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When the doors of one restaurant closed, a takeout window opened

In the midst of a global pandemic, two strangers, a chef and an entrepreneur, took a big risk on the humble rice roll — and it has paid off.

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The night that Chef Richard Chan first welcomed Samuel Lai to his restaurant Yummy Tummy, he had no way of knowing that it would be one of the business’s last.

Yummy Tummy had opened in 2018 to enthusiastic reviews, sending New Yorkers flocking to its lively dining room in Queens, where Chan enjoyed chatting with customers after every dinner service. So when his floor manager Vin Ho told Chan last February that he had a friend who wanted to say hello, Chan brought out a bottle of wine to welcome him. Chan and Lai hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared love of street food, and promised to meet again soon over another Yummy Tummy meal.

A month later, Covid-19 struck. When Governor Cuomo issued the order to shut down all eat-in dining across New York, Yummy Tummy’s successful business dried up overnight.

“We were never a takeout restaurant, and we couldn’t build up that business in the midst of the pandemic,” Chan explains. With Flushing’s steep rents and a landlord who was unwilling to negotiate, the costs of staying closed started to pile up. Finally, having accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in debt, Chan decided to call it a day.

Stuck at home, it would have been easy to sink into the same kind of depression many Americans faced in those early days of the pandemic. But the idea of quitting never so much as crossed Chan’s mind. “I never use the word ‘hopeless,’” he says firmly. “I’m 58 years old and that is a term I have never used in my life. You adjust. You change according to the situation.”

That’s when the call from Ho came in. That same friend from months before had an idea he wanted to discuss, so the three men made a plan to safely meet at Chan’s house over a home-cooked meal.

Lai’s vision was simple: a restaurant built around the rice roll. The starchy, steamed dish — a staple on dim sum lazy Susans and in the street stalls of southern China — is typically served with simple fillings like plump shrimp and topped with sweet soy sauce. But Lai imagined the rice roll as a template for any number of flavors pulled from cuisines around the world. He just needed a chef.

Samuel Lai, Congresswoman Grace Meng, Chef Richard Chan, and Vin Ho at the grand opening of Rolls Rice.
Courtesy of Samuel Lai

Chan confessed that he had never cooked a rice roll in his life. On top of that, it was no small ask to go into business with someone he’d met only once, in the midst of a global pandemic.

“In these uncertain circumstances, he says, “everyone is very afraid.” He understands the fears running through everyone’s minds: Shouldn’t you be conserving your resources? Shouldn’t you wait and see and see what the pandemic holds before you do anything? You guys just met! How did you trust each other to start a new food venture in these uncertain times?

But it wouldn’t be the first time Chan had taken a risk to reinvent himself. Almost 40 years ago, Chan moved from Singapore to the United States, and spent the first three decades of his career in the travel industry before giving it all up to pursue his dreams of becoming a chef. His belief in himself and his skillset had paid off the first time around — but this time, he decided to place his faith in Lai.

Lai, whose own career had been in the private events industry, was also taking a risk by investing in a business partner whose last venture had been forced to close, leaving him in arrears. But he remembered that first meal at Yummy Tummy, and the way he’d come away “inspired” by Chan’s creativity in the kitchen and their immediate personal connection. Catching Chan in a moment of transition started to feel less like a risk, and more like an opportunity. Trusting in him, Lai explains, was about focusing not on “whatever had happened in the past,” but “on what he can actually do now, what kind of future he can build tomorrow.”

Instead of worrying about their many differences — in age, background, and personality — Lai says, “we evolved the business to everyone’s strength.” Lai would cover the business side of things, allowing Chef Chan to stay focused in the kitchen. Ho joined the team as well, using his communications background to plan a digital content strategy.

The next few weeks played out like a movie montage, as the three of them performed dozens of taste tests until they’d found the perfect rice roll recipe. Meanwhile, Lai pounded the pavement, haggling with landlords until he found the perfect space tucked into a mini mall on Flushing’s bustling Main Street. Mimicking the street food culture they both loved, the small restaurant—unlike Yummy Tummy—would specialize in takeout.

In October, Rolls Rice made its debut with a menu featuring dishes named after Asia’s biggest airports — the KUL rice roll features Malaysia’s curry flavors, while BKK is stuffed with Thai minced pork — in homage to Chan’s career as a travel agent. The fledgling business quickly generated buzz through its novel concept and, more importantly, mouthwatering flavors.

“I hope [our story] inspires people,” says Chan, reflecting that the massive risks each of them took has more than paid off. “At the end of the day, you have to believe in yourself and believe in the people you go into business with.”

The way these partners see it, this venture is only the beginning. “We’re like a record label,” explains Lai. “Richard is the label’s first artist, and Rolls Rice is just one song.”

But before branching out, Lai says he has big plans for his star act, Chef Chan — “I want to get this guy a Michelin star.”

Story by Julia Black

Illustrations by Brad Cuzen