By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
After hosting countless weddings and social events, Ocean City (OC) restaurant, the biggest restaurant in Seattle’s Chinatown, finally ended its own party and history of 31 years on Nov. 30.<!–more–>
Instead of tears and sorrow, owners Christine and Tim Lee, dining with their 10 employees and a few customers, were smiling at their last supper in the restaurant, which was considered an institution in Seattle’s Chinatown. Its two floors could seat up to 850 people for banquets.
A year ago, the Lees leased more than three-quarters of its restaurant to Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, a chain restaurant from China. Last October, Little Sheep opened with a facelift, remodeling from top to bottom with a $2 million price tag, next to the remaining OC restaurant’s snack bar.
Why did the restaurant close? “We have not been able to make money for the last five years we took over from our family,” said Christine. “We practically worked for nothing.”
“Three factors led to the decline of OC,” said Tim. “Wage increases, food price increases, and yet we can’t raise the prices on our menu. Customers objected…Chinese restaurants have this problem nationwide. People refuse to pay for quality Chinese food, so we can’t afford good chefs,” he said.
“Look at P.F. Chang [chain restaurants]—it doesn’t offer cheap prices and customers accept the price. It means they respect the restaurant and what it tries to achieve in food culture.”
“We need new ideas of managing Chinese restaurants,” said Tim. “And Little Sheep is on the right track.”
The second week Little Sheep opened, it served close to 1,000 diners over its weekend with lines of people waiting.
Golden Zhang, chairman of Little Sheep North America International Group, decided to lease the whole restaurant.
The offer meant OC had to shut down.
Tim thinks Little Sheep’s management will work. He said Little Sheep plans to turn the original snack bar into a lounge for drinks and waiting area for tables. It will feature new varieties of bubble tea with fresh tea leaves, rather than powder, which is not the norm in Seattle.
Tim was excited about this new concept. He was also impressed with Little Sheep’s management. “Because of the hot pot style, Little Sheep got rid of the need for the stir-fry chef. Quality from stir-frying is hard to control. But hot pot’s cooking is based on its soup. And Little Sheep has quality control over that. It’s up to the customers to control the soup’s taste after it is served on the table.
OC was the first restaurant in Chinatown to serve a seafood and hot pot buffet approximately 15 years ago. It was successful initially, but OC was unable to sustain the model. “Little Sheep serves you the shrimp and food even though it’s all you can eat, it doesn’t let customers pick (resulting in waste). It controls the amount and directly the food cost,” he said.
“Besides, it has good financing to support their plan. When they (Little Sheep) told me the remodeling was $2 million, I didn’t believe it. Then, I saw the invoice. It was actually over $2 million.”
So what is next for the Lees?
“My friend was surprised that we were partying on OC’s last day,” said one employee. One would assume there would be sadness, but there was no sadness, just laughter. Five out of seven staff members will be hired by Little Sheep, and a couple retired after their almost three decades of service at OC.
“It’s the OC tradition,” said one employee. “We always have a feast after the big holiday since Tim’s parents started the restaurant.”
This feast was special, celebrating bonds between employees and employers for working together. The Lees will have a new beginning.
“It’s new leadership for a new century,” said Lee. “A satisfactory way to end and I can have my new dreams.”
The Lees’ burden is now over. Tim is looking forward to starting his development project next to the OC. He owns a plot of land and his vision is to have an eight-story apartment building.
Tim Lee’s parents first started San Francisco’s Chinatown Golden Dragon in 1964, later the Hong Kong Ocean City, which had a seating capacity for 4,000. In the late 1980s, the Lees expanded to Seattle, bought the Hong Kong Restaurant on Maynard Avenue South from Sam Yee, and then OC (at the time called Kingsfisher).
The restaurant business at the time was not as tough. Chinese cuisine was extremely popular. OC had its niche as the largest Chinese restaurant and its reputation for authentic Cantonese cuisine. They brought in chefs from Hong Kong, and everything worked seamlessly.
Now, in the second generation, things have changed drastically during the last decade. There were more than 256 Chinese restaurants in the Seattle area, according to yellowpages.com. In Chinatown alone, there were over 100 restaurants. Big Chinese restaurants catering to banquets have spurred in and outside of Chinatown. Competition was intense.
One by one, the Lees sold their restaurants in Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Seattle.
“All parties have to come to an end,” Tim said. (end)
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.