For Jenny Liu of AW Lins, it is the cross roads nature of Little Rock that brought her here, but the influence she brings with her came from much further away.
Liu was born and raised in Southern China, where she became interested in broadcast journalism, even working for a local Chinese television station. She decided to come to America in 2006 to pursue a master’s degree in Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State. While working on her degree she met Andy Liu.
“My plan was to return to China after my master’s degree,” Liu says. “Then I met and married Andy. In a lot of ways it was my fate that brought me here.”
Andy had worked in the food industry for over 20 years, and at the time was a part owner of a group of Chinese restaurants throughout the Nashville metro called Fulins. Jenny quickly became a manager in one of the locations, and learned her way around the restaurant industry.
Fate again intervened when the owner of the Promenade in West Little Rock came to eat at one of the Fulins locations and thought it would be a perfect fit for the relatively new Promenade.
“He invited Andy back to Little Rock to look at the property. Originally we looked at the current Local Lime location, but it was not big enough for what we envisioned,” Liu says. “Finally we saw this spot and we really liked it. We debated on the decision for a couple of years and decided to do it.”
The Liu’s made the decision to break away from the Fulin’s concept and build something completely original and on their own, naming it AW Lin’s which opened in 2012. They started menu development with some base items from the Nashville locations, but it quickly evolved into a completely different menu.
One of the things that Jenny insisted on was bringing authentic flavors to Little Rock, something she found hard to find as she explored the community.
“My home region of China is known for spicy food, that is part of the reason we started the authentic menu and there are several spicy dishes on that menu,” Liu says. “We tried to incorporate authentic flavors from all over China and surrounding areas like Taiwan. It turned out to be something people love, we have people come from all over to eat the authentic menu, some coming regularly from two hours away.
The authentic menu took months to develop, and sourcing quickly became an issue. They made the decision to make all the sauces and flavors for the menu in house so that they can control the quality. It became hard finding the correct raw ingredients to make the dishes as authentic as possible. They have worked with local food distributors to bring some of it in, but they still regularly source a large portion of their ingredients from New York, where they are easier to find.
The authentic menu has existed as a bit of a secret, but has become so popular lately that they are looking at a menu change to merge the two menus. It is the popularity of the menu that has connected Jenny with a number of other Asian businesses owners. Through her relationships she has taken on an advocacy role in the community for the role of Asian businesses in Arkansas. She helped form the Arkansas Association of Asian Business that helps open doors and provide resources for Asian business owners.
In the restaurant, Jenny does a bit of everything and is almost always in house.
“I love to me here. I am usually managing, but I have a lot of different roles. I even jump in and make sushi, which is something I learned in Nashville,” Liu says. “I make some of our sauces, drinks, and handle the promotions for the restaurant. I am anywhere the place needs me to be.”
In 2013 the Liu’s decided to completely relocate to Little Rock, breaking off completely from their stake in the Nashville locations. It is a move that has made them fully invested in the Little Rock area. A few months ago they announced a second AW Lin’s location for downtown Little Rock to open shortly after the first of the year.
“Eventually is to add a few more locations, adding downtown is our way of testing expansion,” Liu says. “We are going to a smaller menu of some of our most popular dishes to create a concept that works well. For now though we really want to just focus on these two Little Rock locations and make them the best they can be.”
They are also working strongly on increasing the healthy aspects of their dishes and continuing to source higher increasingly higher quality ingredients.