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Q&A: How to turn your restaurant into a community

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Chef Lawrence Chu was young man when he opened Chef Chu’s in Silicon Valley,  more than 40 years ago. Since then, his  restaurant has become a favorite among both middle-class families and wealthy tech professionals. His secret, he claims, is to cultivate a community atmosphere while offering unique, flavorful dishes. In steering his restaurant through good and bad economies, admirers say that Chu has demonstrated a resiliency and innovative spirit that makes his restaurant a suitable Silicon Valley landmark. “[One] reason Chef Chu’s has built such a loyal following among the high-tech elite is because Chef Chu is a model Silicon Valley entrepreneur himself,” writes former Fortune and Wall Street Journal editor Brent Schlender in Chu’s 2010 cookbook, “Celebrating Your Place at Our Table.” SmartBrief recently spoke with Chu about his time in the restaurant industry.

Asian restaurants are common in most cities, and some would say most of them are similar. How did you make your restaurant stand out?

I think the biggest thing is to be able to add a personal touch to your restaurant. I try to get close to my customers and make them enthusiastic about Chinese cuisine. We offer cooking classes every week, which I think accomplishes both of these things. You also need to build a sense of community. A good restaurant is a social center. From the beginning, I’ve considered Chef Chu’s a family restaurant. I want people to come to Chef Chu’s to celebrate birthdays and graduations and job promotions.

We have a community service program where, once a week, we provide lunch for all the students at an elementary or middle school. Sometimes that’s as many as 300 to 400 kids. It’s a lot of work, and we lose money on any given day, but in the long run the restaurant gains a lot of value.

So you would say that your community outreach programs hold business value?

Absolutely. For one thing, it gives us a chance to introduce Chinese cuisine to kids at a young age. We get to teach them how to enjoy it and what makes it different from other kinds of food. Also, it gets people talking about our restaurant. Every year I have parents tell me how much they appreciate it. Most importantly, it goes back to the sense of community that I already talked about. It helps cultivate the idea of “I’ll support you if you support me.” Right now, I have people coming in to the restaurant three to four times a week because its part of their community. And these people are going to keep coming in even during bad economies. 

How has your menu changed from when you opened your first restaurant 40 years ago?

Chef Chu’s started as a fast food restaurant but has evolved a lot over time. Over the years we’ve added a dining hall, a catering service and fine dining menu items. Throughout the changes though, we’ve tried to maintain our dedication to being a family restaurant. Even though we might add more expensive items, we want to have less expensive options for people that need to come out and feed their whole family. I’ve also tried to add non-traditional Chinese food items, to keep our menu fresh. For instance, we have a rack of lamb on 0ur menu, which isn’t something that people normally expect from an Asian restaurant, but it’s turned out to be one of our more popular items.

Image credit: Nikada via iStock