You Will Find Double Happiness in Jianbing

Entrepreneur Brian Goldberg '99 serves up a cross-cultural food sensation on the streets of New York.

FUN FOOD: Brian Goldberg '99 with the Mr. Bing mascot outside the Chinese creperie's first brick-and-mortar location.
Jorg Meyer
FUN FOOD: Brian Goldberg '99 with the Mr. Bing mascot outside the Chinese creperie's first brick-and-mortar location.

On a sunny morning, tourists are crowding into New York City’s Times Square to take selfies with costumed characters and snag discount Broadway tickets. And, even at 11 a.m., a line is snaking along the sidewalk near Mr. Bing, a food stand in the middle of the pedestrian plaza.

Mr. Bing serves jianbing — “bing” for short — a savory egg-coated pancake wildly popular in northern China. An Asian couple sits down to share a traditional bing with vegetables. A family from Spain enjoys a sweeter version oozing with Nutella.

One woman wanders over to observe the cook, who ladles a thin layer of mung bean, crispy chili paste, rice and wheat flour batter onto a cast-iron griddle, followed by a layer of eggs, crispy wontons and a sesame scallion hoisin sauce. “What is it?” she asks.

Mr. Bing’s founder and CEO, Brian Goldberg ’99, happens to be standing nearby. His friendly quick-fire response is delivered in a style worthy of a carnival barker: “It’s a Chinese crepe folded up like a sandwich. Hot and soft on the outside, crunchy on the inside. Little bit of sweet, little bit of spicy. Lot of protein, lot of egg, lot of veggies. Lot of texture, colors, flavors. Mmm, delicious!”

The woman laughs and orders an $11 bing filled with Peking duck. That’s the goal, says Goldberg — introduce a street food from the Far East to Americans, one customer at a time. “If you can make bings famous in America, you’ve got a pretty good career ahead of you,” he says.

With that, Goldberg digs into his own steaming vegetarian bing with a side order of dumplings. He fell in love with bings while studying in Beijing as an undergraduate, sometimes eating them for every meal. He’s always thought Americans would feel the same way once they tried them, and — if Mr. Bing’s slow, steady success is any indication — he’s right.

Starting in late 2015, Goldberg launched a series of pop-up bing stands at festivals and events around Manhattan. Time Out New York named his jianbings one of NYC’s 100 best dishes of 2016. That year, Mr. Bing took home the Rookie of the Year prize at the Vendy Awards, the city’s biggest street-food competition. Since then, the treats have been featured on CNN and NBC’s “Today” show, and in The New York Times, which described Goldberg as “[doing] his part to make jianbing as mainstream as ramen.”

Now Mr. Bing has four locations in Manhattan, including a stall at the trendy Urbanspace@Vanderbilt food hall near Grand Central Terminal and the chain’s first brick-and-mortar restaurant, in the Chelsea neighborhood. Goldberg says the business is on track to bring in approximately $3 million in sales in 2018.

Jorg Meyer

“We have a small menu,” he says. “That way we can focus on doing something well instead of spreading ourselves too thin.”

A long and winding road to street food

Goldberg’s path to entrepreneurship has been an unusual one. Raised in Spring Valley, New York, about 40 minutes north of Manhattan, he earned a scholarship to Brandeis, where he played on the golf team and planned to become a doctor. As a sophomore, he was accepted into an early-decision program that both guaranteed entrance to Tufts University’s medical school and encouraged undergraduates to pursue nonmedical interests before graduation.

After spending a summer studying Mandarin in California and developing a fascination with Chinese cinema, Goldberg made a U-turn, ditching pre-med and deciding to major in Chinese studies. He spent part of his senior year in China and discovered jianbings.

“There are carts all over Beijing,” he says. “Outside the school was a little old lady on the street making bings every morning. So that’s what we ate for breakfast — and for lunch or dinner, too.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Goldberg enrolled in a master’s program in East Asian studies at Columbia University, where he also took a business course and crafted an early plan for a jianbing operation. “It was originally called Goldberg’s Chinese Crepes,” he says, “but ‘Mr. Bing’ is a lot more fun.”

He shelved the plan, however, to chase another dream: competing as an Olympic luge racer. Goldberg, who grew up skiing, tried out for the U.S. luge team at 17. Though he didn’t make it, he showed enough promise that the team’s trainers urged him to keep in touch. After Brandeis, he trained in Japan with the International Luge Federation while simultaneously taking classes at Columbia.

Goldberg eventually made it to the World Cup circuit, raced in two World Championships and qualified for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He was going to represent Israel as a dual citizen. “I was the Israeli team,” he says. “No Israeli had ever done luge before.” But he got cut when Israel, citing post-9/11 security concerns, decided to send a smaller delegation.

“It was incredibly disappointing,” Goldberg says. Nevertheless, the experience led to his next career step. When NBC did a segment on Goldberg in the run-up to the Winter Games, he was introduced to the behind-the-scenes world of TV news. He worked for a year at NBC in New York as a page before his fluency in Mandarin helped him land a job as an assistant producer in Singapore.

After three years as a producer and reporter at CNBC and Channel NewsAsia, he realized, he says, that “I was having a lot of fun but not making a lot of money.” Friends in finance suggested he try investment banking, and Goldberg spent the next nine years in Taiwan and Hong Kong as an Asian equity sales trader for Sydney-based Macquarie, Paris based Société Générale and other multinationals.

Jorg Meyer

Then a weekend getaway to Beijing rekindled the idea for Mr. Bing. “I had jianbing on the street again,” he says, “and all those memories came flooding back.” He’d also just read Howard Schultz’s book about guiding the Starbucks phenomenon as well as Ray Kroc’s tome on the founding of McDonald’s.

“I was inspired to create something,” says Goldberg. “I wanted to leave my mark on the world.”

From rookie to rainmaker

Using his own savings and funds raised from friends, he set out to open a small restaurant in Hong Kong and in 2012 began making trips to Beijing to meet with dozens of street vendors. He convinced one he calls Master Ban to sell him her recipes and brought her to Hong Kong to teach his staff her techniques.

Goldberg says the eatery was immediately popular with office workers from mainland China and expatriates from the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. But he still had a full-time banking job, and the venture was draining. Launching a second location the following year didn’t go so well. “It was probably too quick and in the wrong place,” he says. “Just some rookie mistakes when you’re doing something for the first time.”

Still, Goldberg had faith the jianbing concept would take off in America. After 14 years abroad, it was time to come home. He sold his Hong Kong apartment and moved to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Traveling the country to research culinary trends, he saw that food trucks and upscale food halls were growing in popularity, and had lower overhead costs than a conventional restaurant. Goldberg believed this might be the way to move Mr. Bing forward. “It’s food-cart food by nature, right? Everything just started clicking and making sense,” he says.

A big break came in November 2015 when Goldberg pitched jianbings to the operators of the Urbanspace@Vanderbilt food hall, which had opened just a few months earlier. They asked for a cooking demonstration the next day; he rushed to Chinatown to buy ingredients and a crepe machine. The bings were a hit. Goldberg was offered a spot at an outdoor holiday market Urbanspace planned to open the following week.

“In seven days, I incorporated the company, opened a bank account, went to Home Depot, and bought everything we needed to build a tent and hire a couple of staff from other pop-ups,” says Goldberg, who spent about $10,000 on the launch. “And voilà! We were off to the races.”

In the three years since, Goldberg has put about $300,000 of his own money into Mr. Bing, with additional help coming from small-business loans and institutional investors. The aim is to move the company beyond individual food halls and standalone kiosks into transit stations and airports. “Places where you’re on the go,” he explains.

Once the chain is firmly established in New York, he hopes to expand to Philadelphia; Boston; Washington, D.C.; and other East Coast cities, and sees more opportunity down the road in California and in international hubs like London and Tokyo.

“New York is a big town, but it’s one town only,” he says. “It’s a big world. There’s a lot of work to do.”

Heather Salerno is a freelance writer who lives in the Greater New York City area.

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