In 1969, I was 16 and our family emmigrated from Burma to San Francisco. At that moment, my destiny became clear. My parents opened Soon Lee restaurant where I discovered my life’s passion. I worked every job: cashier, busboy, dishwasher, cook. I loved it all and still do. To me, working in restaurants means navigating between two worlds. There’s the community of people working inside the restaurant. There’s the community of patrons and neighbors who come from outside the restaurant. I’ve learned to understand and care deeply for both those communities.
Over 44 years I have opened more than 20 restaurants. I’ve hired many Southeast Asian refugees who I then mentor to ultimately take over and buy the restaurants. I stay involved in whatever ways they may need me; from strategic planning to cooking or cleaning when they’re short staffed. In that way I’ve helped hundreds of refugees get their financial start and helped launch the careers of many entrepreneurs.
As a restaurateur, I love to serve both the local Southeast Asian community and the diverse communities of Oakland. For some, my dishes are an authentic taste of home, for others they are a wonderful introduction to Burmese cuisine and culture. Paying close attention to the needs of my patrons and my community helps me learn and grow. For example, fresh herbs, produce, and spices are key to my restaurants flavors. But the varieties I use are not easily available. So I team up with a Hmong farmers co-op in Fresno, UC Davis sustainable food farms, and other local farmers to grow these varieties specifically for me. This sort of innovation goes to the heart of my latest restaurant, Grocery Cafe in Oakland.
Grocery Cafe, my newest Burmese restaurant, is in Oakland’s Eastlake neighborhood at 2248 10th Avenue. We just opened in December and have already earned great reviews from Bon Appetit and East Bay Express who named us top Burmese Restaurant in the East Bay 2015. Our flavors are homey, bold, and aromatic. Our prices are very affordable and our servings generous.
Grocery Café’s décor is cheery, relaxed and inviting. Record covers from the 70’s adorn the walls. We have pots of our herbs growing in the dining area and patrons can snip fresh cuttings for the chef to use in their orders. The Eastlake community has welcomed us with open arms; much of our furnishings are donated by neighbors. For example, diners can sit in repurposed pews provided by our local church.
To help grow the restaurant and continue to integrate with the neighborhood, I plan to build an outdoor bbq and rotiserrie cooking area and an al fresco dining space. With the outdoor space I‘ll be able expand my menu and offer bbq specialities and create a lovely little garden setting for my diners. I plan to let the local farmer’s market share my space once a week as a staging area to sell their produce and access my kitchen for prep work and garage for storage. I believe my plan will be a boon to my restaurant, draw more visitors to the neighborhood, and help out local farmers.
My plan will expand my menu offerings, improve the dining experience for my customers, draw in more patrons as they see my lovely garden area and smell the aromas of my Burmese bbq. It will also enable me to help out the local farmer’s market by giving them a space to sell, a kitchen space to prep their food, and a garage area to store their materials. I will also use the $10,000 loan to begin renovations on my indoor kitchen.
Construction Outdoor Seating Area with 19 seats: $3,000
New Awning and Signage: $2,000
Architectural and Permit Costs: $5,000