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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2006June — Toque of the Town

Exploring Asia
Eric Justice steers Pei Wei menus away from sibling P.F. Chang’s to more adventurous Pan-Asian flavors.

Director of Culinary Operations Eric Justice tries to balance new flavors with those customers are familiar with.

The Japanese Udon Noodle Bowl Pei Wei launched in May blends silky noodles with a complex soy-mirin sauce, caramelized onions and shiitake-mushroom powder.

When ordering Chinese, Pei Wei guests hold traditional recipes dear, like the Lemon Pepper entree with shrimp, scallions, garlic, carrots and bean sprouts in lemon-pepper sauce. On the menu since inception, it is still a strong seller.

Although interested in Pan-Asian, many Pei Wei guests go for time-honored standards such as the Crab Wontons, an appetizer filled with crab and cream cheese.

The Thai Coastal Shrimp Roll is Pei Wei’s first go at a chilled, rice-paper-wrapped shrimp roll, with coconut-braised shrimp, galangal, lemon grass, Thai basil, mint, cilantro, kaffir lime and rice stick, served with two dipping sauces.

When Chef Eric Justice goes to Singapore on an ideation tour this year, it’ll be with eyes wide open. Nonya, Chinese, Thai, Malay, Indonesian—Singapore is the crossroads for Pan-Asian street food. And Justice says portable, affordable, authentic Pan-Asian is really where it’s at—especially since it’s not what upscale sibling P.F. Chang’s China Bistro is doing.

Director of culinary operations for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Pei Wei since April 2005, Justice says shaping a distinct identity for the 82-unit, fast-casual chain has become more important. “Differentiation is more key now,” he says. “In the beginning, we aligned our food pretty closely to what P.F. Chang’s was serving. But now we’re pushing off a bit, trying to stand on our own two feet by eliminating some items we had in common with them and branching out with more Pan-Asian dishes.”

For example, Pei Wei just removed shrimp with lobster sauce, a P.F. Chang’s entree that Pei Wei menued in a noodle bowl, to make way for the new Japanese Udon Noodle Bowl. And the chain will launch two signature entrees as limited-time offers this year and next that will use ingredients and techniques from Singaporan Nonya cuisine, a Malaysian-Chinese cross sometimes called Straits Chinese.

Until now, some analysts covering P.F. Chang’s such as Sharon Zackfia of Chicago-based William Blair & Company have shrugged off menu overlap between the two concepts as unimportant, because Pei Wei’s style is so different from P.F. Chang’s. Pei Wei’s spur-of-the-moment dining features fast-casual service, a $9 average check and huge carryout business, whereas P.F. Chang’s offers a high-end, destination-dining experience. “Pei Wei serves an entirely different meal occasion,” Zackfia says.

But menu diversification makes sense to Lynne Collier, senior restaurant industry analyst for Little Rock, Ark.-based Stephens Inc. She says fast service and low prices encourage guests to visit Pei Wei more frequently than P.F. Chang’s. “So shaping menus that include some adventurous items lets Pei Wei be more things to more people,” Collier says. “Trying something new at Pei Wei carries less risk because there’s less time and money invested.”

Delving Deeper
For now, Pei Wei’s menu is split 50-50 between Chinese and familiar Pan-Asian flavors such as spicy Korean and Mongolian. But Justice will gradually incorporate more esoteric Chinese options like the Nonya dishes and delve deeper into more adventurous Southeast and other Pan-Asian cuisines.

It’s a path Pei Wei’s treading carefully, because customer responses are difficult to anticipate. The company expected fresh, nonfried Southeast Asian spring rolls to go gangbusters, for example, based on the popularity of Pei Wei’s top-selling Minced Chicken with Cool Lettuce Wraps, $6.25. But the two rolls Justice launched as LTOs last summer “did OK but not overwhelming,” he says. Served chilled and priced at $6.95, a Thai Coastal Shrimp version and Vietnamese Steak variety were both seasoned with galangal, lemon grass, Thai basil, mint, cilantro and kaffir lime leaf, and served with hydroponically grown Bibb lettuce leaves as well as two dipping sauces.

Udon noodles, on the other hand, met with unanticipated approval. While he can’t share figures, Justice was surprised how much guests liked the $6.50 Japanese Udon Noodle Bowl, silky wheat noodles with citrus, soy sauce and choice of protein, which Pei Wei tested in spring 2005 and added to core menus in May. “I saw opportunity with an udon-noodle dish but really didn’t think we’d have this strong of a response to it,” he says.

Such vagaries illustrate that “our guest is really looking to us for what the next great new taste will be,” Justice says. “They’re slow to step away from comforts they’re used to, and it takes a while for them to embrace new flavors.”

Approachably Authentic
Determining how closely to hew to authenticity without losing guests to the “ew” factor that comes with unfamiliar ingredients and heat levels is an ongoing challenge. The Thai Coastal Shrimp and Vietnamese Steak Rolls are good examples.

Six months in development, the rolls proved to be a difficult balancing act for Justice. He had to mix just the right amount of fresh herbs and aromatics with heat provided by Thai chiles. “This took a while because this was a different flavor profile than our core guests were used to,” he explains. “We wanted something new and vibrant but didn’t want to overpower the taste buds.”

Developing the Japanese Udon Noodle Bowl was also an exhaustive process, taking four to five months. Justice tested 50 to 60 dried noodles before finding a flash-frozen noodle with a silky texture from Japan the can be water-thawed, refrigerated and blanched for service. For the sauce, Justice sought a subtle Japanese flavor that nonetheless had plenty of body and heft. He created a complex blend of the extract of an Asian citrus fruit called yuzu, ginger, Japanese Worcestershire, two types of mirin, three soys (preservative free, tamari and dark shoyu) plus shiitake powder. Streamlining unit production, a vendor now makes the sauce to spec. The dish includes a choice of protein: shrimp, chicken, scallops, pork or tofu.

Pei Wei Asian Diner
Parent Company
P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Inc., Scottsdale, Ariz.
2005 Systemwide Sales
$134 million
2006 Systemwide Sales
$189 million (company estimate)
Average Check
Average Unit Volume
$2.1 million
Expansion Plans

30 in 2006

While core menu additions are rare at Pei Wei, Justice says adding udon was essential because it was the chain’s first wheat-noodle offering. “I see 20 different noodles and so many different rices in here every week,” he says. “So I’m constantly evaluating if there’s something we really need to have.” Beyond udon, Pei Wei menus two varieties of rice (Chinese brown and Texmati), two rice noodles (chow fun and pad thai), a buckwheat noodle (soba) and Chinese egg noodles. This relatively short list helps keep food costs in the 28 to 30 percent range.

Time Table
Through 2007 Justice plans to continue to feature three or four limited-time offers for 60 to 90 days. Half will likely be recurring seasonal dishes and the other half, items with potential for inclusion on core menus. Vietnamese pho—the classic Asian noodle soup—for example, is a cold-weather item in Pei Wei’s recipe bank that “we continue to tweak for flavor and execution” off and on.

Shaping dishes at Pei Wei’s new test kitchen, which was completed in summer ’05, usually takes four to five months—more than the amount of time Justice spent shaping dishes in former positions as corporate chef for Bugaboo Creek Steak House and concept chef of Samba Room, Mignon and Timpano at Carlson Restaurants Worldwide before that. Menu development is longer at Pei Wei because Asian dishes are not only complex, “but we’re trying to shape something fresh, not just knock off classical recipes,” Justice explains.

Taking the Heat
Also time consuming, every recipe must work in a wok. All of Pei Wei’s food is prepared in gas-fired woks and rice cookers. Such simplicity keeps things uncluttered but can be a challenge training-wise. Getting wok cooks up to speed takes four to six months. “Wok cooking is extremely difficult,” Justice says. “You’re dealing with 130,000 Btu—that’s four times the heat of a saute station, and it’s much more physical—there’s never a break.”

Wok cooking is so rigorous that many cooks don’t make it past the first week: “The first week’s the hardest,” Justice says. To ease the process and help with employee retention, Justice has begun bringing trainees into the test kitchen with its full wok line, which removes the stress of training in a unit. There’s also talk of building a Wok University.

As well, Justice plans to begin video training. “We use precut veggies on a few items—snow peas with the strings removed, carrots that have been sliced—but all of our proteins are sliced at the unit,” he says. “That’s hundreds of pounds of meat-cutting on a regular basis.”

The meat-cutting will get even more intensive since Pei Wei just added a brined boneless pork loin to the choose-your-own-protein options, “which is much better than the pork butt or shoulder you’d usually get with Asian dishes,” Justice says.

What about squid or seared tuna?

“Not tuna,” he says. “But we’re definitely looking for dishes that would work with calamari.”


First Tastes

  • Minced Chicken with Cool Lettuce Wraps: chicken, shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, scallions, spicy soy and iceberg lettuce, $6.25

Noodle & Rice Bowls

  • Dan Dan Noodle Bowl: chile-seared garlic soy, minced chicken, scallions, bean sprouts, cucumbers and egg noodles, $6.25

Signature Dishes

  • Asian Coconut Curry with green curry-coconut sauce, ginger, Thai basil, red bell peppers, onions, long beans and tofu, $6.75
  • Blazing Noodles with tomato, black-pepper sauce, scallions, snap peas, carrots, cilantro, Thai basil, chow-fun noodles and shrimp, $9.00

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