“Buddha Bowl” concept is a mindful fit for 2021
Most business advisors wouldn’t suggest opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic. Those same business advisors would also likely dissuade you from leaving your cushy hotel-chef position — with benefits, healthcare, and PTO — in the middle of a pandemic. But Chef Randy Dunn didn’t listen to those advisors.
He saw an opportunity and pounced, opening Zen Hen Café on October 21. “Which wouldn’t be a great day, even if it wasn’t a pandemic,” he laughs. “When you open a restaurant in normal times, it’s really a guessing game. But with COVID, you know where people’s minds are on sanitation, on healthy cuisine. You know where their wallets are, and you know a lot of things that you didn’t know before. I’m not saying that made it easier, but it made some of the decisions easier.”
Zen Hen specializes in Buddha Bowls, customizable single-serving bowls that give guests a choice of a base (rice, salad greens, slaw, potatoes, etc.); a protein (from rotisserie chicken to black beans, curried tofu to Scottish salmon); and a combination of four toppings (anything from bean sprouts to blueberries, chickpeas to cherry tomatoes, shredded cabbage or even bacon). Lastly, guests are given the option of a sauce to top off the whole bowl — maybe creamy roasted garlic for those craving a comfort food, or a spicy lemon cashew for the more adventurous eater.
“It’s kind of like poké, but with a lot more choices,” says Dunn, referencing the Hawaiian craze that has lately taken the U.S. by storm. (Poké is served in a bowl and usually features marinated raw seafood.) “If you multiply out the eight bases times the six proteins, and the 24 toppings, the nine sauces … there’s something like six to eight months that you could eat here every day and not have the same bowl twice.”
Beyond the customizations, the grab-and-go nature of the food seems to be a sticking point with diners. “In Henderson County, it’s pretty much either fast food or subs … pizza or tacos. And those are really your only options unless you want a really nice sit-down, hour-and-a-half meal,” he says. “So, especially with COVID, those days are gone. People want healthy food, they want it fast, so I definitely think we’re filling that niche.”
After 28 years as a hotel chef, with 13 spent at the Biltmore Park Hilton, Dunn was ready to do his own thing. Inspired by Tender Greens, Sweetgreen, and other salad chains, as well as BIBIBOP — a similar concept done with Korean food — he liked the quick, easy counter-service format, with the option of even ordering online for an even safer, quicker, in-and-out experience.
But knowing he was opening a Buddha Bowl concept in a small Southern city, in the middle of a global crisis, Dunn swung the concept toward the comfort flavors of the region. “At the Hilton, when I’d run a Buddha Bowl special, they were really popular, but only once people saw it,” he explains. “Once they see it, they realize, that’s just real food.”
So far, the bestsellers have been the salmon and the tofu, which surprised him: “I think a lot of people are just experimenting with that plant-based diet.” It only adds to the endless customizations available, where omnivores and vegans can order, side by side, with myriad options for each.
Dunn notes that he “stays away from refined sugars and make everything in house. We use as clean of food as we can afford; our chicken is antibiotic- and hormone-free — it comes out of Georgia, from Springer Mountain. Our tofu, greens, spinach, it’s all organic. And we just try to keep it fresh and keep it moving.”
While the Zen Hen model has a lot of potential for expansion, Dunn is keeping his eyes on what’s in front of him, focusing on the one location for now. “We’ve got to get the wheels moving on this bus — then we can see where it takes us.”
Zen Hen Café, 1794 Asheville Hwy.,Hendersonville, open Monday through Saturday, 10:30am-7:30pm. 828-552-4585. To see a menu or order online, visit zenhencafe.com. (Also on Facebook and Instagram.)