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Restaurateur wants to eat well, do good

Updated: 2012-09-11 16:16
By Darnell Gardner Jr ( China Daily)
Restaurateur wants to eat well, do good

Fresh bread is one way Scott Ensminger tempts customers with Western fare. Darnell Gardner JR / for China Daily

For one genial American, achieving his dream is meaningless unless he can help others to do the same.

Scott Ensminger, 29, first came to China in 2005, after graduating with a degree in engineering. He came at a time when opening a restaurant abroad was but a leftover childhood aspiration.

Late last year, he decided to take that dream off the backburner and together with his wife and two others started planning Ahava, a quaint sandwich shop and cafe, tucked into an alleyway near the west gate of the University of International Business and Economics.

With Ahava, Ensminger wants to address what he feels are two of Beijing's missing ingredients: philanthropy and quality Western food.

While he was working on his menu, he was also working with local charities to locate and train three young men to work in Ahava.

In addition to serving tasty, fairly priced food, Ensminger and his business partners say they want their kitchen to become a platform for philanthropy.

Jiang Lixi, one of Ensminger's business partners, says Ahava is an opportunity to give back to the community.

Jiang says the three young men hired to work as waiters in Ahava, all orphans ranging in age from 17 to 21, too old to be adopted, but also too inexperienced to enter the workforce.

Ensminger says he teaches them skills they'll be able to use to achieve their own dreams in the future.

Song Liuxi, one of the waiters at Ahava, says the skills he's learning will help him achieve his dream of opening a chocolate shop.

"I've learned how to cook and how to communicate," says Song. "I've learned a lot from watching Scott talk to customers."

Another of Ensminger's staff, Wei Jian, says he's hoping to take the skills to university and then into a career as an accountant.

"This experience has transported me to another world," says Wei. "I want to help others with the skills I learned."

Ensminger hopes hiring the three orphans is just a start, saying there are a lot of opportunities for such philanthropy.

For now, however, Ensminger says he's primarily focused on getting Ahava on stable financial ground - a process he thinks might take a year or two - and interest more Chinese in Western-style food.

Not yet ready to start a career, when he first came to China, he enrolled in Chinese classes at a school in Qinghai. After a year of studying, he returned to the US for work, but was sent to help his company's operation in Hebei province not long after returning.

Ensminger says good eats are scarce around his company.

"We weren't even in a city. We were in a little factory town," he says. "Even the Chinese people complained about the food."

The idea of starting a restaurant was daunting at first.

"The difference between going to a restaurant and starting a restaurant is astronomical," he says. "Two years ago, I didn't even know where to find salt in China."

Ahava's menu reflects his American roots. It consists of a variety of salads, sandwiches, and specialty drinks. The cafe bakes its own bread, and desserts range from snickerdoodle cookies to homemade chocolate cake.

Ensminger says many of the items are modifications of recipes he's made at past restaurants, and others, like the Cuban panini, timeless classics.

Ensminger still splits his time working as an engineer, and says that background comes in handy in the kitchen.

"I can get into the science of it a little bit," he says. "I try to understand why exactly things are happening."

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