Making a restaurant fly: Jenni Tran-Weaver builds a noodle empire with jugglepower
I went to the wrong place.
In many ways, technology has complicated my life. I can no longer authoritatively pretend that I was in the right when I screw up. The iCal entry spoke an omniscient, undeniable truth and I had to resort to excuses like “some Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door and I could not get rid of them.”
But in retrospect, it was their fault. With three locations, my simple feeble mind could not handle such information overload.
Fine, I was on Twitter and not really paying attention.
I was about to meet the infamous Jenni Tran-Weaver — the Jenni — behind the addicting “Art Car” curry, the homey Buddha soba and the whimsical crispy tofu with ginger soy — the perfect combination between indulgent, down-home goodness and healthy cuisine.
And it was time. I have had many meals at Jenni’s Noodle House and I needed to pay my respects with a pious foodie pilgrimage. But I had to hurry if I wanted to make it to the Noodlehood in time.
The kitchen, spotless. The aroma, intoxicating. And I was hungry.
“I also work for Continental,” Jenni explained. “I have to fly to Dallas later today.”
Interesting. Successful restaurateur by day and sassy flight attendant by night — not necessarily in that order — Jenni balances work-work-family-play life pretty well. So it seems.
“Sometimes we have to try lots of hats until we find the one that works best.” But in Jenni's case, a boa might be more fitting.
True. And I was here to get her story, and eat a little in the process. Can you blame me?
Jenni was born in Vietnam and remembers moving to Houston via Guam for processing. After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Jenni’s father had chosen Houston after scouting different United States cities while in school in the 1960s. Houston had the right feel.
“I always wondered why Houston,” Jenni recalled. “I appreciated my family’s decision. While others moved to Florida and California, I am thankful I am here. My first recollection as a child was watching Sesame Street while sitting on the floor. I was 6 years old.”
Initially, Jenni swore off the restaurant business after seeing her mother work tirelessly running three family restaurants through the 1970s and ‘80s.
“I didn’t even cook,” she smiled mischievously. “I didn’t want anything to do with cooking. I didn’t know how to cook.”
Moving back to Houston after studying at the University of Texas at Austin and working as a real estate agent for 10 years, she found work as a temp in the in-flight department of Continental, as well as some at restaurants, not cooking, but managing.
“I have been flying since 2000,” Jenni recalled. “I was working behind the scenes at Continental when casually, I told my boss that I wanted to fly. The life of a flight attendant seemed glamorous. He let me try on the costume, and it fit well.”
Then Sept. 11, 2001, happened and Jenni was scheduled to fly to New York a few days later. Fighting through flying fears like everyone else in the industry, a series of furloughs encouraged her to take a year of leave.
“And I went back to not cooking in the restaurant business. I worked with Jeff Gale at Barnaby’s at the Shepherd location and helped with the opening of Barnaby’s on West Gray.”
Things moved rather quickly in her journey to become a popular restaurateur. In 2002, Jenni opened her first noodle house on the corner of Jefferson and Hutchins, at the suggestion of her mother with encouragement and help from Gale. The size was right, the location was acceptable and, most importantly, the price was right.
But the business was not immediately successful. With negative feedback from some of the old establishment's clientele — they wanted traditional Vietnamese cuisine and a place to smoke — it was the loyal arts community coming directly from the warehouse and theater districts that made Jenni’s Noodle House a household name, before the world of Facebook and Twitter.
When it comes to supporting local businesses, there is definitely a huge push from those who depend on locals for their livelihood to reciprocate.
“All the independents found me,” Jenni recalled. “Artists, art lovers and the gay community spread the word rather quickly, and initially my clientele was primarily from Midtown. They kept me in business.”
Jenni is infamous for wearing flamboyant and glamorous boas, even with just a tank top and shorts. So Boa Fridays was born out of her feathery desire for everyone to join in the fun. And people did and continue to do so.
Even though business was steady, there was very little growth potential in the original location. Jenni’s following was loyal, finding her at her new Shepherd location, gaining visibility, and giving her enough revenue to expand and opening a Post Oak and, most recently, a Heights location.
Each has a slightly different appeal. Shepherd is a low key, easygoing, come-as-you-are bohemian type of place. The Post Oak location appeals to the Uptown sophisticated crowd with a modern lofty feel. It’s very busy during the day, but quiets down at night.
The Heights location has a casual neighborhood feel with lots of pedestrian and biker traffic.
“I am definitely not savvy in regards to economics,” Jenni joked. “But I opened Jefferson during the fall of Enron, Post Oak in the midst of the recession and Heights just last July. Consumers want to go out, but don’t want to pay high dollars. While some higher-end restaurants may be hurting, we saw this as an opportunity.”
I also took this opportunity for a little selfish indulgence and inquired about the mystery ingredients behind one of my favorite dishes: the Buddha soba.
A well-balanced combination of buckwheat noodles, vegetables cooked in the right sequence, a little soy sauce and some sesame oil, later tossed with some ginger jalapeno soy made this culinary experience quite satisfying: High quality ingredients cooked simply and healthily.
“We are family that wants to share my family’s kitchen with the communities we are in. This is food I grew up eating. I feed my son, my family and it is good for everyone.”