By Carol Kugler
Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind.
Helping her Little 500 bicycling team and taking her studies of business to the real world has led one IU Kelley School of Business student to start a Chinese restaurant in Bloomington.
Bingbing Zhao is a senior at Indiana University and is also the owner of Gourmet Garden, a new Chinese restaurant that opened recently on East Third Street.
“I never thought about open (sic) a restaurant in my life, but the reason why I chose to open a restaurant is all for the team that I built,” Zhao said in a recent email. The team she is talking about is called Young Pioneers and was formed by Zhao last year to race in the Women’s Little 500.
As Zhao explained recently while working at Gourmet Garden, she formed the all-Chinese bicycle team because “I think it’s time for us to have our own team.” But trying to get funding to help with all the equipment, clothes and other expenses for the team was difficult, in large part because when Zhao and other team members tried to get funding from their Chinese family and friends, there was a cultural disconnect. In China, everyone rides bicycles, all the time. They don’t understand why money is needed to help with a bicycle team, Zhao explained.
“We worked very hard, but it turned out that because we are lacking experience, we didn’t get into the final race,” Zhao said.
“For this year, I was thinking maybe I can do something to make money to raise my own team, then we no longer need to worry about the fund.”
So Zhao worked with her family to raise $200,000 to open the restaurant. In addition to all the financial support, her parents, who lived in Shanghai, China, moved to Bloomington to help with the restaurant. In China, they owned a wholesale business.
To help the Young Pioneers team, Zhao has team members deliver food from the restaurant and plans to offer “dine and donate” options, where a portion of patron’s bills can go to help support the team.
Zhao has plenty of help at the restaurant, but she supplies the knowledge of American ways and is the English speaker. “It’s really a good experience even though I have to sacrifice my free time,” she said.
Zhao’s restaurant is different from most others in Bloomington: It has a chef — Changrong Chu — in the kitchen making northern Chinese dishes fit for the premier. That’s because Chu’s father did cook for Premier Zhou, and Chu worked alongside him for part of the 20 years he worked as a chef in China, Zhao said.
The majority of food served at Gourmet Garden is not what Americans usually find at a Chinese buffet restaurant. The food is authentic, from the boneless fish in sweet and sour sauce, to the prawns with special flavored sauce, to the sauteed bullfrog with pickled pepper and crispy duck. Appetizers include lotus root with ginger sauce and tofu with preserved eggs. There’s hot pot dishes as well as barbecue. The menu is long, and at the bottom includes 12 dishes labeled as “American Chinese food” that includes chicken and beef lo mein and Kung Pao chicken.
Zhao says that many of her Kelley School professors and fellow students have eaten at the restaurant. One of those is Arthur Lopez, a Kelley professor who has helped Zhao along her path to opening the restaurant. It was while Zhao was in Lopez’s ethics class that he talked with her. “I said, ‘Well, what have you done? What have you done to make a difference?’ ” It was then that Lopez suggested the Little 5 bicycle team.
From that point, Zhao, on her own, contacted other Chinese students and the IU Student Foundation Riders Council and built the Young Pioneers team. “She felt is was important to do this to show that Chinese could be a part of campus,” Lopez said. “She wanted to show people their pride.”
And it was Zhao who convinced her parents to locate the restaurant in Bloomington, Lopez said. “They were looking all over for a place, looking all over the U.S. She convinced them that Bloomington would be a good place.”
Lopez is new to the IU campus himself, having spent 23 years in the Washington, D.C., area. While there he had a lot of contact with Koreans and Chinese, as well as their cuisine. “This is very distinct,” he said of Gourmet Garden’s fare. “It’s different from other Chinese. It clearly has a chef back there.”
Lopez said Zhao was awarded a Kelley Coin, which is an award given by the school faculty to students for exceptional leadership. “It was hard for her to understand that it was an award,” Lopez said. “Sometimes, the translation is still kind of difficult.”
Some of the other difficult tasks Zhao has had to tackle was getting the business licenses and insurance and passing all the city and health inspections to open her restaurant. Most of those processes are very different from what happens in China.
“She’s a go-getter,” Lopez said. “She’s learned a lot. Kelley has prepared her for that.”
Lopez said there are many Chinese students at IU, and in the Kelley School. “I think they are motivated, but she has gone a step further. It’s not the English that will help you, but it’s learning how we think, and she’s taken that to task. That’s a whole different maturity level.”
Gourmet Garden is at 300 E. Third St. and serves authentic Chinese cuisine prepared by a chef.
Hours are 11 a.m.-10 p.m. every day except Tuesday, when it is closed.
You can find the restaurant on Facebook at www.facebook.com/chinesefoodgourmetgarden?fref=ts.