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About Jimmy Gao Associates

Jimmy Jeng Szechwan Chinese Restaurant is owned by Jimmy Gao Associates.  Following is an article about Jimmy Jeng and the Restaurant.

Meet jimmy jeng

Recipe for Success
Restaurateur Jimmy Jeng overcame the odds for failure with a combination of great food and personable service.

By Kate Slavens
Photo by Jordan Barclay

Jimmy Jeng's arrival in Evansville was not the beginning of a typical success story. "I had $40 in my pocket, no credit card, no car," he recalls. But Jeng had a plan: to open a Chinese restaurant on the East Side.

The odds were decidedly against him. Jeng had left behind his wife and two sons in Illinois, so he could launch the business here, located at a site where five other restaurants had failed. To save money, he slept on the floor of the restaurant for the first few months and then moved into a one-bedroom apartment he shared with a half-dozen other men. Jeng would walk to and from work each day.

To make matters worse, business was slow. With no money to advertise, Jeng had few customers coming to the restaurant. Within months, family and friends pleaded with him to close the business and return to his home in Chicago. It was, he admits, an incredibly low period for him, both emotionally and financially.

That was seven years ago. Today, Jimmy Jeng's Szechwan Chinese Restaurant in Eastland Place does booming business, attracting lunchtime and dinner crowds by offering a wide variety of unique dishes mastered by Jeng, a Taiwanese native whose ancestors hailed from the Szechwan province in mainland China.

His recipe for success? A combination of hard work, sheer determination, good food, great service, and a partnership with a group of retired Evansville businessmen committed to helping Jeng succeed.

Only a year before coming to Evansville, Jeng had been the successful owner of a 500-seat restaurant in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. He'd bought the business several years before, investing money he'd made from a series of small Chinese restaurants he'd run in the downtown Chicago area.

But when a major snowstorm hit the Chicago area in 1999, Jeng lost everything. The storm - the second worst in Chicago history - dumped so much snow on his restaurant's roof that it collapsed. The business, which Jeng had invested all his money in, was forced to close.

He searched unsuccessfully for a new restaurant location for a year, selling his house in the process in order to acquire funding for the venture. Eventually, Jeng received a call from an old friend, Ron Graul, a geologist who has lived in the Evansville area for more than 20 years.

"I had first met Jimmy when he owned the restaurant in Evanston," Graul says. "My son Matt was a student at Northwestern, and he and some college friends had discovered the place. When I visited, Matt took me to the restaurant. I hadn't tasted Chinese food that good before. I'd always encouraged Jimmy to open a restaurant in Evansville."

Jeng had resisted Graul's advice until he was forced to take it. On Graul's invitation, Jeng visited Evansville and liked what he saw. He even found a Chinese restaurant, which was in the process of closing. The owner, who had bought it after four previous Chinese restaurants at the same location had failed, was eager to sell.

But after buying the business, Jeng faced the harsh realities of the Evansville restaurant market. Jeng says that unlike Chicago, Evansville had little experience with Chinese food outside of the typical buffets serving Americanized versions of the cuisine. Jeng's restaurant featured Szechwan fare, a regional cuisine known for its spicy and fiery dishes, and it was menu-only.

The restaurant seemed doomed to close. But Jeng's insistence on staying in Evansville paid off. Realizing that he desperately needed to improve the restaurant's dingy atmosphere, he went to a local bank and asked for a loan. "I was rejected at first," he recalls. "But I went back, showed them my experience and the plans I had for the restaurant. 'Give me a chance,' I told them. So they gave me $10,000."

They also connected him with the local chapter of SCORE, the Service Corps Of Retired Executives, whose members offer free business counseling for small business owners and entrepreneurs. Local SCORE President Tom Koetting, a retired CPA and former vice president of sales and marketing at Peabody Coal Sales Co., was impressed with Jeng's work ethic and his terrific food. Koetting enlisted the help of fellow SCORE member Jack Headlee, who founded Ten Adams Marketing & Advertising in Evansville. The two offered support, guidance, and expertise. "One of our volunteers owned a public relations firm before he retired, so he had contacts with the local media," Koetting says. "Through him, we were able to get television advertising for Jimmy's restaurant."

Jeng was also determined to spread the word himself. During the lull between serving lunch and dinner at the restaurant, he would borrow a car and drive to area hotels. "I'd bring take-out menus with me in an old suitcase, and I'd leave them with the hotel managers to put in the rooms," he recalls. "I even went around to apartments and slid menus under the door. I still didn't have much money, so it was the only advertising I could do myself."

Jeng received another boost when Evansville Living featured his restaurant in a dining review. New customers who tried his food quickly became loyal customers, telling friends about the restaurant's extensive menu featuring such specialties as string bean pancakes, willow beef, and mountain snow shrimp.

"There was still a lot of competition, but business increased," Jeng says. "I didn't want it to be too busy and then have to close a few months later. I went step-by-step and built a strong customer base."

That strong base continued to expand after Jeng's wife, Tina, and their two sons, Herbert and Robin, joined him in Evansville. Today, Jimmy Jeng's is one of the city's most popular locally owned eateries, and Jeng has become something of a celebrity in the community. It's a position he celebrates with humor: Patrons of the restaurant are greeted as they first walk in with a "Wall of Fame" featuring hundreds of photographs of his loyal customers.

Not long ago, when a group of Kentucky natives tried the Szechwan restaurant, they were so impressed with the meal and Jeng's personality, they nominated him to become an honorary "Kentucky Colonel," a title bestowed on such well-known figures as boxer Muhammad Ali, astronaut John Glenn, and the late Pope John Paul II. "Some people have started calling me Colonel Jimmy," he says with a laugh.

Last year, Jeng thought about opening a seafood and steak restaurant but gave up the idea after talking to some of his most trusted customers. Says Jeng: "They told me why people come to my restaurant. Fifty percent is for the food; 50 percent is to see me."

Jeng knew the time and energy it would take to open another dining venue would steal time away from his flagship restaurant. "I didn't want to decrease our service here," Jeng says. "Until recently, my wife Tina and I waited on all the tables ourselves. We thought it was important to have a person who knows Szechwan cuisine talking to customers. Good service, food quality, and reasonable prices are the keys to having a successful restaurant in Evansville. Consumers are smart. They know how to choose."

Still, Jeng takes little for granted. On Mondays, when his restaurant is closed, he eats at other restaurants, observing their strengths and weaknesses in order to make improvements at his own business. He still works 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. At age 58, he credits his stamina to the hours spent practicing the modern martial arts of tae kwon do and tai chi.

He also credits the support of his family. Son Robin not long ago penned an essay about his father, describing him as a hero for having sacrificed so much to give his family a better life. Son Herbert is a student at Indiana University in Bloomington with dreams of going to medical school.

For Jeng, owning a successful business and seeing his sons do well is a dream come true. These days, when Jeng is photographed, he often raises his hand to make a "V for Victory" sign. "People want to know why I do that," Jeng says as he takes a rare break and sits in the restaurant, looking around at the tables surrounding him. "I tell them it means, 'I'm making it!'"

This story is from the February/March 2007 edition ofEvansville Businessand appears here with the gracious permission of the publisher.