Alright, so it’s not a pancake. It’s a bing — or more properly, a jianbing — and Brian Goldberg, founder of Mr. Bing, would be the first to correct you. Says Goldberg:
“I used to eat jianbing every morning outside my school for breakfast. We loved it, we all ate it, and it was kind of obvious that this food deserved to be in America.”
The recent crossover of jianbing to the states kind of parallels Brian’s own international origin story. As a student, Brian was the first Chinese major at Brandeis University, where he would play an important part in founding the school’s Chinese program. His first contact with jianbing — the sweet, savory, crispy breakfast pancake that would later change his life — was while studying abroad. The classic street food is filled with egg, scallions, sauces, chili, and generally costs about $0.50 — a broke student’s dream.
Goldberg with Master Ban, his jianbing teacher and originator of the Mr. Bing recipe
After his initial China run, Brian embarked on a ridiculous journey of self-discovery, taking on pretty much any industry you can imagine. He became a professional athlete, competing in the World Cup luge circuit. He did a graduate degree in Asian Studies at Columbia, where he wrote up what he thought would be a throwaway business model called “Goldberg’s Chinese Crepes” for a class assignment. He got hired as a page for 30 Rock, giving bilingual tours in English and Mandarin.
“I was like Kenneth from the 30 Rock show,” he admits with a laugh.
After NBC realized their page who spoke fluent Mandarin could be doing a lot more than giving tours, they sent him out to Singapore to help produce TV news for CNBC Asia. Within a few months of that, he got hired by a different TV station as an onscreen reporter, where network execs asked him to cover sports and the 2004 Olympics in Athens because of his pro athlete experience. A few years later he found his way into finance, and spent the next decade trading stocks in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Mr. Bing’s BBQ Pork Jianbing
But he couldn’t forget the bing. He recalls:
“Six years ago I started getting that little bug inside me to start my own business. I thought, one day when I die, I want to be able to say I changed the world a little bit. I wanted to make something physical, something tangible, something with a brand.
“When you’re trading stocks, you can’t touch it — it’s electronic numbers moving back and forth. It’s interesting, you make great money, you learn a lot…but I wanted to make something of my own. I felt like anybody could take that seat and do that job. While in Beijing for a weekend trip six years ago, I ate jianbing again for the first time in a long time. I got really inspired and I thought, ‘You know what? Maybe now is the time to do this jianbing business.'”
Without hanging up his equity trading cape, Brian launched the first Mr. Bing on Wellington Street in Hong Kong. The store was a hit with mainlanders and Western expats, routinely drawing a line out the front door. But generally speaking, the Hong Kong crowd doesn’t tend to fawn over northern Chinese food, and eventually Brian decided it was time to go all in, and bring jianbing home. After 14 years abroad, he moved back to New York, and brought the bing with him.
“I moved back like two years ago. I took some time off, thought about things, and studied the US food atmosphere, and then I decided it was time to restart Mr. Bing in America, in New York.”
The first step was pop-ups. The team started hitting pop-up serving stations around the city, and earned the award for Best New Street Food of New York 2016. This year, Mr. Bing moved into its first permanent location next to Grand Central Station, and its second location in the East Village is already a smash hit. Now Brian has stores and serving stations opening up in Chelsea, Madison Square Park, and Bryant Park.
Mr. Bing’s East Village Location
“People like it, and they like what we represent. They’re looking for more cool, authentic Chinese foods in America now, and that’s what we do. We’re not just a restaurant – we’re a US-China cultural bridge. We even offer our staff one hour of free Mandarin lessons a week if they want. We’re bringing the two countries closer together with a new, cool take on Chinese street food and the atmosphere we build around it.”
What’s next for Mr. Bing? The new kid on the block has already proven itself to be a serious entry into the NYC foodie scene, and Brian has no plans to slow down. There’s a mobile bicycle cart on the way, with a skillet on the back for catering, just like they do it in Beijing. They’re also about to start serving breakfast (a crucial step for what is traditionally a breakfast food). After that, it looks like more stores are on the horizon. Any way you slice it, the bing takeover looks like it’s here to stay.
“One day I want to see the word “bing” in Webster’s Dictionary. It’s not in there right now, but maybe five years from now the dictionary will have bing in there, as a savory Northern Chinese crepe — and we’d be kind of responsible for making that happen.
“That’s our mission — number one, introduce Americans to jianbing culture and what they are, and number two, to help Chinese people in America feel nostalgic about their childhood, and about home. They can get a little taste of home here in America. We love getting to do what we do.”
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