Don Fong’s parents started their Bloomington restaurant in 1958. Fong was born in 1959, the “number-two son” of Chinese immigrants. “That kind of shows you — from the beginning, growing up, all I knew of was that Mom and Dad were involved in a Chinese restaurant,” he said.
By age 13 or 14, Fong recalled, he was helping his parents with “little chores — cleaning, picking up, helping with a little bit of prep work.” Still, his parents put education above the family business. “Probably in the back of their minds they were hoping we would go into the business, but they encouraged us to study whatever we had a passion for.”
In Fong’s case, that was child psychology. “I love working with kids and young adults,” he said. He alternated summers — one year in the restaurant, the next year working in his field, with jobs in the park system and YMCA.
When he graduated, however, the restaurant business won out. “As I knew that I wanted to work with people, it made sense for me to deal with the restaurant. I love to make people happy — not only the guests who may come in, but also the staff. Obviously you have to have to happy staff to get good results.” In addition to management, Fong was able to do some bartending, which, he said, “makes things interesting.”
As he was approaching age 50, he decided it was time to try something different. He started a pool hall business, which combined a personal passion for pool with his love of working with young adults.
In 2005, he heard that a Culver’s franchise was going up in his Bloomington neighborhood. He introduced himself to the owner, who offered him a management job. “I said yes. From there, I’ve grown into general manager. I just recently became a partner in the business. I hope to grow with this franchisee,” Fong said. But he still helps out in the family business when he’s needed.
Can someone without connections get into the restaurant business?
There are great career opportunities there. I don’t look for experience. We have great systems to be able to develop our team. I love training young students. This might be their first job. I like to get them while they’re sort of green and don’t have bad habits. There are quite a few people who have second jobs at my restaurant. They might want to work a two- or three-hour shift. Or moms working 11 to 3.
What does it take to be successful?
Flexibility. The hospitality business is not like going to work 8 to 5 everyday. If you want to be in a business that has a lot of activity, each day is going to be different. When I look at prospective candidates to hire, I personally look at someone who wants to be passionate about the job. If you’re passionate about working with people, the hospitality industry is a great job for you.
Is the restaurant business a good long-term career option?
It’s unfortunate that people look upon this industry as being just “anybody can do it.” There’s a lot more to it than just serving a burger. I have a manager who, until recently, was asked by her friends and family “Why are you doing this?” As they’ve seen this manager grow in the business, and as she’s seen her value, using her business sense, they’re realizing, “This can be a career.”
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