Armed with a fervent desire to showcase the authentic Chinese and Taiwanese fare of his childhood, Alvin Lin took a leap of faith and introduced Louisville, Kentucky, to The Joy Luck last year—despite his scarcity of experience running restaurants.
From the outset Lin was confident of a few important details: The cuisine would be exactly as he remembered from his youth; the cocktails handcrafted; the target audience would be young professionals; and his father, Fu-Tsun Lin, would be chef.
“My father and I created the menu. I wanted to pick the dishes that are approachable to Americans but at the same time pay homage to my heritage,” Lin says, adding that gross sales in the first year were approximately $500,000.
He adds that his first year was more challenging than he ever imagined. “This is my first business, my first restaurant,” says Lin, 26. “Every step has been a learning process. I have been astonished how much energy, mental strength, and fortitude it takes; how resilient you have to be; and how many curveballs there are in this business.”
Despite the challenges, Lin is breaking stereotypes about authentic Asian cooking and cocktails in Louisville, having already recouped the $140,000 initial investment in the restaurant, while becoming the city’s preferred spot for adventurous eaters.
“Mainstream America’s idea of Asian cooking was deep-fried chicken with sweet and sour sauces,” says Lin, who makes it his mission to educate guests about the complexity, technique, and creativity required for first-rate Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine. “I want to open the eyes of the consumer as to what real Chinese cooking is. So many of the customers are amazed by the food that they now come in and try new dishes. My restaurant is becoming associated with guests who are willing to go out of their comfort zone.”
The success was not immediate. In its first year of operation, much has changed at The Joy Luck, including increasing the number of authentic dishes on the menu. After a few months, Lin also developed a color-coding system to help guests distinguish between traditional menu items or Americanized versions; orange denotes an authentically prepared dish, like the Taiwanese Pork Sliders, while a dish in a black font, like the Honey Walnut Shrimp, means it won’t intimidate the less adventurous. “It’s a simple challenge for the customer to step out of his comfort zone,” Lin says, adding about 60 to 70 percent of guests choose to order from the authentic side.
Dinner tickets average $35 for an entrée with a cocktail. The Joy Luck’s biggest sellers are its duck dishes, while the craft cocktail program is equally beloved. There are no bottled or canned juices behind the bar, and all ingredients are fresh. Many of them are Asian, such as star anise, peppercorns, and kimchee. The Oriental Fashion, for example, consists of Old Forester Signature bourbon, house-made ginger syrup, house bitters, and orange oil.
“I want to break the stereotype of an Asian restaurant not being a strong place for alcohol,” Lin says.
After 12 months of trial and error, Lin managed to lower food costs to 27 percent. “I was able to get food costs down right around that first-year mark,” Lin says. “When you start out you don’t know what works and what doesn’t, but over time you get rid of the kinks.”
Located on Louisville’s busiest street and with welcoming bursts of bright colors that exude a chic yet homey ambiance, the restaurant can seat 50 people inside and another 40 on the patio. The Joy Luck serves lunch and dinner six days a week, but dinner only on Monday. The staff numbers 21.
Lin decided on the name for the restaurant based on personal experiences, not—as many perceived—The Joy Luck Club book and movie of the same name. “I really wanted my staff to get along, so that is where the joy came from,” Lin explains. “And I’ve always had luck—not always good—but that’s where the luck came from.”
Lin says his first year as a restaurateur was trying but extremely rewarding. “I have learned so much about myself—what I can and can’t do. I used to get all worked up trying to perfect things, but found out it was more important to get something accomplished. You can always fine-tune it later.”
Despite his lack of experience, Lin says The Joy Luck has far exceeded financial projections, adding that he’s already eyeing Lexington as a possible second outpost.