By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Should entrepreneurs start small or big during a slow economy?
Last Thursday, Duc Tran and nine other investors made a bold move — opening a $3 million Asian restaurant. It is one of the biggest if not the largest in King County.
Tea Palace Asian Restaurant in Renton has a floor space of 20,000 square feet on one level and an 800 seating capacity. Located next to the Viet Wah Supermarket and mall in Renton, also owned and developed by Tran, Tea Palace has a beautiful grand entrance — much like a mansion with hundreds of parking spaces outside the facility.
In what used to be a church and an unimpressive office building, Tea Palace group transformed the whole site into a functional restaurant, which can be partitioned into four dining rooms and three VIP rooms. What other big Chinese restaurants don’t have, Tea Palace is trying to supply.
There are two separate bridal rooms and two designed stages. The main stage, 60 feet by 14 feet, is hidden with a built-in projector, camera, screen and runway for fashion shows and pageants. Unique to no other Asian restaurants, a grand piano sits on Tea Palace’s stage.
What other Chinese restaurants lack is also a good sound system. Danny Tuan Tran, the engineer who set up Tea Palace’s sound system, told the Northwest Asian Weekly that the restaurant has invested over thousands of dollars for its sound.
Tea Palace’s niche and investors
A Vietnamese Chinese, Tran does not think Tea Palace is a risky adventure. “There’s no risk,” he said. “It’s just like an investment, like you buy stocks. Food is an important part of the culture of the Asian community. They might eat less during a bad economy, but they still eat.”
Tran wants to present an upscale Asian restaurant to the mainstream, a restaurant that provides good service and is clean. “I want them to be proud of what the Asian community can do. I hope Tea Palace would change the negative way non-Asians think about Asian restaurants.”
Tran aims at big banquets and parties. Over the years, the Vietnamese community has grown and is known to hold lavish Chinese-style wedding banquets ranging from 300 to 500 people.
“Chinese and Vietnamese communities always celebrate weddings in a big way,” said Tran. “They like to invite everybody, the more the better. Just because the economy is bad, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get married and have a great wedding banquet. Tea Palace is the only Asian restaurant that can hold 800 people under one roof and still provide walking spaces for guests.”
With a 6,000 square foot kitchen, Tea Palace can easily handle big events. It also houses a cooking classroom for students interested in Asian cuisine.
On the other side of the storefront, a bakery will be opened soon as part of the Tea Palace eatery. A lounge will also be added later. For lunch, Tea Palace features Cantonese-style dim sum. While many Western restaurants’ bread and butter are their dinners on weekends, Chinese restaurants that serve dim sum are just the opposite. Weekend lunches are their golden business hours. Many dim sum restaurants frequently have long lines waiting.
Although Tea Palace opened without any fanfare last week, it ended up having lines outside the door for its weekend lunches. The owners are planning to have a grand opening later this month.
Presently, Tea Palace focuses on Chinese cuisine. When asked why no Vietnamese food is on the menu, one investor said that it might be added later. For Tran, “big” is the solution in dealing with the current economic climate.
He recruited a group of Vietnamese Chinese and Vietnamese to invest in the restaurant. One of them is Gene Sens, owner of three Renton restaurants with his Vietnamese wife, Huong. Sens believes that Renton is a booming town and Tea Palace could become its “anchor” business that attracts people from all over to visit the city.
When asked if Tea Palace’s development is competing with Great Wall Mall, also in Renton, Sens initially dismissed the idea, but added that they could be competitors “in a good sense.”
As for Tran, who survived as a boat refugee from Vietnam in 1976 and landed in America, Tea Palace and his three Viet Wah grocery stores and VW Trading Co. of wholesale foods, are not only a testimony of the American dream being possible, but also of his entrepreneurial spirit to think bigger and bolder. ♦
Assunta Ng can be reached at email@example.com.