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A Wok in the Park: Interview with CEO Stuart Davis of City Wok

Last month I was invited to attend the 15th Annual UCLA Restaurant Conference hosted by Pillsbury Law.  We broke for lunch and I found myself sitting at the table with CEO’s from many of my favorite restaurant groups including Mr. Stuart Davis, CEO of City Wok.

Growing up in Los Angles, I remember the very first City Wok restaurant popping up in the valley.  We thought the name was so clever and the food was awesome, definitely a weekly staple at the Kaufman household.  So when I found myself sitting across the table from the creator of the group itself, I was so excited and of course had to set up an interview to learn more about the history of this incredible fast casual chain.

LK: So tell me about the history of City Wok from the Woks mouth.

SD: Well in about 1988 I had been in the restaurant industry for a while and I decided it was time for me to do my own restaurant.  I always loved Chinese food but the restaurants in my area were always slow at takeout or they wouldn’t make substitutions, or there just weren’t any healthy options or ridiculously large portion sizes that were difficult for one person to eat.  That’s really where the concept of City Wok came from, the idea of giving people everything they like about their neighborhood Chinese restaurant but eliminating inefficient, unsanitary kitchens and giving enough variety without diners having to spend too much.

A funny thing happened to me at a small Chinese café in palm desert they didn’t have bbq pork fried rice on the menu but they had bbq pork on the menu and I asked them to throw it in the fried rice and they just wouldn’t do it. I didn’t know if it was because they didn’t want to and it was a hassle or whether it was a communication error but it was like a light bulb, when people know that they can have things exactly the way they want them you can really make them happy.

I started to travel around the country and develop a menu with a man named “Mr. Chin” who was a fine dining chef out of Kowloon China.  Together we figured out how to produce a high end product utilizing fresh ingredients, good packaging, good systems and then finally got funded and created the first location in North Hollywood over 21 years ago, and we have never looked back.

LK: What would you say is the most important thing for you regarding your restaurants?

SD: It’s really all about the quality.  I never want to hear, “oh I used to go to that place, it used be really good” we want to create food people crave and make it a part of their daily, weekly or monthly food ritual.  That’s why we have kept the growth organic and boutique.

LK: Of course I have to ask, what is your favorite thing on your menu?

SD: Well we are best known for our orange chicken which is great, the flavors and textures are pretty incredible.  I also love our kung pao with tofu…extra spicy.  in our kung pows also.  There really isn’t anything on the menu I don’t like.

LK: The newest buzz word in restaurants is “Fast Casual” It seems like you have been doing that since your inception.  How do you feel about this “new” trend?

SD: I feel like people are taking to our concept that we have been doing for 21 years.  The truth is no one is re-inventing the wheel.  All the health options have always been there for us, everything is fresh, made to order and modifications are really simple.  I feel like we really blazed the trail in being accommodating in Asian food because it was something people couldn’t get.  So the fast casual thing fur us, has always come naturally.

LK: So I have to ask the question about City Wok vs. City Wok.  I have always wondered was there a connection or was that mere coincidence?

SD: So for the record, we were here 3 years before City Walk was even built.  We actually sued Universal/MCA for copyright infringement and were granted a 90 day injunction.  Long story short we settled the case but yes, it is always a question we get.

LK: So you were nominated for the concept of tomorrow awards and have been covered by dozens of publications, is City Wok the future of fast casual?

SD: We are the past, present and future.  Fast casual is defined by order at the counter and take away with quality.  We have always been full service but we have the look of fast casual even though we give full table service.  I don’t feel like we have to be defined specifically in that category we just wanted to create restaurants that people like.

Find your nearest City Wok at http://citywok.com/ and stay tuned for more from Laurelk.com

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