Most Chinese food enthusiasts can’t resist fried dumplings, General Tso’s chicken and pork fried rice. The only problem consuming those dishes is they’re fried foods that are high in calories and aren’t really healthy for you.
Arielle Haspel, a certified health coach, decided to seize the day and do something about it: she opened Lucky Lee’s in Greenwich Village, dedicated to preparing healthy Chinese food, on April 8, 2019. She named it Lucky Lee’s because it had a traditional sounding Chinese name, though there’s nothing orthodox about the menu.
Lucky Lee’s is fast casual, no waiter’s service, and most entrées cost $11 to $18 each. The sesame chicken is baked, the coconut rice is steamed with coconut milk, and the cauliflower “fried rice” consists of organic brown-rice noodles with organic kale and snow peas.
In one video about Lucky Lee’s, Haspel said her goal in opening was “finding a healthier alternative to your favorite indulgent food.”
The menu stated that food is served with ingredients that are “gluten-free, wheat-free, peanut and cashew free, with non-GMO oil, and without refined sugar or food coloring.”
When I had lunch there recently, the General Tso’s chicken and grilled asparagus were tasty and lighter than traditional Chinese food.
Lucky Lee’s opening generated some controversy when the New York Times on April 12, 2019 reported that several Asian people were offended by Haspel’s comments that traditional Chinese fare was unhealthy, and her food was “cleaner” than most traditional Chinese fare. That controversy will likely fade as consumers decide whether reinvented Chinese food that won’t bust your waistline or raise your cholesterol level strikes a chord.
Here’s what Haspel said about what motivated her to open Lucky Lee’s:
Why open Lucky Lee’s?
Haspel: I was advised by health practitioners to eat less gluten, refined sweeteners and to limit fried foods, so I began developing gluten-free dishes across many different types of cuisines. American Chinese food is one of my favorite cuisines and my husband’s so I was inspired to make recipes for us in our own kitchen. One day we looked at each other and said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could order this food from a restaurant?” We stated to offer these foods to friends and family and got feedback on what they loved.
How did that lead to opening a restaurant?
Haspel: We put together a pop-up about two and a half years ago for family, friends and potential investors and ended up investing much of our money, and getting friends and family to invest as well.
How are you trying to reinvent Chinese food?
Haspel: I am a certified health coach who went to the Institute for Integrated Nutrition in New York (it’s now online). I modify recipes across many different cuisines to make them accessible to those with dietary requirements and food allergies. Lucky Lee’s is an extension of that. I’m complimenting the cuisine with ingredients that people with certain dietary requirements and food allergies can enjoy.
Why was the timing ripe?
Haspel: There’s a certain clientele craving health-forward food inspired by American-Chinese cuisine. Just recently a 16-year-old came in and ordered the first dumpling he had in his life because he had celiac disease. A mother came in with young children, one of them who was allergic to peanuts who couldn’t find a Chinese restaurant that didn’t have peanuts in the kitchen.
Why avoid serving fried food?
Haspel: With the rise of obesity and heart conditions in America, we are looking to find cooking techniques that benefit the health of the people we’re serving. We decided to not install fryers into our restaurants and bake the food, because of the quantity of the oil needed in fried dishes. Here at Lucky Lee’s we bake the sesame chicken and General Tso’s chicken to limit the use of oil.
You’ve kept the menu streamlined. Why?
Haspel: We’re in our opening phase. We started off with a small menu because we have a small kitchen. Because this is the first Lucky Lee’s, we wanted to test dishes with our customers first. In the future, we’ll be offering more dishes including soups.
Who’s your target audience?
Haspel: We welcome everyone. We are in proximity to many colleges (NYU, New School, Cooper Union, Cardozo Law School), and we have really wonderful neighbors, many of whom have lived in the area for 50 years. And we have many work spaces nearby including We Work across the street. And we attract many tourists.
How might you like to expand?
Haspel: We’re open to the opportunity of expanding Lucky Lee’s and creating a new, good experience with different cuisines.
Might franchising be in your future?
Haspel: I don’t like saying no to people but we are hoping to keep it close to the family. It’s a family-run business.
What was your reaction to the controversy stirred up by the New York Times article?
Haspel: I have to say our intentions were misunderstood. In the wellness world, when we used the word clean, we meant super-healthy. I have to say the hatred and criticism was shocking. This was over four years in the making; we had previewed the concept with thousands of people including many Asian-Americans. We’ve learned a lot and have been listening, learning, responding and changing.
Do you offer delivery?
Haspel: We start on May 15, partnering with Caviar. We’re very excited and think it can generate 50% of our business. It’s Chinese-style food and this is what people crave to order into their own homes. It gives people the opportunity that may not live in the neighborhood to try the food for themselves and their families.
Two years from today?
Haspel: We expect it to be a huge success. We anticipate sales increasing, and anticipate a new restaurant opening. and changing the conversation about healthy food.
What will determine your success?
Haspel: 1) the operations, 2) the marketing, 3) and the quality of the experience.
Anything to add?
Haspel: We never tried to replace authentic Chinese food. We’re making something totally different. There’s room for innovation and different cultures to blend.