Talking Shop with John Cai, owner of Beijing Chinese restaurant

Monday, May 11, 2009
John Cai is the owner of Beijing Chinese restaurant in Jackson. (Elizabeth Dodd)

Southeast Missourian residents can experience a taste of the Orient close to home at Beijing Chinese restaurant, 1815 E. Jackson Blvd. Owner John Cai has been serving cuisine from his homeland since he moved to Southeast Missouri in 1992. Born in Shoaxing province, Cai worked as an electrician, mechanic and welder before working in a dining room. Upon arriving in the United States, Cai began working at the former Golden Dragon Restaurant -- the first Chinese restaurant in Cape Girardeau -- and became a U.S. citizen in 1998.

Cai and his wife, Ruling Luo, have a son, Johnny Cai. Southeast Missourian business reporter Brian Blackwell recently sat down with Cai to discuss his journey to America, his experience in the restaurant industry and Beijing Chinese Restaurant's recent recognition as one of the top 100 regional Chinese restaurants by Chinese Restaurant News. Beijing Chinese restaurant is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sunday. A buffet is served throughout the day. A menu is also available.

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of life in the United States to get used to?

A: It's been learning English. Learning English depends on your age. For my wife and me it was hard, but for my kids it was easier. But people are very helpful over here and will do what they can to help you. Wherever you go people don't mind asking if you need help.

Q: The economy has been hard on many businesses, including the restaurant industry. How difficult is it operating a restaurant?

A: The economy is slowing, no doubt about it. For now I want to work and make a living. This helps my family. If you aren't working in the restaurant industry you don't know that much about what's involved. It's a lot of work. First, there are long hours every day. Second, you have a responsibility for the food, customers, supplies, employees and cleaning. I take a lot of pride in making sure everything is clean at my restaurant. The health inspector came into my restaurant and told me how clean the kitchen was, which is a great feeling. If anyone ever wants, I don't mind letting them see what the kitchen looks like because it's very clean. Customers notice if you don't have a clean restaurant, and that's important to me. And making sure the food is fresh is very important, too. We try to cook it slow and make small portions so it tastes good to our customer. Each Chinese restaurant has its own distinct flavor ... rice or sesame chicken may be different at a restaurant in another region. It just depends on who's making it.

Q: What is your favorite part of operating your restaurant?

A: I like to see my favorite customers in here time after time. It's like visiting a friend. Right now is not the best time to be in the business, so you have to really enjoy your job and make the best of it. What makes it enjoyable is talking with my customers and making them enjoy coming here. You get to hear their stories and catch up on what they've been doing. If you meet them once and they come back again, it makes you happy. I've gotten to meet a lot of friends in this area because of the restaurant.

Q: Do you think it's possible to have too many Chinese restaurants here?

A: It depends on the operation and the economy. For now the number of restaurants [is] fine. But no matter how many are here, to do well and make it they have to please the customer and make the customer happy. They'll close if they don't.

Q: What motivates you to operate you restaurant?

A: I try to provide a better life for my family. My brother-in-law, nephew, niece, son and wife work here with me. It gives them a better living standard. They all enjoy working with me and are happy.

Q: How is your food different from what's served in China?

A: The most popular food is chicken served on the bone and whole fish. A lot of people in China eat the entire fish, including the head. They enjoy eating all of it because of the taste.

Q: You mentioned enjoying meeting the people. What is the best thing about the United States?

A: People here are more helpful. When I moved here from China we couldn't speak English. It was hard to get around and do our day-to-day activities like shopping. A lady named Alberta Loos, who died a few years ago, helped us learn English. She helped my son enroll in school, which was hard to do at the time. She even helped us pass the test to become a U.S. citizen. She helped me and my family out, and we owe a lot to her. We were very sad when she died. And others like her said thank you to us a lot. You never got that much in China. In China I tell people that you can come here and make your dreams come true. If you come here from another country and live, you appreciate America very much for the government and living conditions.

Q: What was it like becoming a U.S. citizen?

A: That's our dream. We always wanted to be a U.S. citizen. It was hard learning English. But Ms. Loos taught us English classes at the Adult Learning Center. When you work long hours at a restaurant, you want to be lazy and relax on your off day. But I studied English on those days and early each morning so we could learn the language and pass the citizenship test. Becoming a citizen totally changed my life. In China we talked about it so much and it actually happened ** years ago. Being a citizen is great. You even get to vote. And we want to enjoy life here in Cape Girardeau for generations to come.

Q: What was it like being named one of the Chinese top 100 restaurants in the region?

A: That means that is a level you get to and you realize that people like it. It means that we are proven to our customers and that they like the quality of food and service is quality. I had wanted to attend the awards ceremony in Las Vegas but my father was sick. I traveled back to see him and go back to China. I try to take care of my family. They are important to me. My parents raised me and I need to take care of them. In fact, if my father really needed me I'd close the business to go back to him. But I did get a trophy and plaque for what I won.

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