CEDAR RAPIDS — It took a lot of perseverance and a fortunate chance encounter, but Eric Minor and Li Wen are back in business.
The couple opened Old China Buffet at 2275 16th Ave. SW in Cedar Rapids on April 27. Minor and Wen previously owned and operated Li’s Garden, which opened in 2009 in the center court area of Westdale Mall, which then operated as an enclosed shopping center.
After the mall closed in 2014, the couple spent years looking for a potential new location. Minor obtained his commercial driver’s license and went to work driving a truck for Reinhart Foodservice in Cedar Rapids.
“I was driving through Peoria and saw a large Chinese buffet that had closed down,” he said. “I called the phone number on a window of the restaurant and reached the landlord.
“He came to meet with us and we made an offer for everything — the buffet tables, kitchen equipment, walk-in freezer and booths. All we had to do was come and get it.
“He just wanted to get it out of his building and we were able to buy it for pennies on the dollar.”
At about the same time, Minor and Wen saw a building on 16th Avenue SW that was available for lease. It previously had housed a steakhouse and more recently a John Deere dealership.
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After reaching an agreement on rent with the owner, Minor quit his job at Reinhart Foodservice and began working full time remodeling the interior of the building and installing equipment and furnishings. Wen spotted one of the people who had been transporting some of their equipment from Peoria driving away with a walk-in cooler and related equipment.
“I heard her scream and when I came out of the restaurant, she was lying there on the ground bleeding,” Eric said. “It looked like a scene out of a movie.
“She had tried to stop the man and he sideswiped her. The back tire on his trailer ran over her head.”
“I was out for a few minutes,” Wen said. “When I woke up, I hurt all over.”
“We were lucky that she did not have more serious injuries, but it still held us back a couple of months while she recovered,” Minor recalled.
To add insult to injury, the couple had to go to court to get the walk-in cooler returned. That’s when they discovered the compressors had been sabotaged, which cost them $4,000 to repair.
Minor and Wen worked virtually every day for six months to transform the inside of the 5,500-square-foot building, including the removal of a wall to combine two smaller rooms into a larger space off the main dining area.
Former Li’s Garden patrons will recognize an ornate archway the couple have incorporated in the interior design. After their restaurant closed in Westdale, Minor stored the archway in their garage, with plans to use it when they opened a new eatery.
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Wen is a native of Beijing, which influences her recipes and food preparation. Many of the dishes from Li’s Garden, such as sesame chicken, bourbon chicken and crabmeat rangoon, are found on the menu at Old China Buffet.
“We decided to stick with what works,” Minor said. “The buffet is really challenging and the peak hours from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. require us to keep everything really fresh.”
While the restaurant is closed on Mondays, Wen said that doesn’t mean it’s a day off for them.
“We use that day to recharge and do a lot of preparation for the next week,” she said.
Old China Buffet opened with Wen, Minor and a small kitchen and serving staff.
“We were really busy when we opened because we were short-handed,” Minor said. “We had another cook and two other people back out at the last minute.
“Things have settled down and we are working hard to improve our service. We’ve been doing a lot of training and we really are trying to please our customers.”
• Garage Band takes a look at what’s involved in starting up or relocating a business in the Corridor.