Earlier in the year, before the world reopened, Downtown resident Elizabeth Harms had a brilliant idea.
Her apartment building was approached by a nearby chain restaurant and asked if they would like to participate in a group delivery service.
The restaurant would offer special items not on the menu, residents would pay their own way and the delivery would arrive at the same time.
It was going well, but a lightbulb clicked for Harms.
“I thought, wait a minute, we should be doing this for a local business,” Harms said.
The business of choice was JJ Bistro, located on the second floor of the building complex at Sakura Square on 19th and Lawrence street.
“JJ’s is my little local Chinese restaurant,” Harms laughed. “They’ve always been a go-to for me even when I didn’t live downtown. It’s a fantastic local treasure.”
Harms’ love for the cuisine, locality and attentiveness from owners Hui Chen and Jiarong Wang is why she’s glad the business is still here despite the ongoing battle with the pandemic.
We asked Denverites to nominate businesses they cherish that made it through the mandatory closures and other challenges of the last year or so. Harms and a few others gave JJ’s a shoutout in our survey.
Harms began frequenting JJ when she worked in the area. She’d eat there on her lunch break and enjoy the cheap lunch specials. She moved to the area in 2019 and continued to be a regular.
“There aren’t many independent restaurants downtown,” Harms said. “There aren’t many people who live downtown either. So, for really good Chinese food historically people have left downtown and gone to South Federal but JJ’s makes it so you don’t have to leave the area.”
Harms said the menu is vast, which made it a draw for the delivery service. She worked with Chen each week to create special menus to make it easier to choose and to think of special treats the restaurant could bring the residents.
There was Vietnamese tea, specialty egg rolls and sesame balls, just to name a few.
Through the process and numerous phone calls, Harms said Chen became a confidant.
“We had great conversations when I was calling to put together menus,” Harms said. “I went to China a few years ago and we talked about that and what it was like growing up in China. It was awesome and Hui is a wonderful person.”
For the Chinese New Year, Harms even gave Wang a red bag, which is a symbol of good luck. The color red in Chinese culture is associated with happiness, luck and energy.
Wang was ecstatic, Chen said. It was the first time he was given a bag by a customer.
Chen said that type of customer loyalty is what helped JJ Bistro stay afloat.
“Our weekly customers have been a big help,” Chen said. “Elizabeth helped and I wish we thought of (the delivery service) sooner.”
Chen and Wang, who are married, opened up JJ Bistro in 2005. Both were born in China and came to the U.S. in the ’90s. Chen said the pair owned a restaurant in Five Points but later moved it to Sakura Square. The square has a small Japanese garden and hosts the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. The Denver Buddhist Temple is also in the square.
If you aren’t looking for it though, you won’t find it. The restaurant is tucked away on the second floor with little advertisement. Most of the foot traffic comes from workers in the nearby office buildings.
The pandemic crashed hard on them, Chen said. Business was rough in the beginning and she and Wang wondered whether they would be shuttering their doors.
“Business hasn’t been good,” Chen said. “We had no business. We would wait around to see who would come in. We thought maybe we had one more month.”
But some help came from the paycheck protection program loans. Chen said the building landlord, Sakura Square LLC, also helped by lowering the rent.
Now that the pandemic restrictions have been lifted, Chen said more people are coming in and she believes once workers return to the office full-time, business will really start back up again.
“We’re excited to see people again,” Chen said. “It’s getting better. We watch our costs and the customers help. Sometimes we get bartenders and every time they come they tip and I feel bad because they don’t have money either. But we appreciate it.”
Harms said Chen and Wang were the main reasons why she wanted to help the local business through the delivery service.
Though, despite how well their relationship blossomed, Harms said she never met Chen in person.
“Ever since I answered the survey, I’ve been thinking I should go say hi to Hui in person,” Harms said.
On a recent Monday afternoon, she did. The pair put voices to faces and they reminisced about the delivery service and old conversations.
Harms ordered the fish in black bean sauce for later. Harms went to pay and Chen said no, so a back and forth ensued.
“Wang’s going to be mad,” Chen laughed. And Harms replied, “Don’t tell him.”
Then Harms asked, “Do you remember my apartment number?” Chen got it wrong at first but quickly gave the right answer.
“I’m good with phone numbers,” Chen said. “I memorize the numbers and that’s how I remember people and their orders.”
It becomes an almost familial connection between workers and consumers. Chen said sometimes when regulars don’t call, she worries, not for the business, but for the person because she’s gotten so used to hearing that same voice every Friday night ordering a beef and broccoli with no beef. Yes, that’s a real order.
And for Harms, that’s why she said she’ll always come back to JJ.
“I think (Chen and Wang) are good people trying to make due with a small restaurant,” Harms said. “I may not order from them once a week now but I’ll always order from them. When you find a place that’s good you stick with it.”
So, what business are you glad stayed afloat during the pandemic? Could be a bar, a salon or a local eatery. Fill out the survey and maybe next time you go, we can go with you!