The story behind Bento Cafe starts with a small Taiwanese family in Gainesville, Florida. The family developed a notable culinary background by operating and managing different types of restaurants throughout the years.
The siblings Jimmy, Johnny, and Johanna, being part of the culinary world from a young age, knew they wanted to carry on the legacy of their father, Steve.
With graduation from the University of Florida quickly approaching, Jimmy and Johnny had the opportunity to carry on the family business – in a fresh way.
They wanted to uphold the deep roots in Sichuan cooking instilled by their parents, but in more of a modern Asian-American style appealing to the younger crowd. The brothers wanted a cool, casual hangout spot where you could meet up with friends and grab a quick bite.
In 2002 when the perfect location presented itself, Bento was born as a 40-seat restaurant on Newberry Road. Nine locations in five cities and a growing team of 500 individuals later, Bento enters its 15th year this fall.
We take a deeper look at where it all began at the original location in Gainesville, Florida.
Paving the Way
Growing up in the restaurant world, Johnny remembers working every position at his father’s earlier restaurants (Szechuan Omei and Szechuan Panda in Gainesville) from bussing tables to cutting vegetables.
“When I was in college, I remember my dad taught me how to flip the wok, and how to control the fire temperature,” Johnny says.
Steve’s children wanted to bridge the gap between the more traditional experience and the first-generation Asian-American palate. “We wanted to make it our own,” comments Johnny.
It was important to the family that the new idea featured a myriad of cultures and flavors. “We decided on the bento concept as it was an all encompassing Pan-Asian theme,” Johnny says.
It was a joint family effort as Steve developed the kitchen portion of the menu, Jimmy and Johnny infused Pan-Asian flavors throughout the concept, their mother introduced boba teas from Taiwan, and later on, Jimmy incorporated sushi as part of the offerings.
When it first opened, there were lots of neon blue lights, shiny black tables, wooden chairs with an Oriental flair and dark blue tile, reports a Gainesville Sun article covering the opening.
In a freshly built plaza with some of its storefronts still under construction, the very first Bento with 2,000 square feet and 13 tables opened.
As the storefront was tucked in the corner and hard to spot, the restaurant had a humble start.
“For the first few weeks, I walked around the parking lot and next door to the Royal Park Theatre letting people know we were open, handing out menus, and introducing our concept,” recalls Johanna. “I even remember the table our first customer sat at.”
“She came in by herself and ordered a chicken with broccoli bento box. And I remember how excited we were when she returned the next day. It was slow for the first couple of months, but word quickly got around and soon you’d see all of your college friends there too.”
Once word got out, the Bento concept increasingly became popular.
“We started with a staff of 5 and quickly grew to 30 in the first year to meet the demand,” Johnny comments. “We had to change our kitchen layout a few times and had to keep figuring out more ways to produce the food quickly and efficiently without sacrificing the quality.”
Some of the fan favorites during the early days include the Szechuan beef noodle soup, Mt. Fuji roll, spicy tuna don, and curry katsu.
There weren’t many quick service restaurants (QSRs) serving Asian cuisine at this point, and Bento offered a different way of dining.
“[Customers] loved that each entree came in a boxed meal with so many sides,” explains Johanna. “They found our menu to be pretty unique with some familiar dishes like General Tso’s Chicken as well as authentic dishes like Szechuan beef noodle soup.”
A new beverage that Bento debuted was boba tea. “We were also one of the first restaurants to bring boba tea to Florida from Taiwan, and I remember giving out samples and informing customers what milk tea tastes like and what tapioca pearls were,” Johanna remembers. “The response was 50/50, some people loved the chewy texture and others needed to warm up to the idea.”
Honoring Original Values
While there are many things that have evolved within Bento over the years, there are challenges that naturally surfaced also.
“As we keep building new stores, we have to dedicate the same attention to the aging stores that have been around for 10+ years,” Johnny says. “Luckily, we have had the same passionate core management team in place for over 10 years now to keep Bento moving in the right direction.”
There are members who’ve worked their way up from day one, and have matured professionally with the company throughout the years.
As Bento continues to expand throughout Florida, there are customers who have grown up with the brand. “Since we’ve been around for 15 years, we’ve been able to see our customers eat at Bento from elementary school through sometimes even college,” Johnny explains. “As Bento has been growing outside of Gainesville, these customers can continue to enjoy Bento in all other cities.”
While the restaurant group seeks to expand further, Bento works to uphold Steve’s original vision. “Going into the 15th year and growing rapidly, we strive to deliver a fresh, quick, and casual dining experience without compromising quality,” says Johnny.
“Our parents sacrificed so much and worked so hard to pave the way for us that it would be a disservice not to take this opportunity to see how far we can go,” Jimmy adds.
To learn more about our origins, be sure to read more about our history.