Hakka Kitchen, the former House of Leaf and Bean, continues to serve a Chinese organic and plant-based cuisine and is adding table service.
When Wen Raiti opened House of Leaf and Bean in 2017, she didn’t know she had developed the business model that would help her restaurant survive the COVID pandemic that began in March 2020.
Her organic restaurant at 14474 Beach Blvd. near San Pablo Road, was a fast-serve establishment with an online-order drive-thru window.
She had the time to build a customer base that stayed loyal through the depth of the pandemic.
House of Leaf and Bean became Hakka Kitchen on Nov. 16.
Raiti and her business partner, chef Marshall Ziehm, have added menu items, table service and a wine bar. They hope to employ 10, but are experiencing what is happening to many restaurants – a labor shortage.
Ziehm is a classically trained chef who worked in Europe for 10 years and has been in the culinary world for 36 years.
He became a believer in Raiti’s Chinese country cooking when doctors told him his former diet was endangering him. His triglycerides were at 700 and he was on the verge on pancreatic failure.
Ziehm met Raiti through a mutual friend in spring 2021 and decided to change his diet to a mostly vegetarian regimen. In less than a year, his triglyceride level decreased to 200 and he lost nearly 40 pounds.
“I tried diets, but nothing worked. I had to make some drastic changes,” Ziehm said.
The small restaurant seats 30. The favorite House of Leaf and Bean items, such as crispy tofu bites, Hakka rice bowl and scallion pancake, remain on the menu.
Ziehm is placing a greater emphasis on the restaurant’s wine program, having built it to 30 organic wines, and he wants to increase it over time.
The popular zen relaxation room remains, as does the wide selection of hot organic teas.
The decision to change the menu came after a successful meal where Ziehm explored the fine dining aspects of Raiti’s menu. They sold out the reservations-only evening.
“I’m a country girl. I didn’t know what fine dining was,” Raiti said.
Encouraged by that success, the two seek a second location and are open to a different area as long as it has plenty of exposure to traffic. The first location was a closed Taco Bell.
Hakka Kitchen has elements of fine dining on the menu and in the dining room, but Raiti insists that it is upscale casual with dinner prices averaging $12 to $15 per entree.
Interior renovations are cosmetic, including new tables and chairs and original pen-and-ink drawings for the walls.
Raiti, 55, immigrated from her native area of Guangdong Province to live in Singapore and the Northern Mariana Islands before coming to the U.S.
She and her husband, Jon, lived in Pittsburgh before moving to Jacksonville in 2006. She worked as a CPA and earned a master’s degree in accounting and taxation from the University of North Florida.
Raiti might have been content to remain in finance if her own health issues had not become life-changing.
When she came to the U.S., she changed her diet drastically, eating what most Americans eat. She soon was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, which caused intestinal pain, constipation and bloating.
When Raiti returned to her native diet, the symptons gradually left. Having read that as many as 15% of Americans have the same affliction, she thought a restaurant that served plant-based cuisine would be popular.
Ziehm, 52, and his wife and son were living in the Chicago area when he tired of the cold and wanted to find better schools for their son.
They moved to Jacksonville and he was working at Coop 303 when he met Raiti. When his contract ended, he and Raiti decided to work together.
Renaming the restaurant pays tribute to Raiti’s Hakka cultural heritage. The food is simple but unfamiliar to most western tastes. Much of it is tofu-based.
The restaurant is one of the few along the Eastern Seaboard that makes its tofu from scratch in-house, Raiti said.
Other than one weekly fish special and the shrimp that is in one dumpling, the menu is vegetarian and vegan.
But the restaurant is not about touting an eating regime. “We have people coming in who are not vegan. They come in because the food is good,” Ziehm said.
Each entree comes with a suggested tea and wine pairing.
Starters include dumplings and steamed buns. Curry-based entrees are featured as well as the specialty Bao Gong black tofu, which is tofu marinated in mushroom soy, stuffed with roasted garlic and served with organic stir-fried vegetables.
The plant-based offerings can be supplemented by adding proteins like Mayport shrimp, chickpeas, edamame, tofu, or a mixture of walnuts, cashews and peanuts.
COVID crippled many restaurants last spring when eat-in dining was not an option.
Raiti’s drive-thru model adapted to made-to-order.
“It just happened that it was the better option. People did not want to eat in a restaurant. They were used to coming to our drive-thru,” she said.
“My customers kept telling me that they wanted me to stay. They say said they didn’t want me to go away. The community support kept me going every day.”
Hakka Kitchen is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner. It is closed Mondays. Its website is lovehakkakitchen.com.
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