Is Mission Chinese Undercharging for its Philanthropic Food?

This week in my Bloomberg News column I awarded 2.5 stars to the sometimes cramped but always comfortable Mission Chinese on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Mission serves “Americanized Oriental Food,” much of it seasoned with a lifetime supply of mouth-numbing novocaine sichuan peppercorns. This is the second of four or five planned locations; the San Francisco flagship debuted in 2010; a Williamsburg outpost will likely open within the year, followed by Atlanta and Oklahoma City.

To many, Mission Chinese is about philanthropy. While some chefs take the Warren Buffet approach to giving (get rich then give it away), Mission’s Danny Bowien takes a community-based “empower-the-diner” approach: Mission donates 75 cents from the purchase of every entree to the Food Bank of New York. It also donates 75 cents from the purchase of every glass of wine or soju cocktail to a rotating series of New York-based charities, including the Bowery Mission and Edible Schoolyard.

To others, Mission Chinese is about a different form of charity — free beer while you wait, a thoughtful gesture that saves you from blowing $30 bucks at a nearby cocktail bar when your table is sixty-minutes away. There was Bud in the beginning, then Miller High-Life, and now Bowien tells me he’s working on getting a better Brooklyn-based brew. It’s a nice little courtesy to take the edge off the queue, a blue collar amuse bouche of sorts. It’s something you’d expect from a Danny Meyer restaurant, not a $15-and-under venue on the Lower East Side. It’s something that makes you feel welcome.

So for me in particular, Mission Chinese is about hospitality. We’re living in an haute-hipster era where high-end food at a (theoretical) discount reigns supreme while all other creature comforts are expendable. But Mission Chinese proves that an ambitious and affordable restaurant can maintain its street cred while still coddling the customer a little bit. I’ve consistently had better service at Mission than at other “budget gourmet” spots like Pok Pok NyAcme or Il Buco Alimentari. Mission is also proof that a small restaurant can accept American Express and still (presumably) turn a profit.

Of course, we like to focus on numbers here at The Price Hike, and as such it’s worth noting that not a single drink or dish exceeds $15 at Mission Chinese. No, we’re not talking about small plates; many of these items easily feed two or three guests. So given the long waits and given the low prices, Mission could clearly charge more, per to the laws of supply and demand. And given the charitable component, Mission could easily get away with hiking the prices, per the laws of philanthropy. But Mission doesn’t. 

Danny Bowien was nice enough to chat with me, over the phone, about prices. And since that stuff can get boring, we also talked about other things, like, well, women, liquor and monosodium glutamate. Here are some snippets from my hour-long conversations with Bowien (dude can talk):

  • “It’s hard to tell my investors `look, I’m not going to charge $20 for a plate of food here because that’s not what we’re about’”
  • “We’re opening in Brooklyn, for sure, within the next year.”
  • “Oklahoma City won’t have crazy chicken hearts on the menu. It’s going to have to cater to that demographic.”
  • “For me it’s not about the money, The money will come later. I’m not really worried about the money right now. I’m worrying about nailing it and having it be in the midrange, because that’s the thing that New York is missing, and that’s the thing that San Francisco has a ton of but most of it sucks. Now, we’re not selling $5 rice plates, but we’re also not selling…at the price point of other fancy Chinese restaurants like RedFarm. I don’t want to price myself into that category because we don’t have a Japanese Toto toilet seat. We don’t have the commodities, but what our focus is, is to focus on the food.”
  • “It is justifiable that we should possibly raise some of our prices…but at the same time I want cooks to be able to come here on their day off. I couldn’t go eat at Momofuku when I was cooking here last time. I was making like $500 a week and I just didn’t have the money to go eat at Noodle Bar, I couldn’t go pay for a $16 bowl of ramen and then be hungry afterwards, you know what I mean?…We don’t want to undercut anyone, but we want to separate ourselves. I mean I look up to David Chang. I don’t want to be in the same category. I don’t want to be like, ‘Momofuku or Mission Chiense, which do I want to go to tonight.’”
  • “We cut costs. We have pork jowls. We’re using chicken hearts. All that stuff is really inexpensive. When I started I was like, look, I’m not going to use cote de boeuf, I can’t use that because I want to buy good organic ingredients or all natural ingredients and I can’t afford that. But I can afford all natural lamb breast which is like not that expensivie but it takes a lot of time to coax the flavor out of. It’s a tougher cut of meat you have to braise it. Same with pork belly. All those off cuts, we’re not using them to be kitschy we’re using them because they’re inexpensive and because that’s what most people eat in China.”
  • “I don’t see a price jump. And that’s the worst thing too, you see a restaurant opening, they didn’t do it right or they get a great review and they jack their prices up, and that’s so annoying to me. I know people hate that. So, like, we’re trying to dial everything out and make sure it’s cost effective. And plus, with the charitable aspect, you take 75 cents off of entrees and it’s pretty tight. But you know, it is what it is, and we’re happy about that.”
  • When I ask about the prospect for proper cocktails: “Hard liquor will happen”
  • “We’re just trying to learn. Two years ago, I had no idea how to make any of this stuff…I don’t feel right having anyone be our guinea pig at a really really high cost. And I don’t feel right using those proteins and those really crazy ingredients. I mean I’ve done that. I can’t tell you how many restaurants I’ve worked at where we’re using insane cuts of meat and we’re sous-viding them forever, and like there’s nothing wrong with that. but we’re not going to put gold leaf on something here. It’s not that kind of place.”
  • "I think the biggest motivating factor for us, and the drive for us is just hitting that midrange. I mean we could make an insane truffled soup dumpling if we wanted to and charge like $45. We could do that. We know how to do that. But we don’t want to do that. We want to make stuff that’s nourishing and restorative. If it’s your day off, if you’re gonna go out of your way to wait and hour or two, we want you to be happy.”
  • “We take reservations, because I’m so tired of going to restaurants where like, you have to wait 4 hours because they don’t take reservations…We give out free beer because if you have to wait three hours I’d like for you to enjoy yourself and have a good time.”
  • “I’m not a macho person. I’m probably the least manly and macho person you’ll meat. There’s a reason that like 90% of our kitchen is female. They’re way more organized than boy cooks. They’re not hitting each other in the balls in the kitchen all the time. It’s like, just trying to stay outside of that macho zone.
  • “MSG is kind of the hot [expletive omitted] right now… but we don’t use it. In its place we’ll do roasted kelp…we use a lot of good fish sauce. You get the same flavor profiles in Italian food, when you have like a really sick bolognese, a ragu, it tastes like there’s MSG, because there’s time and attention and care that went into it. And that’s all what we’re doing, we’re trying to put time and attention and care into all our dishes.”


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