By Assunta Ng
When one out of five small businesses fails in its first year nationwide, Chinatown’s Eastern Café is bucking statistics. It is only a year old, making money, and expanding.
I-Miun Liu, owner of the Eastern and Oasis Tea Zone, a popular hangout for youth in the International District (ID), is probably one of the youngest entrepreneurs in the community. At 33, Liu is not only driven, but also ready with ideas on how to make the ID vibrant. He is developing two other cafés, one in Capitol Hill and another inside Renton’s Uwajimaya. His parents are from Taiwan, and he is a UW grad and a former banker.
The success of Eastern doesn’t mean that everything was served on a silver platter. Fourteen years ago, he and his parents started Oasis, specializing in bubble tea. Only one customer showed up on the first day of business.
Although Oasis took a few years to be profitable, it is one of the busiest among all Chinatown bubble tea outlets.
Now, his parents have left to start another cafe in the University District.
Where is the hub in the ID and what would draw customers? According to Liu, the ID lacked a nice, casual place for people to sit down, meet, relax, have a snack or beer, or access Wi-Fi while having coffee. The idea for Eastern Café was then born. After running Oasis for years, he learned how to distinguish the café from its competitors, and he was ready to start his path of entrepreneurship.
Impressive, since the storefront vacancy in the area is about 30-40 percent. How can the ID attract viable businesses? What should small business do to sustain themselves?
Liu believes the ID is full of assets and potential—we are a unique neighborhood. People come here for cultural experiences. It’s a place for families. It consists of Japantown, Chinatown, and Little Saigon. He compares Lake Union (certainly growing) and the ID, but he believes that what the ID offers is that it is a place of history. “You can’t buy history. No one wants to stay in Lake Union after work. No one wants to bring their family there on weekends.”
“What the ID needs is diversity,” he added. “We can’t just have the same [restaurants] doing the same menu” to attract people to come here.
“What we need is someone who cares about this community, who wants to invest in the neighborhood to be what it is” and “create something whether a product or place, which people enjoy.”
That’s exactly what Liu does with Eastern. Liu transformed a former boring office clinic into a café of two floors filled with interesting artwork and decor. Each piece of the café’s furniture is meticulously selected. No one could recognize that the café was once a stale and confined office.
Advice from Liu: Entrepreneurs should aim at selling something different and focus on what the ID currently doesn’t have. How about special retail stores specializing in Asian sauces or Asian-themed-designed scarves?
We should regard his insight. Walk into Eastern Café and you will find Liu’s customers are mostly people who work, live, and love the ID.
“This is the best gathering and meeting place,” said Paul Mar, who works in the ID. He quickly sat down like he was coming home after work, chatting with 10 of his friends about the highlights of their day.
“You are more likely to bump into neighbors here,” said Ching Chen, Mar’s colleague.
“It has good coffee,” said Jamie Lee. The group of friends would rather support a local, family-owned cafe than Starbucks.
Then I saw someone who works upstairs in our building, who bought a big bag of coffee beans. She said the special coffee is only available at Eastern and not grocery stores.
Who was serving the customers? Liu himself. He made coffee and sandwiches, served beer, while running around and greeting customers at the same time.
Liu said Eastern couldn’t be what it is today without the support of the community. His businesses are a collaboration of ideas from neighbors—the gist of Eastern Café’s success—the strengths of the ID, where Asian Americans, American-born and immigrants, work together, making the community a better place.
And Liu gives back. Oasis was a sponsor for the ID Night Market’s game booths last week. The proceeds went to the Chinatown/International District Business Improvement Association. (end)