The first day that Cravings Deli opened, in 2018, it sold out of everything by 3 p.m.
“The community definitely embraced us,” says co-owner Anson Liu.
With a staff of about 20 employees, including three chefs, and help from family, the husband-and-wife team of Anson and Xin Liu have created a special space dedicated to authentic Asian foods in a community that was, by the Lius’ estimation, a bit of a desert. Their deli is located inside their specialty Asian market, Pacific Rim Foods, at 229 W. Kilgore Road, which opened in 2012.
“I came to Kalamazoo from Grand Rapids 15, 16 years ago,” Xin recalls. “I love particularly to eat. I was like, ‘I can’t believe there’s no Asian market!’”
Three years after opening Pacific Rim Foods’ original location, at 1926 Whites Road, the pair realized they would eventually need to expand into a larger space. They played with the idea of serving prepared food alongside their favorite Asian ingredients, snacks and other food items. When Tot to Teen Village, a locally owned and operated children’s clothing and furnishings store, closed its doors in 2017, they knew it was the right space for them.
With the move, they were able to add a new element to their Asian market: Cravings Deli.
“Anson came up with the name Cravings after we talked about concept,” Xin explains. “The whole concept is that we want to do food that’s a little authentic,” though they do embrace fusion trends, she says. Cravings Deli’s poke, for example, is a Hawaiian dish influenced by Japanese cuisine and contains rice, raw fish such as tuna, soy sauce and sesame seeds, among other ingredients, and is a popular menu item.
“Chinese-American food is always kind of the trend in America,” Xin says. “We felt like there was so much missing out of the truly Asian cultural foods. We’ll cook whatever the customer craves or whatever our chefs crave.”
The deli menu offers everything from Chinese to Thai to Malaysian dishes and more, all made in-house. The ramen, a Japanese noodle dish, along with the poke dishes, is particularly popular.
Xin estimates that after six months the deli had sold about 50,000 potstickers, filled Chinese dumplings, all of which were handmade. This harkening back to traditional Asian dishes is something Xin is adamant about.
“Sometimes, you know, my chefs say, ‘Just stop doing that. No one does that anymore,’” she says. “But I feel like that’s the whole idea of Cravings. I try to make things that are from how my grandmother used to make them rather than be so 21st century, where everything’s mechanical and everything’s moving away from the original grandma touch.”
But don’t be fooled by the “grandma touch.” Preparation of ingredients, like the dough used to make potstickers, is not for the faint of heart or sore of back. In fact, the process is so intense that the deli is closed Mondays and Tuesdays to allow the staff to prepare what will be needed that week.
“The amount of work that goes into each potsticker is fun when you’re doing 30 for your family,” Anson says. “But when you’re doing 500 in a day, it’s a lot of work and you can’t stop. It’s like a production line. Once you get going, you can’t think, ‘Oh, I’ll take a break from here.’”
Passion for good food
It’s no accident that the pair have put so much love and dedication into the market and deli — food was the foundation of their relationship.
“I got him through his stomach,” Xin says with a laugh.
Both Anson and Xin grew up in China before moving to the United States at 16 and 13, respectively. When Xin moved to Kalamazoo from Grand Rapids for a job as a banker with JP Morgan Chase, she rented living space from Anson’s parents. Over time, the smell of her cooking drew him to her door. Eventually they started having dinner together, and the rest, as they say, is history. The pair married in 2008 and opened Pacific Rim Foods four years later. When Xin gave birth to their son seven years ago, she took a step back from working in the store and Anson picked up the slack, working 50 to 60 hours a week.
“I feel like he’s very much the visionary,” Xin says. “He always keeps on pushing the whole entire business, even me, saying, ‘Let’s move on to the next project. How do we do better? Let’s keep going.’”
Xin says she focuses more on the efficiency of the day-to-day operations, maintaining the quality of the products they supply and managing the kitchen. Xin was also responsible for supplying the majority of the recipes for the deli’s offerings.
“I would say Xin is the one who manages the quality of the food, the quality of our selection,” Anson agrees. “She has the unique tastebuds. I often ask her opinion on what’s the best product. If I have six products, which two would she choose?”
It’s not always easy to work together, though, Xin says, as Anson’s visionary nature often takes him “flying to the moon,” whereas Xin is more grounded in her approach.
It “has been a fun journey,” she says. “On the bad days, I’m like, ‘I’m never going to do this again!’ But then two days later, I’m like, ‘So, what are we going to do next?’”
Having experienced a taste of the culinary world with Cravings, the pair have set their sights on a sit-down restaurant with that “grandma touch.” But, as is the case in every facet of life these days, Covid-19 has made that venture a bit more complicated, Anson says.
“We have made a commitment to build a new location (in Texas Township). The architect expects 12 to 14 months for completion,” he explains. “We were expecting the Covid situation would die down towards the end of the year, but it seems to be doing exactly the opposite. So we want to wait until the health code comes out (regarding): What is the post-Covid regulation for building a restaurant?”
Still, he and his wife are looking forward to expanding on what they’ve started with Cravings.
“We’re trying to avoid the term ‘high-end,’” Anson says of their vision for the restaurant. “For us, we didn’t get brought up in the environment of going to a fancy restaurant, so we don’t really know what people’s expectations are. We just want to do our food the best way we can while maintaining a reasonable price.”
“I feel we’re only 70 percent of where I want (the food) to be,” Xin says, explaining that the deli atmosphere requires quicker turnaround for every order than what she thinks is ideal. Dishes like lamb chops, for example, take more time to reach the high quality that she aspires to serve.
“There’s a next level we couldn’t do in this location,” Xin says. “Higher quality, high presentation — that’s what we’re trying to go for.”