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   March 27, 2008 Issue                                       

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©2007 The Chestnut Hill Local

Hoping to recapture formula for success
Despite closing of Avenue, Yu Hsiang Garden reopens
by LEN LEAR

The assorted Pu Pu platter for two ($13.95) is practically a meal in itself, consisting of barbecued spare ribs, shrimp toasts, spring rolls and more.

When Yu Hsiang Garden at 7630 Germantown Ave. became Chestnut Hill’s first Chinese restaurant in September of 1989, it was a case of baptism under fire. Several residents close to the restaurant had done everything in their power short of poisoning the area’s water supply to prevent Yu Hsiang Garden from opening. They had the usual litany of fears — crowds, parking, noise, smells, etc. While the protesters did not ultimately get their way, they did in fact delay the opening for many months.

All of the publicity about the protesters’ efforts actually backfired on them. The publicity gave the embattled restaurant a recognition bonanza, which contributed to standing-room-only crowds every night. When we first visited the restaurant at 7 p.m. on a Thursday in mid-September, 1989, we had to wait more than 30 minutes for a table, and a few weeks later we actually waited an hour for a table on a weekend night.

The crowds were so thick, in fact, that there were definitely service delays and errors — not uncommon with any new restaurant swamped with customers. The fact that smoking was permitted throughout the restaurant was another major bone of contention. (The entire restaurant became non-smoking and handicapped accessible a few years later.)

The restaurant was opened by the Lam family, which had also opened a Yu Hsiang Garden in 1985 in Glenside and one in center city in 1991 (both now closed). They also opened Beijing Inn in Bryn Mawr in 1995, which is still thriving and where we have eaten numerous times after watching movies at the nearby Bryn Mawr Theater. They also own a Vietnamese restaurant, Ha Long Bay, in Bryn Mawr.

For years the Chestnut Hill restaurant was managed by the charming and personable Vincent Ly, 42, whose wife, Jennifer, 45, is the sister of owner Phi Lam. (Phi is also doing the cooking these days).

Yu Hsiang Garden was closed from July to late November of last year for an extensive renovation that has dramatically improved the appearance of the dining room. (Photos by Jimmy J. Pack Jr.)

I still remember asking Vincent in 1996 if he felt Cin Cin, which was about to open at 7838 Germantown Ave., would hurt his business since up to that time Yu Hsiang Garden had a virtual monopoly among Chinese food aficionados in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy.

“On the one hand,” he replied, “competition is good for the consumer because it keeps us on our toes, but regulars are the backbone of our business, and I hope we have enough of a following (to sustain Yu Hsiang Garden). Overall, though, I think both of us will be hurt. There’s only so much business to go around.”

As it turned out, both restaurants have blossomed, possibly because they are very different (Cin Cin is more upscale and offers a sophisticated French/Chinese amalgam instead of traditional Cantonese cooking), not to mention King’s Garden, a later arrival which has also done well.

Vincent is an example of the new breed of Chinese restaurant operator — young, well educated and knowledgeable in the areas of marketing, promotion and demographics. Born in Vietnam, his parents — his mom was an incense manufacturer and distributor, and his dad was in the wholesale paper manufacturing business — brought Vincent to the U.S. when he was 11 in 1977, following the Communist takeover of South Vietnam.

Vincent Ly spent 14 years running Yu Hsiang Garden successfully, but after he left in 2003, things went downhill. Now he’s back to attempt to restore Chestnut Hill’s first Chinese restaurant to its former glory.

Vincent, who now lives in Worcester with his wife and two children — Justin, 15, and Jordan, 14 — later earned a degree in business management from Temple University, with a minor in real estate. “My mom only had a fifth grade education,” said Vincent, “but she wound up with 40 employees. She always emphasized the importance of education, and she told me that as long as I’m happy with my work, whatever it is, then that’s what really counts. As far as problems in business, we are all going to have them, but she said that without disappointment, we would not know what sweetness is.”

When Vincent attended Northeast High School (he graduated in 1984), he worked after school for three years at the late, much-lamented Under the Blue Moon and got hooked on the business. “I loved it,” he said. “Gene Gosfield (legendary owner who died a few months ago) was a very nice man. I ate there three times a week, which was great. I prepared salads and worked the grille and the fryer.”

In 2003, Vincent left Yu Hsiang Garden “to follow a dream and be in a business of my own. I did not think I would be back at Yu Hsiang Garden.” So Ly purchased Kim’s Grille, a beer deli/grocery in East Oak Lane. He ran it for three-and-a-half years and then sold it to his sister, Eva.

Meanwhile, after Vincent’s departure, the Lam family hired someone else to manage Yu Hsiang Garden; eventually they leased it out entirely to another operator, and things went downhill. The food and service became inconsistent; some long-time customers stopped coming, and the Lam family sent out an SOS to Vincent.

“My family came calling, so I came back,” he said. “I certainly knew the business well. After all, I was here for 14 years, and I felt we had developed very good relations with the people of Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy.”

Yu Hsiang Garden was closed last July for a complete makeover and reopened in late November, with Vincent back at the helm. Needless to say, overcoming the decline since 2003 was enough of a challenge, but making his job even more difficult is the massive construction on Germantown Avenue that looks like a war zone and has kept away a lot of potential Mt. Airy customers who choose not to negotiate the detours. “The work definitely needs to be done,” said Vincent, “but closing off Germantown Avenue completely is just brutal for businesses in this area.”

One major plus for customers of Yu Hsiang Garden is that even though they have a liquor license, customers are also permitted to bring their own. “So many customers prefer BYOB restaurants,” said Vincent, “and we are actually in the process of trying to sell our liquor license so that we can be all BYOB.”

We recently ate at Yu Hsiang Garden, and the quality is definitely back to the way it was in the restaurant’s halcyon days. Our favorite dishes were the Tsing Tao duck ($13.95), Emperor’s chicken ($12.95) and Singapore rice noodles ($10.95). The prices, as you can see, are quite reasonable. About 50 percent of the business at Yu Hsiang Garden is takeout. In the early days, it was even higher.

Interestingly, Vincent’s brother, Bo, 39, came to him many years ago asking for a job. Vincent put him to work as a dishwasher. “I got him into this,” said the older brother, “and now I don’t know if I did him a favor or not. He did work very hard and learned every aspect of the business.” Bo later worked for Susanna Foo for three years, and now he owns the upscale Fuzion restaurant in Skippack, Ly Michael at 11th and Arch in Center City and another restaurant in Feasterville.

Yet another problem for Vincent is that the number in the Philadelphia phone directory is incorrect. Anyone calling it hears a recording stating that the number has been “disconnected,” but offers no current number. Vincent has tried valiantly to get AT&T, his carrier, to put his current number on the recorded message, so far without success. 

According to Marjorie Hirshorn, of Chestnut Hill, who tried unsuccessfully to get the new number, “I was absolutely shocked and feel so sorry for them. The new space is beautiful, but no one who calls will know they are still there, which, coupled with the construction (on the Avenue), has to be a real blow.” The correct number is 215-248-1922.

You can contact Len Lear at 215-248-8807 or lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com.