A fare of the heart

Updated: 2012-07-13 07:43

By Ji Xiang (China Daily)

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A fare of the heart

Scott Ensminger shows a hearty classic American sandwich at his home-style cafe Ahava in Beijing. Ji Xiang / China Daily

Engineer brings a piece of traditional American food culture to Chinese capital

When Detroit native Scott Ensminger arrived in China seven years ago, he had the dream job of many people.

As a full-time employee of an American glass company, he drew a good salary, the promise of swift promotion and an expatriate lifestyle admired by many of his Chinese contemporaries.

But the 29-year-old quickly realized his interests lay beyond the engineering skills required at his workplace - right back to his kitchen.

Surrounded by a smorgasbord of cuisines that reflected the sophistication of a culture deeply rooted in a proud culinary tradition, Ensminger decided he also had a responsibility to promote the comparatively younger foods of his home.

"Chinese people are very interested in the way the rest of the world lives. I wanted to bring something different and interesting to the Chinese public," he says.

So in May this year, he followed his heart by investing a great amount of his savings to open an American-style sandwich cafe in Beijing.

Ensminger named his cafe Ahava to express the deeper meaning and attitudes behind the Hebrew name.

"Ahava means love. Love for food, love for our customers and love for each other. Love for food means that our food should be good enough that I will be happy to eat here everyday," he says.

"Love for our customers means treating everyone with respect, dignity and giving them the best quality and service we can. It also means treating them like we would like to be treated ourselves if we were customers. And finally, love for each other means that as the partners of this cafe interact with each other and we also interact, work with and instruct our team, we will do it in love."

His menu includes hearty classic American sandwiches such as California Turkey as well as those from further afield such as the Cuban Panini and Elena Ruz, with ingredients that are brought in straight from the United States, Europe, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Ensminger wants his shop to help transform the way Chinese people think about American food and contribute, however small, to the "international appeal" of China's large cities.

"So far the results have been good and people are happy with their experiences at our cafe. However, the American way and the Chinese way are very different, and sometimes apologies need to be made because there are misunderstandings that come along," he says.

Ensminger says international sandwich chains such as Subway have already helped introduce Chinese diners to the sandwich as a meal in itself.

"Beijing is an international city that should have the best international cuisine," he says.

Ensminger's confidence in his products comes from the essential elements behind his establishment - quality food and prices, together with traditional menus that are also innovative, to incorporate the latest trends such as fusion and organic dishes.

"What we do is totally different from anyone around and possibly from anyone in the city. People might say we have similar offerings as Subway or some of the coffee shops, but when those people come in and try what we actually serve, they will say that we are serving something totally different from any of those places," he says.

"We use safe ingredients that of course we would eat ourselves, recipes that use mostly homemade ingredients, and then we price them based on making a modest profit."

Ensminger also says his skills managing the kitchen might not be that far removed from his engineering days.

"Working as an engineer, in China really was what got my foot in the door. When I came to China to work as an engineer, I had no understanding of how Chinese people interacted on a professional level, how they got things done and what was the best way to motivate them and work with them as a team. I can't say I've mastered any of that but at least I was able to get a feel for it. Without those experiences I surely would've failed."

Giving up a decent job as an engineer was a tough decision, but Ensminger stresses that it is passion and desire that really matters.

His inspiration - "good is great's biggest enemy" - is a piece of wisdom taken from the book Good to Great by Jim Collins.

"Many people fail to reach greatness because good is so easy to settle for. Most people would agree that being an engineer with a good salary and being able to live in a nice part of the US is very good. But I didn't want to settle for good, I wanted to try for great and see what happens," he says.

"It's very possible that I could fail completely and I could end up looking for another job as an engineer. But at least in the end I can say I have tried, and that is important to me. My biggest fear in life is to look back on it and say 'I could've done so much more'. Hopefully, that won't be a problem for me."

While Ensminger falls back on traditional American recipes and ingredients to sell his sandwiches, he does use modern technology, such as weibo, or Chinese micro blog, to market his shop.

"The most important part about our weibo is keeping our name in people's minds and informing them of what's going on in our shop. We can put stupid pictures up, famous quotes, crazy news, anything really, and people will comment and repost it," he says.

"We try to keep them related to the shop but really anything to keep people thinking about Ahava."

Still, Ensminger's businessman instincts have not dampened his love and curiosity for Chinese culture.

"Everyone comes to China for different reasons. Many come to take as much from this country as they can, which I think is sad. But I do know many people who come here looking to add to the culture, to do things to benefit the country and its people and not just capitalize on what is happening here."

Contact the writer at jixiang@chinadaily.com.cn