Growing Like Green Bamboo

Lucy Pan, a Chinese immigrant and owner of the Aodake restaurants in the Chicago suburbs, shares how customer service led to success.

Who said that opening your own restaurant is a risky endeavor? Lots of people and for good reason—but sometimes, you do come across a winner. Aodake, a small steak and sushi restaurant in the western suburbs of Chicago has, from its opening in 2005, thrived to such an extent that the owner, Lucy Pan, a former kindergarten teacher in Fuzhou, a town in the southern Chinese province of Fujian, has just opened her second restaurant and is looking forward to opening her third.

When you first walk into Aodake, you will find a delightful blend of hibachi and sushi delicacies in a casual, family-friendly atmosphere. When they say family-friendly, they mean it—you're just as likely to find a birthday party for 5-year-olds as a group of old friends out for the evening. What's more, you'll see the fun had by the chefs at the hibachi tables. You expect the party-goers to have a good time, but when the chef is just as happy to be there—and it's genuine—that means something special about that business.

You went from being a kindergarten teacher in China to being a restauranteur here in the United States. That is a remarkable change; how did you manage it?
We came to the U.S. in 2000. My husband, Vincent, and I quickly found work in Japanese restaurants. He and I already had a great deal of experience with Japanese cooking—which was good—but not with English. We both had to learn.

Did that hold you back?
Not really. We spent five years learning the restaurant business and learning English.
By 2005, we were ready to try opening our own place.

That must have been as intimidating as moving here in the first place.
It was hard; there was a lot to do, but we managed to succeed. Financing was the most difficult part of it. We invested our personal savings, got loans from our family and friends and finally took out a bank loan. All that was for the first restaurant, the one in Darien, but we were very confident that a real family-friendly restaurant with good food, a fun hibachi table and sushi menu would be a success. I am happy that the bank and our friends and family shared that confidence.

You sought outside help to fund your first restaurant. What about this one here in Romeoville?
This Aodake was financed by the income from our Darien restaurant. We didn't even consider opening a second location at first, but then the amount of business we were getting in Darien convinced us that a second location would succeed. We began to see wait times of over an hour for a table. The restaurant was filled up most of the time and frankly, customers were beginning to be inconvenienced, so I knew that it was time to expand.
The restaurant business can be very hard and our nights are usually very hectic. The more hectic things are, though, the better we do.

The customer experience is very important to you, isn't it?
The customer experience is everything. Customer service is the top priority for everyone who works here. From top to bottom, everyone is here to cater to our customers. Then the food: It must always be fresh and of the highest quality. Japanese food also has the added quality of being healthy for you. There are very little fats and oils in Japanese food. Instead you have lean meats, seafood and vegetables—very healthy. Finally, all of this has to come with a good price. Put together, these make for a great customer experience, and that is really the basis of our success.

Would that be your advice for the up-and-coming small businessman? Put all your emphasis on the customer experience?
Yes, absolutely! That and you have to treat your employees right. You have to have a very good work atmosphere where everyone feels that they are an important part of the business. If you do this, it will allow you to find and keep good people, and it also helps make for a good customer experience.

What is "great customer service" to you?
It's about making the customer feel like a special member of the family, like someone we want to know. All that begins in our marketing, with the initial notes and coupons we mail out to the community. We hold deals and offer gifts to our customers to celebrate special occasions like holidays and work closely with our customers when they have a personal special occasion to make it the best it can be. Beyond that, we make sure our customers always have what they need to enjoy their time here, from the drinks to the food to the entertainment. Having this point of view, that the customer is king, allows us to rely a great deal on word of mouth and recommendations. Add some traditional advertising in local newspapers, circulars and a nice website, and that is how we get the word out.

Do you have any plans to take your site to the next level?
Of course. As it is now, our website has done a good job, but we are exploring ways it could work better for us. Right now, visitors can learn a little about Aodake, look at our menu and contact us. We are looking at ways to increase the interactivity and usefulness of the site for our customers.

Anything you would like to share?
No! You will have to wait and see like everyone else!

So, what is it like to work here?
All our people tend to be very close. This is not to say that the work, when we are working, is easy. The restaurant business can be very hard and our nights are usually very hectic. The more hectic things are, though, the better we do. When we are not working, the atmosphere is very friendly. We often go out together after we close to relax and enjoy each other's company. It is a lot like a family. That also makes it easier during working hours, because even though there are rules to follow and we have expectations of everyone, we are so relaxed around one another that the work proceeds quite naturally.

It certainly seems to work for you. What are your plans now that the Romeoville location is up and running?
Well, we have opened two Aodake restaurants in three years of operation. It is not quite the way McDonald's expands, but that is not what we are going for. We are planning on steady expansion that is supported by the revenues of the existing restaurants. Ultimately, we want to be a household name like Benihana and we know how to do it: Steady growth; great customer service; offer the best food in a good, clean setting; and do it for a good price.

Aodake is one of the few places around that really does deliver on its promises, which is perhaps the best marketing approach any business can take. See for yourself what they are doing right at

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