner Brad Phelps, said she plans to open a second JINYA, in SouthPark, in early 2022, followed by others in the Charlotte market.
Bringing the JINYA brand to Charlotte during a pandemic, she says, came with its challenges, but she is inspired by customer reviews and the restaurant’s first sales.
Ramen, she says, is “all the craze”.
I met the French during a busy lunch hour to find out how she does it – owning, managing, breaking glass ceilings. And ramen, of course.
Q. How did it all start, opening a JINYA Ramen Bar in downtown Charlotte?
French Jahzmin: Brad and I have been partners for three years. I met him when I was running my own restaurant consulting agency. At that time his dream was to make restaurants, and I was the catering expert, so he and his wife looked for me, talked about what they wanted to do, and they said we were looking for a partner, and they wanted partner with me. The rest is history. We had restaurants in Louisiana. We chose to do JINYA during the pandemic, and since then have sold this brand (in Louisiana) and decided to focus only on JINYA in North Carolina.
Q. You said you guys had restaurants in Louisiana? What kind of restaurants were they and what has become of them?
JF: We had three – two in New Orleans and one in Baton Rouge. It was barbecue and Louisiana cuisine. The pandemic has hit the restaurant industry hard. Honestly, it was a devastating decision to make. We thought about people who need to work and people who might not feel safe at work, but you need people to run a restaurant, so we made a very difficult decision and helped everything the world around us as much as possible to find jobs or whatever it was like. With JINYA, we kind of got scared because we are still in a pandemic right now. We kind of took the plunge and opened anyway.
Q. Your catering consulting agency; what was the path that led you there?
JF: I was with the Hooters brand for over 10 years. I resigned as the first African-American general manager of the Hooters Bayou-Fox franchise on the Gulf Coast. Then I went to West Palm Beach, Florida, where I was the first female CEO at the corporate level. I started my business in West Palm when I was working full time. It was a commotion and very difficult. Then, when I came back to Pensacola, I really took the plunge and worked as a full-time consultant. It went really well, really fast, and it was really cool to see how many people need help with the restoration operations. I loved doing it. I suspended my activity as a consultant to make JINYA and develop and grow. When everything is settled and I have the right leaders in place, I will resurrect my business and focus on consulting.
Q. Has the restaurant / hotel industry always been a dream for you?
JF: When I was in high school I tried to get a job at McDonalds, and I don’t know why, but they never hired me, and all my friends worked there, so I was very sad. But I went to apply for Steak ‘n Shake, got the job, and loved it.
Q. What did you like about it?
JF: Oh man, the joy of talking to different people. You have a table there, then you have another. It’s almost like you’re having fun. I’m not a chef or anything, but I love the food. And I just have a passion for watching people enjoy good food.
Q. The black presence in the restaurant industry is very low, especially when it comes to ownership. There really aren’t that many black women-owned restaurants in Charlotte, especially in the upscale neighborhoods. How does it feel for you to be in this space, from an industry perspective?
JF: It’s exciting. I appreciate all the love and support I have received. I had no idea how big of a deal this could have been. My goal was just passion… I knew it was a great product and a great brand, and we knew it had to come here. Honestly, it just makes me feel humbled to have the opportunity and to be a light to some people. My heart is just full. I’ve had times where I’m just like, wow, I’m blown away. I even cried with some of the guests here, unfortunately, because I’m at work and I hate my emotions showing a bit. But they brought me to tears.
Q. What advice would you give to someone who someday wants to be where you are as a restaurant owner?
JF: Number one is self-help. Don’t wait for someone to teach you anything. Unfortunately, there are people who don’t want you to outdo them because they can see your work ethic and motivation. Use whatever resources you have that are free. Put your foot in the industry. Start as a host, start as a waiter, learn all the roles of the restaurant, as this will enrich your knowledge. You will also be able to manage well this way, once you understand all the challenges of each position. And go for it. It is not easy. I don’t know the last time I slept really well. I’m exhausted, but my passion drives me and the support I’ve received from the people here in Charlotte and from my phenomenal team.
Q. Speaking of staff, many restaurants have difficulty finding staff. As opening a new business during the pandemic, has this been a challenge for all of you as well?
JF: Absoutely. When my managers and I were hiring for this location, I told them to put the experience aside; let’s focus on human beings, see if they are a good person, if they have team spirit. We did a lot of advertising saying “no experience needed”. And honestly, for any business owner, sometimes that’s better because you can mold them into how you want them to work for your brand rather than giving them bad habits. And then for people who have experience, they already know things, which is super useful.
Q. With ramen, it’s a craze in a way. There are some who have known him forever, and now a lot of people in Charlotte are going to find out for the first time. What about this dish that makes it so popular? And is there any difference to the packaged ramen noodles that a lot of people grew up eating?
JF: Almost everyone in the world has been exposed to pack ramen, and I experienced it while I was at Alabama State University. I still have a package in my pantry now. But what we’re doing here at JINYA is just on a whole new level. This is real Japanese food to scratch. The food is amazing. We cook the broth for more than 18 hours. We cut, slice and slice everything. It is absolutely cool. I think it opens the mind to real authentic ramen that we really can’t find here in the US. And Jinya did a fantastic job creating them and bringing them from Japan to LA ten years ago. And now allows us to open in North Carolina. We are store number 40, and we will continue.
Q. And there are already a few ramen restaurants in Charlotte. What is the difference between JINYA Ramen Bar and these places?
JF: We of course have other restaurants in Charlotte in this category. But JINYA is apart because we have the most variety. I think JINYA focused on the vegan options – we have the vegetable, chicken and pork broth. The ambiance and the atmosphere are intact. We love to have fun here. The food, the music, the decor, the ambiance is what sets us apart.