BY Guanhong Hu
A New Yorker who studied in Beijing almost 20 years ago has imported his favorite food to Manhattan. Brian Goldberg, 39, opened his food cart Mr. Bing a year ago, selling the northern Chinese staple “jianbing,” a green bean crepe stuffed with sesame seeds, spring onions, crispy fritters and a top-secret sauce.
Goldberg spent 13 years in Asia — in Beijing, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore— as everything from an investment trader to an Olympic luge hopeful. He saw jianbing as a way out of office life, as well as an opportunity to expand New Yorkers’ food horizons. Those already familiar with the crepes can purchase an order of nostalgia.
“I want to change the world a little bit. I want to make something. Creating the food, creating the brand, telling a story. It’s not sitting at a desk all day. I’m making something physical.”
“People love it. It’s new and tasty, and they love to watch a bing being made in front of them. It’s all about the show. It’s all about the theatre,” said him.
Goldberg learned the recipe from a famous Beijing jianbing master, but he offers new options as well: In addition to the original vegetarian version, he makes fillings of Peking duck and northwestern China’s drunken chicken for a bite of traditional Chinese flavor, as well as BBQ pork.
Mr. Bing’s oversized version make this Chinese breakfast substantial enough for lunch or dinner, and priced accordingly. A bigger version of a crepe that costs less than a dollar in Beijing runs $10 to $15 in Manhattan.
Goldberg teaches his team members how to make jianbing, which take about a day to learn and a minute to make.
Goldberg completed a business plan back in 2001, as an assignment for a business class at Columbia University. “It was called Goldberg Chinese Crepes,” said Goldberg, and at that time he intended to sell the crepes from carts around New York City.
His debut was a store in Hong Kong in 2012, but what he feels were rookie mistakes, and the limitations faced by a foreign businessman, made him decide to move back to the states.
“I realized Mr. Bing will be more successful in America. America is a much bigger country and has much more places to expand, you also have a deep and talented pool. People here that work in the food business industry they can help you develop your business,” said Goldberg, “and New York City is like the food capital in the world. You have diverse food here, cool concepts and a lot of college students, and they want some cool and trendy things like this.”
He came back last year, assembled a team of 10 people, and thought about how to introduce the concept. “We need to teach people ‘this is bing’,” said Goldberg. “Don’t call it crepes, burrito, or Chinese pizza. It’s bing, jianbing.” And he changed the brand name to Mr. Bing. “It’s much easier to remember,” said him.
Mr. Bing’s first anniversary is in November, and Goldberg has already doubled the number of employees. “Mr. Bing is doing really well,” he said. At the current site at Broadway Bites on West 33rd Street and Broadway, he gets around 50 orders during the rush hour on weekday night. He’ll also have a stall at Bryant Park’s holiday market.
According to the Street Vendor Project (SVP), a membership-based project to support local vendors, there are as many as 20,000 street vendors in New York City, struggling to make ends meet. In 1981, New York’s City Council placed limits on the number of vending permits, capping them at around 4,000. Elise Goldin, SVP’s senior organizer, explained that the vendor permit system has such a long waitlist that it is closed to new applicants; a black market for vendor permits exists due to the demand.
Instead of trying to get the permits, Goldberg tried another way to start: kiosks at pop-up street markets organized by Urbanspace, a market operator that transforms city spaces into environments where local chefs, artisans, and entrepreneurs can showcase their wares.
“They gave us a chance, tried our food and offered us a chance to do the first market with them, Time Square, Christmas last year,” said Goldberg.
The booth was popular enough to expand into several of the group’s seasonal markets. “We showed them we can handle the volume, handle the demand, handle the customer traffic, make more bings in a day and still keep organized,” said Goldberg.
The seasonal street markets organized by Urbanspace include culinary favorites Mad. Sq. Eats, Broadway Bites, and Urbanspace Garment District, as well as holiday markets at Union Square and Columbus Circle. But Goldberg needs a more permanent home. “These markets they go one month here and one month there. It’s good but it’s nothing,” said him. He has his eye on Urbanspace Vanderbilt, a year-round food hall near Grand Central Terminal.
“If you can get in there, it’s really good, because you are there all the time. It’s consistent business. You open 365 days a year,” said Goldebrg, “If you prove you can be inside of a food hall, that’s a very scalable business model that you can do in different locations, different cities, different states and different countries.”
Goldberg and his team still plan to do more food carts, but it “takes time,” he says, to address issues of transportation, hygiene, logistics, storage and teamwork.
They also plan to build a hub model — a headquarters in the city with an office, a kitchen for city-wide distribution and a small take-away retail space. “Like a heart. Beat, beat, beat. And the blood flows to different places,” said Goldberg, so they can support their supply chain — carts, kiosks, and pop-up sites all around the city.
“You really need to have operations button down. Tight, tight, tight. No mistakes.”