Chai Peking, Atlanta’s only kosher Chinese restaurant, located inside the Kroger in Toco Hills, has new management for the first time since its founding over 25 years ago.
On March 1, founder Reuven Michoel Robinson completed the transition of ownership to an employee of ten years, Mordechai Snyder, and his wife, Kimberly.
“The way I looked at it,” said Snyder, “was that Reuven had grown this child, this daughter of his in the form of the restaurant for 25 years, built it, raised it, matured it. And we were the groom to the bride of the restaurant, to come and take responsibility for it.”
Robinson seemed to agree with the sentiment. “I think it was a perfect shidduch,” he said, “I think it was a perfect marriage. Mordechai is very capable, very talented and, please G-d, they’ll do very well.”
“As one of my friends pointed out,” Snyder added, assuring that the restaurant’s name would remain the same, “the ‘chai’ in ‘Chai Peking’ is included in my name. How could I change it, when I am Mordechai Peking?” Kimberly released an audible half-laugh, half-groan. “He’s very proud of that joke,” she said.
The pair have committed to maintaining the same values the company has always had. “When we purchased the restaurant,” Snyder said, “we did so with the intention of not making overt, dramatic changes.” The staff and the recipes will remain largely the same.
“Right now, I’m blessed to have the cooks that I have. One of my cooks has been with Chai Peking for 22 years. Another has been with Chai Peking for 19 years. These two cooks know the menu, the process, the schedule, without even thinking and it’s amazing.”
Snyder credits much of the restaurant’s success to these staff members and the man who brought them in, Robinson’s mentor, Danny Ing.
“Reuven used to call him ‘the godfather of Chinese food.’ We were very saddened to hear about his passing, because he was a big help to me as well,” said Snyder. “There’s a very close relationship between the success of our restaurant and the fact that we came from the tutelage of somebody who knew the business intimately.”
The few menu item changes the Snyders have made relate mostly to adhering more closely to traditional Chinese food.
“We removed a section of our menu that was quite popular, because burgers and chicken sandwiches and egg sandwiches are not a Chinese food option,” said Snyder. “One of the things that we’ve worked very hard at is identifying who we are and identifying who we are not. … We are a Chinese restaurant that is kosher, not a kosher restaurant that does Chinese.”
What they have done is update and add several systems on the logistics side.
“We’ve introduced new technologies and new efficiencies to help make it better because one of the challenges the restaurant was experiencing over the pandemic was more demand than the restaurant could produce,” Snyder explained.
By adding online ordering, offering delivery through DoorDash and reopening the hot bar for lunch specials, they’ve managed to take some of the pressure off. Snyder credits his wife with much of the success on that front.
One of the things that we’ve worked very hard at is identifying who we are and identifying who we are not. … We are a Chinese restaurant that is kosher, not a kosher restaurant that does Chinese.
“She’s been absolutely instrumental in our digital transition,” he said. Meanwhile, Kimberly credits her husband’s hard work. “He works overnight sometimes,” she said, “he’s doing what it takes and I’m proud of him.”
“My focus is 300 percent on the restaurant,” said Snyder, “to my wife’s chagrin at times. She’s been very supportive of me investing 16 to 18-hour-days or more, six days a week.”
Both Snyder and his wife also often do prep work, clean and work the front of house, but they’re not alone in this effort — it’s a family affair. Snyder’s father, Jack Snyder, who got him started in the restaurant industry working in pizza shops he owned, was more than willing to join in.
“I found out that he was buying this place, and I said, ‘y’know, we could make the circle complete,’ and I’ll come to work for you, and he liked the idea and said ‘that’s the best thing to happen since cream cheese on bagel,’” the elder Snyder recalled.
The Snyders’ ten-year-old triplets can also often be found around the restaurant.
“Sometimes they’ll be like now, where they’ll just be sitting on the computer,” Snyder said. “But there’ll also be times where they work behind the counter as well, and they help take orders and it’s been wonderful to see how they have taken ownership.”
For Yoel, their oldest (by one minute), this ownership was taken literally. On the day of the handover, he turned to them and said, “I never dreamed that at 10 years old I could own a kosher Chinese restaurant!” Their youngest, Shaina, is also very committed. “I love helping my mom and dad work at the restaurant,” she said. “I always meet new friends there.” Meanwhile, Joshua, the middle child, has his heart in the perfect place for the job: his stomach. “I’m happy because I get delicious, free food for Shabbos!” he said.
The triplets are also a large part of the reason for the Snyders’ commitment to the local Jewish community. When they were born, extremely premature at 25 weeks, the couple had a religious reckoning, began keeping strictly kosher and became Orthodox.
“It was life-altering,” said Snyder, “in every sense of the phrase.” This transition also began Snyder’s work as a mashgiach for Kroger, and his involvement with Chai Peking.
A decade later, several events have marked the past year as another major turning point in the Snyders’ lives. The first was the death of Kimberly’s father, the first person they had told that they were looking into acquiring the restaurant.
“He got, like, a sparkle in his eye,” Kimberly recalled. “And he said, ‘that’s the best news I think I’ve ever heard,’” said Michael. He died five days later.
Then, almost a year afterwards, and just weeks after acquiring the restaurant, the family found out Kimberly was pregnant again. “Supposedly only one this time,” she joked. “It was very much a proverbial line in the sand,” said Snyder, “that we’ve now crossed into this next chapter of our life.”
And, while this next chapter may include even more changes for the restaurant, such as helping to serve local school lunches and expanding to other locations in Atlanta and abroad, the Snyders have not forgotten the most important part of their restaurant: the community and the people they serve.
“We’re grateful for our Atlanta following, and we’re humbled by our out-of-town following and the support we have from people,” Snyder says. “People come in from Israel and say, ‘I have to have Chai Peking.’ It’s humbling, every single time.”
While Snyder was speaking, a native Atlantan who had just returned to the city with a friend from New York was placing his order. “I wanted him to know what good Chinese food was,” the man said. Throughout the conversation, other customers, including Kroger employees, came up to check on their orders. Each time Snyder excused himself to help them.
“We’re not perfect, we’ve made mistakes along the way, we’ve learned some very valuable lessons in the short time we’ve been doing it,” he said. “We’re endeavoring not to make the same mistake twice. And we’re endeavoring to always focus on what’s important and that is that it’s really and truly about our customers. Without them none of this is possible.”