Father Knows Best: Johnny Cash, Whoppers & Wings

Father Knows Best: Johnny Cash, Whoppers & Wings

"I want one like that," my father said, holding his burger in the air with one hand while pointing to the over-sized Whopper photo on the wall poster with its glistening juiciness and colorful, fresh slices of tomato and lettuce. Other customers in line smiled and nodded in agreement. It was a far bite from the real thing. The young cashier obliged and messaged the kitchen by microphone, "one Whopper...like the poster!"
My dad was one of the earliest Chinese graduates from Georgia Tech, living in Little Five Points before it was hipster...or safe. I realized later why he looked alarmed when I told him about renting a studio in L5P. "When I was at Tech, all theAsian students at Tech fit in one classroom!" he often reminded me. "With one dollar, I could buy two Varsity chili dogs, rings and a drink." He LOVED country music like favorite artists, Charlie Pride, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton.

Self-employed his whole life, he proudly exclaims, "I never received a salary from a company." Scholarships and work-study aside, it was due to my father's success as a consultant, entrepreneur and businessman, and support that helped me through school. For this, I will be forevergrat
Responsible for helping other family members get started in America, he opened the first Chinese restaurant in a mall, and the first one, as far as we knew, to use the ubiquitous and indispensable steam tables for Chinese "blue plate" lunch specials. Naming our place, "Eggrolls By Keng" instead of"Buddha," "Oriental" or "Panda"also broke with tradition. At the time, I thought it was plain weird. We made fresh spring rolls, marinated soy ginger wings, and a host of other "made-to-order" classics like Pepper Steak (my favorite), Mongo
lian Beef, Moo Goo Gai Pan and served it all up with freshly brewed sweet tea (his secret recipe), and of course, a side of homemadesweet and sour sauce (the inspiration for My Sweet Hottie sweet chili peach sauce!) Customers would walk all the way from the other end of the
mall to have lunch with us.

His legacy was still to come. Still working full-time as an engineering consultant and needing to send more money home to help family back in Taiwan, my dad made a major decision to try a new business strategy. The China Cafeteria restaurant model was born: fresh ingredients, a limited 10-item menu (!!) including a brand new creation, the ever-popular "Honey Braised Wings"--and daily lessons in race relations. This was the beginning of his new stand-alone restaurant and real estate model in southeast and southwest Atlanta –neighborhoods which were predominantly poor and working class, urban and black. These were the only places in the city where he could afford to buy.

Before sports bars, before Wing Street, before KFC and Wendy’s, China Cafeteria served Honey Braised Spicy Chicken Wings and brewed fresh sweet iced tea in the fringe neighborhoods of Atlanta. Working at the new restaurants through my high school and college years changed me forever. Our customers were primarily black, and Iwas surrounded by stereotyping and forced to confront my own prejudices. I experienced first-hand the tension and congeniality between Asian and African-American people. Customers would compliment me on how well I spoke English and chide me for speaking Chinese to a co-worker (“Speak English. This is America!”)

After 30 years, tons of chicken wings per week, ten bank loans, nine restaurants, seven types of handmade eggrolls, multiple business models, two jade jewelry stores, my dad ultimately, achieved the American dream, for all of us.

Have it your way, Dad, you deserve it!
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