Failure was never an option for Jan Chu.
The founder of Hunan Restaurant, St. Joseph’s flagship Chinese restaurant, said she wasn’t scared to start her own business 36 years ago.
“It wasn’t scary,” she said. “There was no turning back. I couldn’t find a job, so I had to make my own.”
When Jan moved to St. Joseph in 1980 she could barely speak English. Born Yu-Shan (Jan) Chu and raised in Taiwan, she had worked in the newspaper industry as a young woman.
But as a mother with a young son (the first of two), she needed to earn an income, so she and her husband opened Hunan Restaurant in the Faraon Plaza. At first, she only knew how to ask customers if everything was ok and only knew the responses “good” and “bad.”
“If someone said ‘terrific’ or ‘delicious’ I didn’t know what they meant,” she said. But she quickly picked it up. Learning a second language was a difficult task, but she was determined -- a character trait instilled in her from her mother.
“We ran around without shoes on and not much food, but my mother always made sure the job was done right and told us not to give up. One of her favorite sayings was ‘tough times never last, but tough people do,’” she said.
That toughness has helped Hunan succeed. At one time it was one of nine Chinese restaurants in St. Joseph.
“Jan demands a clean machine,” said Gary Walkup, her husband of 31 years. “Everything has to be done just right.”
From the way her 16 original recipes are still prepared to how the tables are set -- quality and consistency are top priorities.
“I tell the employees, ‘this is not a truck stop!’” she said while polishing a spoon on the table.
She has led the business through change during the years, including a move to its current location, which was built from the ground up.
“I remember when Jason was here running in the empty lot,” she said.
Jason, her youngest son, has grown up in the business, has served in every capacity in the restaurant, most recently as general manager. He is taking over the reins officially as Jan retires.
When asked if she was nervous to hand the business over to her son, she very matter-of-factly said no.
“He’s been in training since he was 4,” she said.
Her sons, and their friends, basically grew up in the restaurant. She told a story of Jason once falling asleep as a young child on a bag of rice in the back.
“When I was 10 I bused tables for $2 an hour,” he said.
As the business began to grow with its eat-in audience, Jan saw an opportunity to reach more customers. Eight years after Hunan opened, they began delivering to homes and businesses.
“I’m pretty sure we were delivering before Pizza Hut,” she said.
Now the restaurant is becoming more involved in catering and community events, thanks to Jason’s excitement to continue to grow the business. Hunan’s has become more involved in school nights, charity fundraisers and have added Mexican food to the menu in recent years.
“Jason brings a lot of good ideas to the table, but appreciates tradition,” Gary said. Plus, he has a business management degree, which brings education as well as experience to the business, he said.
Jan celebrated her retirement with a reception at Hunan (which was named for a province in China known for its use of spice in cooking) on Feb. 21, but her customers and friends will still know where to find her.
“I’ll still work a few days a week to cover for Jason. I say I’m retiring only because I’m going to stop getting paid,” she joked.
She wants to help Jason so he can be there for his wife, son and daughter and their family activities while continuing to run the business.
“I trained my son, but I spoil my grandkids,” she said. But the grandkids aren’t too spoiled, her grandson Tre is already excellent at making pot stickers, she said.
The love of her family, customers and her business is clear to any who walk into Hunan.
“She’s a genuine person,” Gary said. “She has the kindness to go the extra mile. She doesn’t put on airs, she really likes people.”
Even though her start in St. Joseph was difficult because of the language barrier, she looks back on her career fondly. She says her self-discipline, strong will and the support of others helped the family business become a success.
“I’m very grateful for all of the support from St. Joseph and the area these last 36 years,” she said.