Jahzmin French has loved the food industry since her first job waiting tables in high school. Now two decades later, the industry veteran has come to Charlotte as local franchise owner of JINYA Ramen Bar.
Recently opened on the ground floor of the Ally building on S. Tryon Street, the Japanese scratch-made kitchen serves its namesake — ramen noodles — along with rice bowls, desserts and other Japanese-inspired fare. The location seats 125 people and has a full bar.
[Also read: Uptown Charlotte gets a new Black-owned restaurant]
The Charlotte restaurant is the first in North Carolina for the Los Angeles-based chain, which was launched in 2010 by Tomo Takahashi, a Japanese immigrant.
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French, who co-owns the Uptown franchise with business partner Brad Phelps, says she plans to open a second JINYA, in SouthPark, in early 2022, followed by others in the Charlotte market.
Bringing the JINYA brand to Charlotte during a pandemic, she says, has come with its challenges, but she’s inspired by the customer feedback and the restaurant’s early sales.
Ramen, she says, is “all the craze.”
I caught up with French during a busy lunch hour to find out how she does it — owning, managing, breaking glass ceilings. And ramen, of course.
Q. How did it all start, opening a JINYA Ramen Bar in the center of Charlotte?
Jahzmin French: Brad and I have been partners for three years. I met him when I ran my own restaurant-consulting agency. At that time, his dream was to do restaurants, and I was the restaurant expert, so he and his wife looked me up, talked about what they wanted to do, and they said we’re looking for a partner, and they wanted to partner with me. The rest is history. We owned some restaurants in Louisiana. We chose to do JINYA during the pandemic, and since sold that brand (in Louisiana) and decided to solely focus on JINYA in North Carolina.
Q. You said you guys had restaurants in Louisiana? What kind of restaurants were they, and what happened to them?
JF: We had three — two in New Orleans and one in Baton Rouge. It was barbecue and Louisiana cuisine. The pandemic hit the restaurant industry hard. Honestly, it was a devastating decision to make. We thought about the people that need to work and the people who may not feel safe working, but you need people to run a restaurant, so we just made a really hard decision and we helped everyone around us really as much as we could to find jobs or whatever that looked like. With JINYA, we kind of just jumped scared, because we’re still in a pandemic right now. We just kind of took the leap and opened regardless.
Q. Your restaurant consulting agency; what was the path that led you there?
JF: I was with the Hooters brand for over 10 years. I resigned as the first African American general manager for the Hooters Bayou-Fox franchise in the Gulf Coast. Then I went on to West Palm Beach, Florida, where I was the first female general manager on the corporate level. I launched my business in West Palm, while I worked a full-time job. It was a hustle and very difficult. Then, when I moved back to Pensacola, I really just took the leap and did my consultant business full-time. It went really well, really fast, and it was really cool to see how many people need help in restaurant operations. I loved doing that. I have paused my consultant business to do JINYA and expand and grow. When everything is settled and I have the right leaders in place, I’m going to resurrect my business and focus on consulting.
Q. Has the restaurant/hospitality industry always been a dream for you?
JF: When I was in high school I tried to get a job at McDonalds, and I don’t know why, but they never hired me, and all of my friends worked there, so I was very sad. But I went and applied for Steak ‘n Shake, got the job and I loved it.
Q. What did you love about it?
JF: Oh man, the joy of talking to different people. You have one table there, then you have another. It’s almost like you kind of entertain. I’m not a chef or anything, but I have a love of food. And I just have a passion for watching people enjoy good food.
Q. The Black presence in the restaurant industry is very small, especially in regard to ownership. There really aren’t many Black woman-owned restaurants in Charlotte, especially uptown. What is it like for you being in this space, industry wise?
JF: It’s exciting. I appreciate all the love and support I’ve received. I didn’t know how big of a deal it might have been. My focus was just the passion…I knew it was a great product and a great brand, and we knew it needed to come here. Honestly, it just makes me feel humbled to have the opportunity and to be a light to some people. My heart is just full. I’ve had moments where I’m just like, wow, I’m blown away. I’ve even cried with some of the guests here, unfortunately, because I’m at work and I hate to have my emotions show a little bit. But they touched me to tears.
Q. What’s your advice to someone who wants to be where you are one day as far as restaurant ownership?
JF: Number one is self-help. Don’t wait on anybody to teach you anything. Unfortunately, there are people out there who don’t want you to surpass them, because they can see your work ethic and your drive. Use the resources that you have that are free. Put your foot in the industry. Start as a host, start as a server, learn every role in the restaurant, because it’s going to fulfill your knowledge. You’ll also be able to manage well that way, once you understand all the challenges in every position. And just go for it. This is not easy. I don’t know the last time I really got good sleep. I’m exhausted, but my passion drives me, and the support that I’ve received from the people here in Charlotte and my phenomenal staff.
Q. Speaking of staff, many restaurants are struggling with finding staff. As a new business opening during the pandemic has that been a challenge for you all as well?
JF: Absolutely. When me and my managers were doing the hiring for this location, I told them to put aside experience; let’s focus on human beings, let’s see if they’re a good person, if they’re a team player. We did a lot of advertisements, saying “no experience needed.” And honestly, for any business owner, sometimes that’s better because you get to mold them into how you want them to work for your brand versus possibly them bringing bad habits. And then for people who do have experience, they know things already, which is super helpful.
Q. With ramen, it is a craze in a sense. There are some who’ve known about it forever, and now many people in Charlotte will be introduced to it for the first time. What is about this dish that makes it so loved? And is there a difference from the packaged ramen noodles many people grew up eating?
JF: Almost everybody in the world has been exposed to pack ramen, and I lived on them while I was at Alabama State University. I still have a pack in my pantry now. But what we do here at JINYA is just on a whole other level. This is a genuine scratch Japanese kitchen. The food is amazing. We cook the broth for over 18 hours. We cut, slice and dice everything. It’s absolutely fresh. I think it opens the mind to the true authentic ramen that we really can’t find here in the U.S. And Jinya has done a fantastic job creating and bringing it from Japan to L.A., launching ten years ago. And now allowing us to open in North Carolina. We are store number 40, and we’re going to keep going.
Q. And there are already a few ramen eateries in Charlotte. What’s the difference between JINYA Ramen Bar and those places?
JF: We do of course have other restaurants in Charlotte in this category. But JINYA is set apart because we have the most variety. I think JINYA has put an amazing focus on the vegan options — we have the vegetable, chicken and pork broth. The vibe and atmosphere is untouched. We love to have fun here. The food, music, the decor, atmosphere, that’s what sets us apart.