By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“The foundational story of the restaurant is—one, they’ll never go hungry again. And two, they can employ their family when they come.”
So explained Janice Young, daughter of Van and Ella Young, who in 1982 opened Young’s Restaurant in White Center. The Youngs worked tirelessly to make their American Dream a reality—and now, after 39 years, it is time to hand over the torch to new owners. With their son Bobby, and his wife, Bow Chunhasuntorn, new owners Satri and Chan Toekaew will open Young’s for business after New Year’s Day. They promise the same menu and great service.
Bobby has already been working in the kitchen with Van, and is the same age that Van was when he first opened Young’s, then in a smaller location, after moving to Seattle from North Carolina. The Youngs were Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States after three days at sea and a year at a camp in Malaysia. “Country life” in North Carolina didn’t appeal, according to Janice, and so they moved here. Upon the advice of a friend, they decided to open a restaurant.
“The area they always looked at was White Center. They decided to do Chinese food because of the ‘wave’,” Janice explained, referring to the influx of Vietnamese immigrants at that time.
“They said, ‘Let’s do Chinese, to do something different.’” The family, too, had connections to Chinese language and culture.
“They’re from Vietnam, but they predominantly speak Chinese. When my grandma came to America, she taught us only Chinese, so growing up, I think we were really confused. Are we Vietnamese or are we Chinese?” Janice laughed.
The Youngs settled on a Chinese menu, coupled with American food. They stayed at the original location for five years, then in 1987, when the larger, current building became available, the Youngs said, “Let’s take a chance.” Ups and downs have persisted, as with any endeavor, including hard times during the pandemic, but Young’s stayed in business, thanks to Paycheck Protection Program loans, a sound financial adviser, its customer base, and their own professional ethics.
Van and Ella (who also goes by Binh) have done the lion’s share of the work themselves, along with relatives and Ella’s “left-hand woman,” Suphee Termwut, the prep cook.
“My parents did it all,” Janice recalled. “Breakfast at 6 a.m. till dinner at 9 p.m. A long day. They hired a lot of people, my uncles, their friends, in order to have two shifts. My dad would go home and sleep for a few hours…They chugged along.”
Janice herself has worked at the restaurant on and off after high school, and full-time since around 2011. She talked about how much she enjoyed getting to know the customers, and sitting down with them to ask them about their day.
Earlier this winter, Janice announced on Facebook that Young’s would be transitioning to new ownership.
“After 39 years in business, we decided it’s time to pass the torch to another hard working family,” she wrote. The Youngs strove to make the change as seamless and relaxing for everyone as possible.
“I’ve been to restaurants that have closed down [and] it was panic eating,” Janice described. “We wanted to stay ‘business as usual.’”
By the time of the announcement, Bobby had already been working in the restaurant with the family for some time. A friend of Suphee’s, he came on board when Janice’s aunt had to go work in her own business.
“He started working with my dad and learning about Chinese food…My dad showed him a lot of what he needed to do, then my dad would taste it and say ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘add more of this’…Bobby is so good. Some things you can’t teach. But you can look at a person and know they’re great. We taught him…and after a few times, he got it all.”
“I heard from her mom that they were going to sell the restaurant,” Bobby told the Weekly. “I thought I might take over and keep all the menu the same—Chinese food, breakfast food—all the same, nothing changed. I like the customers. They are really nice…They’re happy. They talk. Big smiles. I really like it, and that’s why I felt I might take it.” The Toekaew family hails from Thailand, and Bobby and Bow already had experience working in a Thai restaurant. Satri and Chan sealed the deal with Van and Ella in December and then Young’s for cleaning and some new equipment installation. The re-opening date was set for Jan. 4, which Bobby felt confident about at the time of the Weekly’s interview.
“Everything is done. We are just waiting for the time.”
Van and Ella didn’t want to make a show of the sale of the restaurant and their imminent departure.
“My parents have always been very ‘work hard, keep your head down.’” Yet Janice felt some recognition of their accomplishment was needed, so she quietly arranged “a secret event” for customers old and new to stop by and bring gifts. “You can see how loved they were.”
During the change-over, the Youngs will continue to assist and train the new owners and employees. Bobby will work in the kitchen, while Bow will be “outside,” in the front. Suphee, who has been with the restaurant for 20 years, will stay on board permanently. Van and Ella will retire and take a well-deserved vacation, traveling and spending time with the grandkids.
“The change is bittersweet for customers, but it’s going to be there, the foundation,” Janice assured. “They’re a hard working family…We want them to succeed.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.