Melissa Wang said her first years in Utah — after moving here from China, and meeting her now-husband, Leming Lin — weren’t easy.
“It was a tough time for me when we got married, because my family was not here, and I missed them so much,” Wang said. “I had some depression when I moved here.”
Wang and Lin started an ambitious business plan — to open several restaurants along the Wasatch Front, to bring some of their food cultures to diners in Utah. They operate three restaurants, all on State Street, and have plans to grow their businesses further.
“This has become a passion for me,” Wang said. “I love seeing the customers happy and enjoying the food. It is harder work than I thought, but I like sharing our culture. Also, our friends have helped us a lot. When I need some help, I ask and people always help.”
Lin immigrated to Utah from China in 2007, to work in his family’s restaurant, Ichiban Sushi & Asian Grill. Wang came to Utah in 2012 to finish her college education at the University of Utah, as an international transfer student.
The two met when Wang was a customer at Ichiban. In 2015, they got married. Wang had not intended to stay in Utah, but did her best to embrace her new life in a new place.
Now, the couple own Ichiban, at 3432 S. State St. in South Salt Lake. Lin is a self-taught sushi chef, and enjoys creating new rolls for customers to try. (Sushi is a Japanese dish, but originated in China as narezushi — the main ingredients then being salted fish and fermented rice.)
The couple also own Royal Hot Pot, at 1158 S. State St. in Salt Lake City — based on another favorite cuisine from Chinese culture.
“We eat hot pot on holidays in China,” Wang said. “As a tradition, we must eat for two hours, so hot pot is perfect because there are so many options to cook in your broth.”
At Royal Hot Pot, the meal is a process, in much the same way fondue is. Diners can choose among 50 cookable items — including seafood, meats, vegetables and noodles — and simmer them in the broth of one’s choice, from tonkotsu (a creamy pork-based broth) to a spicy base with chilies. There also are sauces for dipping or mixing, such as a Chinese barbecue sauce and garlic chili oil.
“Customers seem to enjoy the hot pot which makes us happy,” Wang said. “We really want people to share their feedback with us. We want everyone to like it. "
The third restaurant, Melissa’s Crepes and Coffee House, is in the back of the building where Ichiban Sushi is. Wang said they launched it because their 8-year-old daughter, Mindy, who loves crepes, asked them to.
The couple are dealing with the challenges of operating three restaurant in the post-pandemic economy — including supply-chain issues, the rising cost of ingredients, and trying to retain their staff. Wang said she’s actively looking for dependable managers, who could relieve her of some of the day-to-day operations.
Competition in the Utah restaurant industry is getting fierce. Lin said that several new hot pot restaurants have opened within seven miles of Royal Hot Pot since it opened six months ago.
“A lot of people want to open restaurants right now,” Lin said. “There are almost too many. We struggle with not being able to raise our prices, because we don’t want to upset our customers. We are making a very reduced profit. We also continue to raise the wages for our employees and take care of them. We know they could go work somewhere else tomorrow. We all have to work harder right now. There are less employees to do the job.”
Early on, Wang said, the language barrier was a challenge. Also, there have been moments where she and her husband have experienced racism — particularly at the coffee house, because, she said, some patrons don’t expect an Asian person behind the counter.
That’s sad, Wang said, but she said most people have been nice and welcoming.
“We have built a community with our customers and employees, which is helpful,” Lin said. “Also, we try to make good, low-priced food for our customers. We want to make them happy over making money.”
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