A storefront full of memories, history and sushi preserves the beginnings of a legendary Florida restaurant chain that started off Newberry Road.
Johnny Tung, 42-year-old co-founder of Bento, said he never imagined the amount of success Bento would have when their first location, 3832 W. Newberry Road, opened almost 20 years ago on Sept. 20, 2002.
Tung and his brother Jimmy Tung grew up exposed to the restaurant industry through their parents, who emigrated from Taiwan to New York City in 1976. As a first-generation American born in New York, Tung became accustomed to the atmosphere of Chinese restaurants that his parents ran since the time he was a child.
After moving to Gainesville with their parents in 1980, the brothers attended UF and helped shape the community by opening Bento — now a student staple and statewide chain with 25 restaurants from Tallahassee to Miami.
“We never really thought we would go into the restaurant business,” Tung said. “My dream was to move back to New York and work on Wall Street and 9/11 happened.”
After Sept. 11, Tung said the brothers ultimately decided to stay close to home.
“Me and my brother built a new concept called Bento using the skills that he learned in sushi, me and my father's Chinese cooking and the boba tea that originated from Taiwan,” Tung said. “We kind of put that all together to do more of a pan-Asian concept, rather than a strictly Chinese concept, which is what my parents were used to doing.”
Bento took a different approach to Asian cuisine that would later be recognized as a standout feature. Its self-serve style and bright, blue atmosphere make it the ultimate college-town dining spot for students looking for a quick bite.
Zinia Basil, a 19-year-old UF biomedical engineering senior, said the University Avenue location, which brought Bento to the edge of UF campus, is a solid option to eat food with friends after classes.
In 2007, the company opened a second location in Gainesville, starting the first of many corporate chain restaurants for the Bento franchise.
A core value that came with branching out — keeping the business close to home.
“We weren't concerned about making a whole lot of money because franchising businesses can be very lucrative,” Tung said. “We care more about having control over brand identity, brand standards, food quality and food consistency.”
After taking over Florida with its distinct approach to Asian cuisine, Johnny said the Tungs still look at the first location on Newberry as a place full of fond memories. After their father passed, Johnny said he hopes to keep the Newberry location there as their original — the place they opened together with their dad.
To celebrate the 20-year anniversary, Bento will be kicking off a three-day celebration starting Friday, Sept. 23. On Friday, $10 off a $40 order will be offered along with free merchandise to the first 20 guests in line. Saturday offers 20 percent off a kitchen entree and Sunday offers a free classic roll.
Bento is also offering a new special called “Dragon Drinks” Sept. 1 through Oct. 31 while supplies last.
With 20 years of experience under their belt, the Tung brothers are now looking at expanding Bento outside of Florida and stretching their local restaurant nationwide. But Bento will always have Gainesville roots.
For Ceilidh and Lorelei Johnson, 26 and 27-year-old longtime Gainesville residents, Bento has been a part of their history as long as it's been a part of the Tungs.
“We've been coming here since we were little kids,” Ceilidh said. “It's one of our favorite places to go for Asian food. It's like we've almost never had a bad meal at Bento.”
From a business started right out of college to a growing family-owned corporate chain across Florida, Bento celebrates 20 years of tradition on Sept. 20 and looks forward to 20 more.
Contact Ashleigh Lucas at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @ashlucas01.
Ashleigh Lucas is a second-year journalism student at the University of Florida and the photo and video editor for The Alligator. She previously worked as a photographer and videographer for The Alligator capturing news through her camera. In her freetime she enjoys binge-watching cheesy TV shows, practicing her photography skills and reading any book she can find.