JoJo’s Café on Ocean Avenue is busy. Students from City College, families looking fora quick casual meal, seniors and working folks comprise the weekly clientele. JoJo’s has been serving American and Chinese food in the Ingleside since 2002, when Joanna Lei opened the restaurant with the help of her family. It remains an affordable and vibrant business in an area where there are eight restaurants serving Chinese food in a two block radius.
“We don’t want to make the prices too high,” Lei said. “Otherwise some people cannot come in to eat. There are lots of students and families nearby who do not have a lot of money but they need the energy to work, learn, and play.”
Lei’s commitment to serving one and all has earned her many loyal customers. Jamarian Caston, a football player and student at Riordan High, has been a patron of Jojo’s Café since the 8th grade. He’s now a sophomore and determined to get into the NFL. “JoJo’s has never let me down,” Caston said with a big smile.
The priciest item on the menu is the New York steak with bread, soup and two extra sides at $13.95. District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee, whose usual order consists of pancakes, sausage and eggs for $5.70, is also regular. Last May, Yee awarded the Lei with a certificate of honor, thanking her for “inspirational and exemplary business.” “We honored Joanna was because we felt that she had a strong commitment to the community,” Yee said. “To me, she’s a valuable asset to this district.”
“The neighborhood is growing slowly and I want to see more,” Lei said, acknowledging that growth will be especially dependent on more business owners from the community feeling comfortable enough to share their views. Lei doesn’t usually see the other Chinesesmall business owners at community meetings. “Maybe it’s because of the language barrier,” she said. “Some people might not feel comfortable because of the communication problem.”
Lei is about five feet tall, wears a low ponytail and side-swept bangs. She can be spotted taking business calls on her Bluetooth, standing behind the register or tending to a broken fan above the stove. She puts in 14-hour days every week. “If you keep moving, you stay alive,” she said. Lei credits two women in her life for her work ethic. Her grandmother, 94, is alive and living in China while her mother passed just three years ago. “That was hard for me. She always helped. A very strong lady,” Lei said.
Lei didn’t get to spend much time on her own education but said she wants her two children to focus on theirs. She has a 12-year old daughter and an 8 year-old son. “My daughter helps me here sometimes but I just want my kids to pay attention to school,” she said. “I don’t want to put much too much pressure on them.” Lei’s experience in the restaurant business began twenty-two years ago when her family opened Grand Cafe on Market and 6th street, just a few years after emigrating from Canton to the United States.
In Canton Lei’s parents grew vegetables and tended pigs and chickens. Lei and her three brothers went to school in their village but said education was minimal. As a young teen, Lei stopped going to school altogether. “At that time, our country was rough—all farm work,” she said. “A lot of people were emigrating. They liked America. They liked the freedom.” Her family initially considered the possibility of emigrating through letters from Lei’s aunt in America.
Though Lei’s family were six of 346,747 Chinese immigrants to the USA from 1981-1990, it took ten years before their immigration papers were approved. She and her family landed just after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. That year, Chinese leadership declared martial law on student protestors in Tiananmen Square critical of the communist government. The New York Times reported 300 deaths as troops were ordered to fire on the demonstrators, but the actual number is suspected to be higher. The massacre marked its 25th anniversary this past June.
Lei remembers the protest but only knew about it through talking to other villagers. News coverage was scant and controlled by the Chinese government. Although protests spread to 400 cities outside Beijing, Lei felt far from the events. Her memory of China is sparse and said she didn’t think too much about the political and social unrest in the country at the time. “In my life I have spent more time in America than I did in China,” she said. “I was a kid then.”
When the family arrived in America, they relied on the help of relatives to get settled but Lei said they worked hard and “started at zero.” The family lived in Chinatown on Powell Street. Lei and her brothers shared one bedroom while her mother and father slept on a bed next to the stove. Lei’s father worked at a fish market nearby and started to save money.
After three years, Lei’s family opened Grand Cafe. There they served American breakfast and comfort food to a neighborhood still notorious for its grittiness. Lei quit attending Newcomer High School to help her family at the restaurant, noting that the business was sometimes a challenge. “It was a tough neighborhood,” Lei said.
“There was stealing, fighting and people would eat and run.”
Doing business on Ocean Avenue has had its challenges as well. A fire started in the kitchen in 2010, causing the restaurant to close for a year as repairs were made. Lei said it took another six months after that for her customer base to return to normal. It’s fair to say Lei would not be where she is had she not relied on her ability to adapt, accommodate and persist. When speaking of opening JoJo’s, she was reminded of her family’s first restaurant. “Again, we started at zero,” she said.