Doing Good by Eating Well

By Brian Kuhl

Early last summer, a man of about twenty came to the Su Man Xiang Restaurant in Huzhou, China, looking for a job. No one else would hire him, he said, because he was from another province and they didn’t trust him. He told the owner, Lu Jianna, that he and his girlfriend had run out of money and had not eaten for three days. The staff at the restaurant, including Lu’s sister, were skeptical, but Lu decided to take the risk. She hired and fed him, and the stranger performed his duties without a hitch, helping out for a few days with cleaning and other tasks while earning enough for bus fare home. Lu’s actions were in keeping with her personal philosophy, captured by one of the framed quotations in Chinese hanging in the restaurant, which translates as “Keep a good heart, speak good words, do good things, be a good person.”

Su Man Xiang, which means “Many Tasty Vegetables,” offers a vegetarian buffet near downtown Huzhou. It opened in May 2014, when Lu took over the space of a previous restaurant. A meal costs 20 RMB and it is only open two hours for lunch and two and a half for dinner. If a customer arrives near closing, when some of the dishes might have run out, Lu charges just 10 RMB. It seems only fair to her. She is guided less by profit than by providing savory, nutritious food to any and all who come through her doors.

Lu’s generosity toward diners, however, comes with certain expectations. Her first goal for customers is that they enjoy their meal without wasting any food. If they don’t waste and they carry their own dishes to the bussing station in the back, she will thank them. (And most likely, upon seeing their intentions, she will then take their dishes from them.) If customers don’t follow these two basic courtesies, she gently reminds them. Once she asked a customer to bus his own dishes, and he became angry, saying, “Do you want me to wash them, too?” This is all part of her vision for the restaurant: she believes it is a small thing, but if people can “do good” at the table, they will take that lesson with them and do good in other areas of life, too.

“The happiest people are not the ones who are rich but those who give their love to other people.”

This leads to Lu’s second goal, which influenced her decision to hire the young man in need of a job: to bring people together to accept and help each other. She follows this herself by donating part of the restaurant’s earnings. For this purpose, a heart-shaped donation box sits on the counter by the cash register. She originally put it out so customers could donate more than the cost of their meal, as her revenue barely covers expenses. But Lu later changed her mind and decided to “re-donate” the money donated to her. Her first contribution was to help pay the hospital bill of a worker at another restaurant who was burned in a kitchen gas explosion. “The happiest people are not the ones who are rich but those who give their love to other people,” she explained.

One day last August, I spoke with Lu when the restaurant closed between meals. It was a typical summer day in the Yangtze River delta—hot and steamy—and the dark sky threatened rain. My wife and I first went for lunch, and every seat in the place was taken except for two, which we secured before going up to get our food. Most diners looked to be in their twenties and thirties, though a few children and seniors were sprinkled in the crowd. One woman, professionally dressed in all black with her hair in a neat bun, sat feeding a small boy on her lap. A man in gray shorts and an Adidas T-shirt sat alone, white iPhone earbuds dangling from his ears. And at half past twelve, in walked a monk in saffron robes. Lu greeted all of them like old friends.

The interior is bright and sparse, one large room with decor consisting of large framed quotations in Chinese hanging on white walls.The long buffet runs down the middle—an island between two communal seating areas—with fourteen stainless steel chafing dishes on each side. More platters and serving dishes line a raised shelf in the center of the island. On each end sit pots of soup. Lu and her sister, Lu Meihu, regularly patrol the island, taking empty pans into the kitchen to be refilled and bringing out new dishes. Opposite one end of the island, on a small table next to the kitchen door, are three large dispensers containing juices: cucumber, watermelon, and sweet potato. Dishes regularly include Chinese cabbage, eggplant, bok choy, cauliflower, broccoli, tofu, potatoes, noodles—far too many to list.

Lu Jianna
Lu Jianna at her restaurant.

After we ate, my wife and I went for a walk in the neighborhood until closing time; we returned just as the first drops of rain fell. This was the time Lu and her staff had their own lunches, and she came up to us, plate in hand, and said, “Hi!” in English. Lu is forty-something with short auburn hair and a quick smile. She wore a navy blue dress with a bright splash of pink running the length of one side, contrasting light and dark. We urged her to finish her lunch first, but she motioned for us to sit and told us her story while she ate.

Before opening the restaurant, Lu worked for Nuskin, a direct sales company of skin care products and nutritional supplements. She chose Nuskin after learning that the company donated money to help people in Malawi. One day she traveled to Ningbo for business and, by chance, went to a restaurant there called Su Man Xiang. She liked its concept and thought it fit her personal philosophy well, so she talked to the owner and asked if she could model her own restaurant on his. He agreed, even allowing her to use the name.

When Lu opened her version of the restaurant last year, friends urged her to find another location in a more prominent area; the restaurant it replaced had closed for lack of business, and they were afraid Lu’s would suffer the same fate. On opening day, however, Su Man Xiang had two hundred customers—without any advertising. Business has been booming ever since, so much so that Lu worked seven long days a week for the first three months (with just half a day off once when she was sick).

She begins each day at 7:00 a.m., when she arrives at the restaurant and cleans “every corner.” At 8:00, her regular vegetable supplier delivers the day’s produce that had been ordered the night before. Then she heads out to shop at local markets, for something particularly fresh that catches her eye or just a good bargain. When she returns, the staff has already begun preparing lunch, served from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Afterward, she and the staff have their own lunch for the next forty minutes or so, and then the workers go home while she stays to do some cleaning and sorting of leftovers. “They all work harder than me,” she said, “and deserve a good rest.”

Table sign asking customers to cherish their food and bus their dishes when done.

The workers return between 3:00 and 3:30 to prepare for dinner, which is served from 5:00 to 7:30. Again, they all eat after closing, and for the last half hour or so, Lu cleans up and places the next day’s order with her supplier. She leaves around 9:00 p.m. At home, she only has time for a shower and short rest before going to bed. The next morning, it starts all over again.

I asked her about the role Buddhism plays in her life, since it has such a strong presence in the restaurant. In addition to her personal beliefs and some of the framed quotations, Buddhist-themed books and CDs are available near the entrance, on shelves behind the register. They were donated by customers, not for sale but just to share for the enjoyment of all. She said when she was really young she thought all religions were superstition. Later, she met a “master” who explained Buddhism to her and she accepted it. She became a vegetarian because of her Buddhist faith as well as the cruelty involved in slaughtering animals. She doesn’t pray a lot or practice religion through rituals because she says they are just formalities, and she believes more in action. “By doing [good works],” she said, “I get happiness and it’s almost like worship.” And she welcomes every religion, she added, because they all encourage people to love each other.

Our final visit to Su Man Xiang came on the evening before my wife and I left Huzhou. The crowd was lighter than usual, with the diners spaced out evenly among the tables and the atmosphere quiet and peaceful. Lu and her sister floated around as usual, wearing white face masks, aprons, and rubber gloves; they chatted with customers, wiped down the tables as soon as someone left, and kept an eye on food levels. Once while walking by me, Lu stopped to recommend that I try the boiled peanuts.

When we were finished, my wife and I took our plates to the bussing station. Lu met us there and made a motion to help me. “Mei guanxi,” I said to let her know I would like to do it myself. But as I waited for my wife ahead of me, Lu gently took the dishes from my hands. “Thank you,” she said. “You don’t waste any food.”