It could have been a great story. Not a comeback story, mind you, but a closer look and follow-up to an unsettling tale most of us knew.
Springfield Business Journal Editorial Director Eric Olson received a message on Facebook encouraging SBJ to reach out to the owners of Mr. Yen’s restaurant to hear the other side of the story.
Everyone knows about the cockroach in the mixing bowl or the cigarette ashes flying around the wok that led to Springfield-Greene County Health Department’s seven-day shutdown, but not everyone knows the founder of the company died or about the efforts the family was making to turn the ship around in light of the very public closure.
I would have loved to sit down and hear the inside story – if the owners were willing to tell it. That was my assignment.
When the business was forced to shut down earlier this year, the palatial Mr. Yen’s at James River Freeway and National Avenue – a destination for tourists and local Chinese food junkies alike – created something of a firestorm of disgust and sadness among many people. I knew a handful of people who loved to eat there and were heartbroken to hear the reasons for the closure.
About a month ago, I reached out to Betty Yen, daughter of Tobby Yen – who founded the restaurant 16 years ago and died in late 2012 – and sister of John Burke, who operates the restaurant.
I told her I wanted to meet with her and her brother to learn how they had been impacted by the closure and what they were doing now to bring back business. I told her that people knew about the violations, but didn’t know what the owners were doing to address them.
There was more I wanted, naturally. For example, I wanted to know how common these kinds of closures were and what warnings preceded the shutdown. I wondered if the smoking chef had been fired. And I wanted to see the scene of the crime, so to speak – the kitchen.
If I’m pressed, what I wanted to know most was how they planned to overcome the mental images the violations birthed in the minds of their customers. What were they doing, if anything, to rebuild trust with their patrons.
Betty Yen was not easy to reach. But after a couple of days of trying, I got a hold of her, and she said she was willing to talk, but her and her brother couldn’t sit down with me until the following week. We scheduled an interview for 9:30 a.m. May 6, and I said I’d arrive with an SBJ photographer.
On that Tuesday, I showed up with photog Wes Hamilton to an almost entirely empty building. After knocking on the door a few times and peering through windows, I found a prep cook working in the back. I explained the situation, and he let us in.
Betty was nowhere to be found.
The cook allowed me to use his phone to call Michael, a member of the family who could contact Betty. Michael seemed helpful, and he said he would have Betty call me right away. Wes and I waited in the lobby, looking at a plaque that gave a summary of the life of Tobby Yen. At 10:10, with no call returned, I went back around to the clean-looking kitchen to see a couple of other employees now working. I was quickly shepherded back to the front where a lady now stood talking with Wes. She told us that she was not Betty Yen, and that neither she nor her brother John was available. She apologized several times as she scooted us toward the door and out, but offered no explanation.
I asked her to have Betty call me. I twice called the restaurant to try to speak to her again, but my calls weren’t returned.
Now, it seems I might know why. On Sunday, the owners closed the restaurant’s doors for good, but did not cite a reason in the announcement on its Facebook page. We first read about the permanent closure in a KY3 story.
Via Mr. Yen Inc., the Yen family continues to hold ownership of the 2-acre property, which has a 2014 valuation of $1.9 million, according to the Greene County assessor.
In a brief phone interview with Kathryn Wall, spokeswoman for the health department, she told me only nine closures, including emergency closures such as kitchen fires where there might not have been any issues related to food quality, were recorded in 2013. Most were shutdowns of one day or less, designed to fix a critical issue or set of critical issues. The Mr. Yen’s weeklong closure due to a host of critical issues came after multiple visits and warnings. It was very rare, she said. Wall couldn’t point to a comparable situation in recent history.
This past weekend, one of my relatives responded to the news of the looming, permanent business closure with a last-minute visit to say a goodbye of sorts to a favorite meal.
While I previously saw the kitchen with my own eyes very briefly, and though it looked fine, I couldn’t have been so brave myself. I suspect it’s hard to run a restaurant when “brave” is an apt adjective for your customers.