The Bull City has a way of capturing the heart and mind of the compassionate. In interviewing over 100 individuals, with plenty more to go, a common theme has run through their stories – people in Durham genuinely care.
From politicians who work love into their campaign platform to the estimated 2000 Durham specific non-profit organization, there’s a lot of compassion in this city on every level.
It’s not uncommon to hear about hearts that were instantly captured by the Durham community or business owners actively seeking out the most ethical way to do business. Restaurant owners are no except to this. Quality ingredients, treating staff well, knowing customers by their first name and taking the farm-to-table concept very seriously is the norm in the “Foodiest City in the South.”
Janet Lee, owner of ZenFish Poke Bar on 9th Street, exemplifies this. Her love for Durham shines through everything she does, including supporting “The Bulls of Durham” living history book project.
She’s all in. Janet is a member of the Durham Chamber of Commerce, as well finding delicious and creative ways to support the community. Currently ZenFish is raising and matching funds to support Duke Children’s Hospital.
With menu items titled, Gratitude, Kindness, Courageous and Compassion – all made with locally farmed produce and fish caught of the North Carolina coast – it’s easy to see the Durham is in the details at ZenFish.
Read on to discover how Durham captured Janet’s heart and why ZenFish is an absolute Bull City Gem! You’ll discover that love is the truly what brought her to Durham.
Tell us a little about yourself in relation to Durham.
“I went to Duke for grad school. I didn’t know much about Durham, actually. After school, I went back to Los Angeles, where I’m from. I came back to North Carolina one weekend to visit some friends and from Durham. I came back and met my now husband, whose from Durham.
“We did the long-distance relationship for a while. I would visit him and I fell in love with Durham, the people, the community. I fell in love with this place. I could see a future here. It’s a good place to raise a family in the future. So, I took the plunge and moved out here for him.
I did corporate for many years. I realized that wasn’t my passion. It was actually with yoga. I was feeling stressed and not myself at work. My yoga teacher told me something along the lines of “Do what you love. This is your body. Take care of it. You only have one life.” That night, I put in my 30-day notice.
“My goals are grateful, kindness, compassion, courageous - all the words that really spoke to me over yoga. I wanted to create a place where I could incorporate Durham and incorporate my love for local farming and health. I want to showcase the story behind the farmers here. We want everyone to feel welcome here.
“My goal is to be able to fill these walls with showcases of stories of the farmer and do farm. We just had a farm tour with our customers. They got to go over there, see how the food was grown and how this stuff got into our bowl.
“How local can it get? It’s down the street, less than four miles from here. I think that’s so beautiful about Durham. There’s so many urban farmers here. There’s really no reason to go out of the state for everything that you need.”
What stands out the most to you about Durham?
“The welcomeness. I think what really separates Durham, it’s such a gem. People come to Durham for food. People of Durham are prideful. They are proud to be from Durham, but they are always welcoming to others. Whenever I tell people I’m from LA, they never give me the side eye. They want to hear my story. For me, that really separates Durham from the rest of the places that I’ve been to. It hasn’t been easy opening up this place, but my customers and my team really make it worth it.
“We have customers that come in and I’ve seen their child grow up - they’re taller and taller. And, I know their name. I know their story. They remember my story. They ask me how I’m doing. They’re bringing in gifts.
“I opened last week and randomly found this package wrapped in brown paper that says, “to the owner of ZenFish.” Being from Los Angeles, nothing good comes out of a brown package. I started poking it. Is it a bag full of dog mess? People want to prank you sometimes. It was a customer from Durham that left me a picture that said, “Your food inspired me to do this.” Who does that? Durham people do it!
“There’s so many different kinds of people from all walks of life. Then they come here together and they do things together. There’s some places you go, where people do things together because there’s nothing else to do. There’s a lot of things to do in Durham, but people want to do things together. It’s not because they have to - it’s because they want to. That’s another thing that’s beautiful about Durham. People really want to interact.”
In a city of constant change, what changes would you like to see for Durham?
“Honestly, I think that it’s moving at a pace that is very comforting to me. I don’t see any particular change that I want to see. Maybe better public transport. It’s really hard to get public transport on this side.
“There’s a lot of people that live in Durham who don’t speak English very well and I don’t think we have enough services for them. That’s what I see. Other than that, nothing I would change really.
“It could be because I’m so fortunate. I know that there are a lot of people hurting, as far as equality. We’re addressing the problems we have.”
What’s the one thing that you want people to know about Durham right off the back?
“Everybody deserves love no matter what. That’s the type of space I set out to create, beyond the food. It’s not just a poké place. It’s not just a small farmers’ place. It’s a place where I want people to feel comfortable being here, no matter what. I want them to know that even if they are having a bad day, they are welcome here. My staff is going to be extra nice to them.
“I feel like, if you need that extra encouragement, you know that you can get that from here. That’s my goal. Not, just the fish and the rice bowls and all that stuff. That’s actually on the side.”
Which bull in the city is your favorite?
“Probably Major. When I first moved to Durham, I was scared. I didn’t know anybody here. I thought the only Asian restaurant was Rainbow on Main Street. It closed down and became Goorsha. I went for a walk and I saw that bull. It was my first impression of Durham, actually. The Parlor wasn’t there yet. There were just old buildings and that magnificent bull.”
Truly appreciate Janet's support. She's a valuaBULL member of the Durham community and we're lucky to have her. If you're interested in having your business featured on TheBullsOfDurham.com to support the project while promoting your incrediBULL work check out the Bull City Business Package.