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Learning to become a Southeast-style restaurateur

Chinese restaurant owner Peter Lan is learning that doing business in Juneau is much different than on the East Coast

Posted: Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Peter Lan is still getting used to doing business in Juneau.

Lan had never been to Alaska before last fall when he was checking out a business to buy. He moved here Dec. 7 after buying The Second Course downtown and reopened the restaurant as the Dragon Inn a week and a half ago.

Logistics turned out to be his first lesson. Lan discovered what most Alaska business owners take for granted - you have to plan further in advance than in the Lower 48.

The day before the Dragon Inn restaurant opened, Lan was having supply problems. Some delivered items had to be sent back and he has had trouble tracking down some specific ingredients, he said.

Back in Philadelphia, where Lan lived, restaurant supplies were just a phone call away and usually could be delivered within a few hours, he said.

Now, Lan has to figure out what dishes Juneau residents prefer and how fast ingredients are used because his inventory has to be ordered a week ahead of time.

"That's kind of weird to me too," he said.

Lan, 36, isn't a newcomer to the industry. He has been working in restaurants since he was 12 years old, he said. He is a Chinese national who was born in Vietnam and raised there and in Hong Kong. At 19, he came to the United States and owned his own take-out restaurant by age 24. Four years later, he owned a dine-in restaurant. A sharp eye will notice his checks still bear the name of his former restaurant, which he sold.

Like other restaurant owners, Lan works in a business known for its high failure rate.

Some 3,900 eating and drinking places failed nationwide in 1996, the last year for which data was collected, according to Neal DeBernedo of the Dun & Bradstreet Corp. Of those, about 17 percent were in their first three years of operation.

The company defined failed as closing the business while still owing creditors, he said.

Working in Lan's favor is Americans' huge appetite for Chinese food. Chinese, Italian (including pizza) and Mexican food are the most popular ethnic foods, said Annika Stensson, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.

The association estimates Americans will spend nearly $400 billion on prepared foods, including deli and cafeteria food, away from home this year.

In Juneau, there are about a half dozen restaurants dedicated to Asian food, including the Chinese Palace in the Lemon Creek area and the Canton House near the Nugget Mall.

Lan hopes to grab a slice of Juneau's Asian food business, but faces some competition downtown. A few nearby eateries offer some Asian dishes and one specializes in Asian food, Seong's Sushi Bar and Chinese Take Out across from the Federal Building.

Lan thinks he has an edge over the downtown

competition. His restaurant has a wider range of Chinese food and offers a traditional sit-down setting complete with white linen napkins during dinner service. The location, in the heart of downtown across from the 20th Century Theater, also gives him an edge over the other Asian restaurants in Lemon Creek, the Mendenhall Valley and Auke Bay, he said.

The Dragon Inn has a balcony that can be used to seat more people or for special events, but first Lan said he has to hire wait staff to cover the upstairs. That's another lesson Lan's learning hired help. The cooking tasks are covered by his family, but Lan was having trouble finding wait staff. Posting the openings with the job center hasn't yielded any inquiries yet, he said.

"I definitely need a waiter or waitress," he said Friday.

The lunch rush can stretch the limits of his current all-family staff. With only two people on the floor including himself in the role of waiter and host, the 38-seat restaurant's service can be stretched thin.

Over the holiday weekend he hired some staff which should alleviate some problems.

Lan said the Dragon Inn's supply and staff kinks should be worked out soon. He is still adjusting hours depending on the local demand, but for now is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and closed Sundays.

Location played a big part of his moving to Juneau - not the city's location, but the availability of restaurant space in an area that didn't have a Chinese restaurant. He was looking to find a new location around Philadelphia, but there were similiar restaurants in the area.

"It's kind of hard to find the right location," Lan said.

His niece alerted him to the possibility of opening a restaurant in downtown Juneau, he said. He made his first trip here in September to look at and eventually bought The Second Course, an exclusive restaurant with limited hours that served "new Asian" and Pacific Rim dishes, said Heidi Grimes, former owner of The Second Course.

Lan has had to make some local adjustments from his East Coast restaurant menu, including the addition of salmon and halibut dishes.

"We never heard of halibut" in Philadelphia, he said.

Mike Hinman can be reached at mhinman@juneauempire.com.



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