Mar 30, 2009
Johnson Chen, 41, grew the MoCA franchise from scratch.
Originally published in Daily News
When Johnson Chen was just 8 and living in a poor coastal town in China, he spent his life savings — equal to about 15 cents — to feed his family for a week.
More than three decades later, he applies his considerably bigger savings to serving fine cuisine New Yorkers through his chain of Asian-fusion restaurants. Called MoCA, short for Modern Concept of Culinary Art, the chain started in Hewlitt, L.I., in 2005.
A second restaurant opened in 2007 in Inwood, L.I., No. 3 opened in Forest Hills, Queens, in October, followed quickly by a shop in Lawrence, L.I. Amid a tough time for small businesses, Chen poured his savings into the first one, and each restaurant's profits fund the next.
Born in Fuzhou in southeast China, Chen's father was an entrepreneur. He sold fish and vegetables — a venture that landed him in jail when Chen was 8. To help his family, the youngster took out all the "ya sui qian," or gift money he'd collected from adult relatives as a tradition in the Chinese New Year. He gathered the grand total of one yuan and spent it on rice and fish, which fed the family for a week.
"I was so impressed that one yuan of savings can be so useful when you need it," Chen recalled. "I guess that's how I realized the importance of saving and frugality."
When Chen came to the U.S. in 1992 to marry his longtime girlfriend, who'd become a citizen, he found jobs in restaurants. He worked in places specializing in Chinese, Japanese and Jewish cuisine, and learned each phase of the business, from delivery to management.
Five years later, he took over a small Chinese restaurant in Atlantic Beach, L.I. But all the while, he wanted to bring a higher-end version of Chinese food to Americans. He sold the restaurant and opened his first MoCA, fusing Chinese food with French cooking skills.
A main dish at MoCA, such as char-grilled Chilean sea bass or sangria crispy duck, costs about the same as at a typical French restaurant in Manhattan.
"I encourage customers to compare our food with other restaurants, but I'll never lower the prices to attract them," Chen said.
His frugal touch is still in play at MoCA. For example, most restaurants throw away preparation waste such as chicken bones, ginger peel and shrimp shells. At MoCA, these items are prepared and brewed following a special recipe for MoCA’s original soup stock.
Chen acknowledges MoCA may outgrow the self-financing model. Then he could turn to investors instead of banks.
"There are a lot of people who have saved a lot of cash and want to invest in a place that's safer than the real estate or the stock market," he said.