With a hungry newborn in one hand, a kitchen knife in the other, and only 30 minutes to whip together a healthy dinner before her wife came home from work, Emily Chan realized she had a problem. “I can’t cook food,” she says, remembering that moment—she just had too much going on. “I can’t do meal kits because you have to prep the food for them. I just I need something I can do with one hand.”
To make life easier on herself, she could’ve invested in a freezer full of prepared meals. Instead, Emily decided to make life easier for anyone else in her position: She found a shared kitchen, sent out a few emails, and started making one prepared meal a week to deliver to subscribers. Eventually, the subscribers started asking for more, and JenChan’s Supper Club was born.
Four years later, the weekly supper club has grown into something much bigger: Emily Chan and her wife, Jen, now operate a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Cabbagetown, also called JenChan’s, and earlier this year they expanded into East Atlanta Village with MikChan’s, a takeout and delivery business operating out of Global Grub collective, the food hall owned by Quynh “Q” Trinh.
This week, Trinh announced that she was selling We Suki Suki, her banh mi business, to Emily and Jen and training them in the fine art of making banh mi—from the recipe for Trinh’s classic dac biet to where she sources her buns. “I’ve been hoping for years that someone would come along who not only recognizes the successful banh mi business I’ve built from $99, but, more importantly, someone who appreciates my amazing and devoted following,” Trinh said. “What more can I ask for in a successor? I’m ecstatic that I don’t have to retire the ‘little Saigon sub that could,’ and it gets to stay in the home where it was born with caretakers who will love it the way I have for 10 years.”
Emily and Jen, meanwhile, are excited to welcome banh mi to the menu at both restaurants, and already have ideas about expanding: “You can now get Q’s banh mi at MikChan’s in East Atlanta Village for lunch and dinner, and soon you can enjoy them for lunch at JenChan’s in Cabbagetown,” Emily says. “And who knows where else these might pop up . . .”
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Before JenChan’s the supper club became JenChan’s the restaurant, it was JenChan’s the gag gift: One Christmas, Emily had purchased 2,000 pens for her wife that said “JenChan’s” on them—a gift given with the promise she would someday open a restaurant named after Jen. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna open up a restaurant, and I’m gonna name it after you, and it’s gonna be called JenChan’s, and that way if it sucks, I don’t get blamed.’” Jen thought it was a joke.
As she contended with the demands of a burgeoning business, Emily realized she needed more space. She also wanted to be closer to her home in Cabbagetown, so she could see her son more often. When a small restaurant space became available on Carroll Street in September 2019, she jumped at the chance to have a headquarters for the supper club as well as a brick-and-mortar restaurant—with Jen’s name on it, of course. Just in case it sucked.
“It sucked hardcore,” Emily says, remembering the early days of opening a restaurant while running a meal delivery service and taking care of an infant. “But now I’m committed. There’s no turning around, even if it’s a horrible idea. I’m just gonna go for it until someone else tells me it’s a failure.”
By December 2019, things were coming together: After difficulties finding help in the kitchen, JenChan’s had a reliable staff. The neighborhood was supportive. The food—Asian, with a Southern flair—was fun and innovative. JenChan’s was starting to get noticed.
Then came March 2020.
“We closed our doors exiting the best three months that we ever had,” Emily says. “Momentum was there, so we had to pivot very quickly. I told my staff to bring me their bikes, and I’d pay for their tires to get fixed. And we started delivering pizza on our bikes to the neighborhood.”
Those who know JenChan’s today might not realize that the restaurant’s original menu didn’t include dishes like fusion pizza, topped with Mongolian beef or Vietnamese pork. The pizza was born out of necessity: It travels well, and Emily happened to have a background in management and training from Mellow Mushroom. She even had her own special recipe for dough using a sourdough starter she’d been developing for years; it’s named Caroline, after her mother.
Building on the infrastructure they developed from the supper club, Emily and her staff—which now included Jen, who’d been laid off from her restaurant job due to the pandemic—embraced the takeout business. Emily shifted her focus completely to the supper club, while Jen focused on the restaurant, infusing the menu with classic Chinese comfort food she remembered from her childhood.
“We wanted to be unpretentious,” Emily says. “It’s just fun, yummy food.” Once Jen took over JenChan’s and Emily hired a manager for the supper club, Emily again set her sights on creative menu development. In March 2022, the couple expanded to East Atlanta Village with the opening of MikChan’s, named after their four-year-old son. The new place gives Emily the opportunity to experiment, including some well-chosen updates to classic fast-food dishes: Taco Bell–inspired Mexican pizza, homemade Pop-Tarts.
“I’m very into ripping off fast food,” Emily says. “I’ve been testing a personal-pan-pizza rip-off for a couple of weeks now, but it’s not greasy enough. Just so you know, Chick-fil-A: You’re next.”
The goal, according to Emily, is to be silly and not to take themselves too seriously. The menu has burgers, tacos, and Cubanos. There’s also Frito pie, the aforementioned Mexican pizza, and a “Mongolian dip”—essentially a French dip with Mongolian beef. Particularly peckish diners can munch on boiled peanuts, sold by the quart, and wash them down with a slushie based on the Senegalese hibiscus drink bissap.
It should be clear by now that Emily doesn’t relax. The business that began because she didn’t have enough hours in the day has now expanded to three concepts, with more on the horizon—not just banh mi, but also what Emily calls “our whole smoked-chicken thing . . . basically an excuse for me to drink beer and smoke chickens in my driveway on my day off.”
She’s also hoping to host pop-ups for her staff to help incubate their own restaurant ideas. “It’s the hands-on training that you don’t get from culinary school,” she says of learning to cook by getting out there and doing it. “Yeah, you learn all the techniques, but it’s very different when you just cook for people you love your whole life. The experimentation and the freedom that you have because you have to learn the rules yourself, I think, is really incredible. Accidents that just happen in food are, like, the best thing on the planet.”