It’s a question Jerry Zhang is used to fielding along the way as he’s opened no fewer than six Japanese restaurants in rural Wyoming communities.
The question goes something like this.
“What, are you crazy? You opened a Japanese steakhouse, like a Benihana-style, in a small town like Rawlins? It’s only 8,000 people, what are you thinking?”
What Zhang is thinking is that a small Wyoming town is likely to appreciate having a quality Japanese steakhouse, an option that they’d normally have to drive a long distance to find in a larger city with traffic jams and other headaches.
So far, that thinking is working out great for Zhang, who has opened three Ichiban restaurants and three Sapporo outlets in Wyoming, along with a dim sum house in Colorado.
“All my restaurants, so far, (are doing) pretty good,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “Last week, there’s a new restaurant owner in Rock Springs who asked me, ‘Jerry how can you do successful restaurant,’ and I said, ‘You know, for me, it’s just working hard and giving back always. Keeping a nice heart to involve the community. It’s my honor to be part of a community. It’s very important.’”
With each restaurant having its own signature giant red sumo wrestler poised outside, there’s no missing one of Zhang’s rural Wyoming restaurants.
One of the other things that’s important to Zhang is creating opportunities for his employees. Each of the new restaurants he’s opened represent an employee who was promoted from being a chef or server to manager with part ownership in a new restaurant that’s growing a privately owned chain.
“When I have, you know, a new location, I will offer this opportunity as like a promotion for them,” Zhang said. “They can become from, like, server or chef to become a manager, and then they can get that bonus (from being an owner) too.”
To choose a new location, Zhang pays attention to numbers, even if he isn’t choosing the largest cities in Wyoming.
“We need enough population,” he said.
But all the population doesn’t necessarily have to come from a single town, Zhang added. People in Wyoming are used to traveling a fair bit for something high-quality.
For example, with his latest Wyoming location in Riverton, Zhang is counting the 10,000 or so people living in and around Riverton, as well as those living in Lander, Shoshoni and other nearby communities toward a total potential marketplace of 25,000 to 30,000 people.
In choosing a new store location, Zhang will also visit communities personally, talk to the chambers of commerce there and visit social media pages to get a sense of whether his restaurants will do well in a given location.
Classical Hong Kong Cuisine
Zhang was born and raised just south of Hong Kong and has family in both China and Japan.
He’s trained as a chef in culinary school in Hong Kong, which means he has learned how to do all kinds of Chinese culinary arts, including the very difficult — and very delicious — dim sum, a food whose name literally translates to “touch the heart.”
Dim sum includes a variety of small plate appetizers — finger foods if you will — that can be eaten in one or two bites. Shrimp shu mai, which are packets of chopped shrimp and herbs wrapped in a dumpling and steamed, and baozi, which are steamed buns filled with barbecue pork.
Another favorite is roasted or steamed duck, sliced thin for dipping in sauces, and steamed gai lan, a mild-tasting Chinese broccoli dressed in oyster sauce.
In a dim sum house, carts full of prepared dishes are wheeled around the restaurant for diners to choose whatever would delight them most. Diners can also order specific items if they wish, though most just go with what’s immediately available, especially to start out.
The small plates are set in the center of the table for everyone to share, and then there’s lots of hot bottomless tea to go around, which energizes everyone and increases the appetite.
The atmosphere is almost like a birthday party, though it requires no special occasion to enjoy.
Zhang has thought about adding a dim sum restaurant in Wyoming, too, though these are also usually only found in larger communities.
Coming To America
Zhang ended up coming to America because he has an uncle who kept telling him all about the American dream.
“I was supposed to, I had an offer from the university in Australia to study there,” Zhang said. “My major was biology and engineering. But my uncle, he is a citizen of the United States, and he kept telling me how great the U.S. is and how you can achieve your American dream and everything. So, I moved to the United States in 2008.”
Initially, Zhang helped his uncle with his nine or so restaurants before striking out on his own and moving to Wyoming.
Zhang’s first restaurant in Wyoming was a Sapporo in Gillette, followed by a Sapporo in Douglas and then Rock Springs.
Unfortunately, during the COVID-19 pandemic, market shifts in the oil and gas industry forced him to close the Douglas location. But that didn’t stop him from opening another Sapporo in Sheridan, followed by an Ichiban restaurant in Evanston, which opened just two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic.
That restaurant did OK in spite of the pandemic, Zhang said, and he followed that up with Ichiban restaurants in Rawlins and more recently in Riverton.
Zhang doesn’t believe he’s finished opening restaurants in Wyoming, but says it’s unlikely he’ll open any in places like Cheyenne and Casper. He doesn’t want to compete with business owners he knows in those communities, and he just likes small towns better.
“Most people won’t pick a small town in Wyoming,” he said. “They will pick the big cities like Cheyenne or Casper.”
Zhang feels like good restaurants in smaller communities can actually do better than restaurants in a larger community. They aren’t as likely to get lost in the shuffle, and it’s easier to stand out and develop a loyal following that is the lifeblood of any small-town restaurant.
“I think it is like my fate with Wyoming,” he said. “Wyoming people (in small towns) are ready.”
Every Time That Flag’s Unfurled
Zhang said for his next restaurant, he’d like to branch out into some American cuisines. But it all depends on having the right opportunity, both in terms of places and people.
Whatever cuisine the restaurant is, though, Zhang plans to keep it Wyoming forever. He loves the people in the Cowboy State, and he loves the wildlife, Wyoming’s small towns and, every time the American flag is unfurled, he feels like he has come home.
“I will stay here forever,” he said. “You know my two boys born in Wyoming, I call them cowboys. And Wyoming people now, I call myself that.”
Zhang has three boys, Lucas, Johnny and Jason. He tells them, and all his employees, that America is a place where dreams come true.
“I just became an American citizen this year,” Zhang said. “I keep telling my employees, you know, you live and work in the U.S., so make your business here. Move your immigration to this country. You live here, same like tree, you know — your roots need to be deep down to the earth, to this piece of land of the United States.
“You need to know English, and keep speaking that, and helping people and working hard to achieve your American dream.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.