By: Christian Lee (Loyola Junior)
In times of trouble, few things bring us more comfort than food and family. For owners of local businesses, this statement remains true considering the intimate nature of serving the same, small, and specific clientele for many years. Indeed, the familiar faces that routinely enter their establishments become a second, found family.
Danjia Jiang (35), the proprietor of Rice Thai Cafe (6744 N Sheridan Rd), a restaurant that specializes in Thai and Chinese cuisine, is one such individual who treats her customers like relatives stopping by for dinner on a frigid evening. Though she knows all too well the challenges that come with managing a small business during great uncertainty, Jiang stresses the importance of giving back to the community that has supported her and her family through recent times.
After years of persistence, Jiang now feels more at peace with her current position, both regarding herself and the restaurant.
*interview has been edited for length and clarity
RogersEdge Reporter: You always seem to greet your customers with a very noticeable energy of vibrant friendliness. What do you do on rainy days when finding motivation seems difficult?
Jiang: Of course, being able to pay the bills gives me a lot of motivation (laughter). Also, another thing is, when we become a certain age, I think people start to see how we value things a little differently. I know around your age, spending time studying and with friends is really important. For me it’s just being able to live today to the fullest.
RER: So being able to live in the moment?
Jiang: Yeah, exactly. For me right now, there are some limitations… of course, it’s never too late to dream, no one should ever think that. But for me, I just have to consider my current situation and what I can do about it.
RER: I never really thought about it like that actually. I’d say I’m always caught up worrying about the future and distant prospects, I just can’t focus on right now.
Jiang: Yeah, also when I first started this business, I didn’t feel that way [about being friendly to customers]. Honestly, I thought I was just doing my job preparing food and serving it. Even after becoming a mother, for the first two years, I don’t think I was all that nice. I was caught up in the idea that because I’m the owner, I ultimately have the power in the restaurant… but now looking back this is such a silly way of thinking. How could I think that way myself, then go to another restaurant and expect the staff there to treat me with the respect and kindness I wanted? Would I really want to keep going somewhere if the treatment I was getting wasn’t the best?
RER: So it seems like you really place a lot of value in the restaurant not just as a place to eat some food but also as an experience.
Jiang: Yeah, people should want to spend their money at a location because they really do enjoy what they’re putting their money towards.
RER: From the amount of regulars you know by face and name, it definitely seems like people do enjoy visiting this place. You’ve been in business for around six years now, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced since? Not just relating to COVID but in a larger sense?
Jiang: I think the biggest challenge has always been about finding a balance between labor and price. I mean, I’ve always wanted to raise the price for the items on our menu for a really long time now, but there’s definitely a limit. I have to take into consideration whether or not that’s really fair for you guys.
RER: Guys as in us students?
Jiang: Yeah, because being completely honest you guys really do help support me a lot. Right now, I’m not saying I have a lot to work with, but at least I’m capable of paying my bills and surviving; I have a fixed income. But I know students don’t have that luxury, like when I hear about how much you are paying for the dorms. I’m in a position where I can still help out in some ways, and I know if I raise the prices by two or three dollars that would start to add up for everyone. I would feel really bad standing there [the counter] charging 15 dollars for noodles. Yes, yes, if I were a pure business person I would raise it. I really want to raise the price sometimes, especially when business gets slow, but I can’t do that.
RER: I think it’s really interesting you make the distinction between yourself and a pure business person, I’m guessing there’s a lot more that makes you happy when operating Rice Thai than just monetary profit?
Jiang: Of course making money is nice. But I think sharing, sharing with my customers. Even now, you’re sharing your story and I’m sharing mine. Especially just hearing things from you guys who go to Loyola. I’m able to learn so many things because I was born in China. Since I was raised in China, there are so many things I don’t know that I’m able to learn by just talking with everyone who walks through the doors to my restaurant and I think this is what makes me happy. I won’t lie and say I don’t complain, but truth be told complaining doesn’t really change anything. Yeah, for sure, sharing definitely just boosts my perception of life. Just by listening to other peoples’ stories.
RER: No doubt the students at Loyola have a lot to talk about? I’d assume there’s just so much even I haven’t heard about yet.
Jiang: Yeah, yeah exactly. Another thing too is when you guys stop coming. Like a few months ago, some of you guys graduated; you’ll end up becoming doctors, work in hospitals, have children. I look at this and think life’s full of hope.
RER: I see I see, this is very inspiring actually. Truly. For you, Rice Thai might be a means to sustain yourself and your family, but also just a means to foster social interactions with people in the community.
Jiang: Yeah, exactly. I want it that way because quite honestly no one treats us like a business. We want to treat you guys like you are family.
RER: In the situation that someone who isn’t very familiar with you and the business walks in and isn’t satisfied with your food or service, how do you use that negative feedback to improve your restaurant?
Jiang: In the past I would have just said “yeah, whatever.” But now I really try to see what’s wrong with what they had. Three, four years ago I would not have put much thought into it. Now I think maybe I can offer them a better option. I always try to think in terms of “would I want to go back to my restaurant?” Like the other day, I had a customer come in and order the orange chicken, but they told me they didn’t like the taste. I tried it out myself, and I had to admit the sauce wasn’t the best. The sauce was definitely something I could make again for him. I wouldn’t want to buy something that’s bad or not to my liking. So that’s how I’ll do it now.
RER: I’m sure the customer will also appreciate that a lot and come back too.
Jiang: Exactly, and that’s how I feel about this restaurant. I just feel like people are respectful to us. If you respect others, they’ll respect you too.
RER: From this interview alone, I can state without a doubt that you give back a lot to all of us who visit your establishment. If you could leave one message to everyone in the Rogers Park/Edgewater community what would it be?
Jiang: Be safe. I think that’s very important. Especially since we have such a diverse neighborhood in terms of race and color, we have to not only protect ourselves, but stick up for everyone else. We have to be there for everyone. I think this is the number one priority. And lastly, come to Rice Thai (laughter).
To learn more about Rice Thai Cafe, visit their webpage.