There will be a hole in my heart the size of Minneapolis when the Kwan family sells its last barbecue pork bun on New Year's Eve after nearly 40 years in business.

When I first moved here, I quickly learned that Minnesota has no Chinatown, but that Minnesotans reliably had Keefer Court. An iconic bakery serving up authentic Hong Kong-style pastries near the University of Minnesota, it fed and comforted me whenever I hankered for a taste of home. After the Kwans shutter their doors, where will I find a dan tat, the sweet and soft egg tart of my Chicago childhood, when I'm in dire need of a pick-me-up?

But it's hard to feel down when you know how much owners Sunny and Paulina deserve their retirement. Their sacrifice means their four children can choose a different future for themselves, and that's reason to be happy.

Sunny is a fitting name for the 71-year-old, who can't help but grin when he explains, "I'm always smiling." As much as he'd like someone to continue their legacy, it's not lost on him why none of their kids want to take over the family business. "I don't blame them," he said.

Karma might be at work, too.

"I understand, because I had a dream of leaving the country to see the new world," said Sunny, who in 1973 left Hong Kong, where his father owned a shoe factory. "My dad wanted me to take over his business, but I said, 'Bye-bye! I'm leaving.' Now it's payback."

Chinese restaurants are closing around the country as first-generation immigrants, for whom owning a restaurant was one of the few entrepreneurial jobs available a half-century ago, retire. Their American-born children are pursuing their own careers and passions. Asia Chow Mein in Columbia Heights will serve its last meals Dec. 23 after 50 years in business. This year also saw the closing of David Fong's in Bloomington after a 64-year run.

A 2019 New York Times story reported the number of Chinese restaurants in American metro areas had been steadily declining as original owners age out. Since then, the food service industry has been strained by inflation and staffing issues, not to mention the pandemic.

Sunny and Paulina bought a building at Cedar and Riverside avenues, and lived in a second-story apartment just above the bakery they opened in 1983.

At the time Sunny dreamed of giving his kids a good education and one day buying a house in the suburbs — even bringing his young daughter along to open houses. Michelle, the second oldest, remembers touring homes with her father, as they picked their bedrooms and envisioned where Paulina would play mahjong.

"I always thought we were going to buy a house, and it just never happened," Michelle said. "He was always dreaming."

The down payment would have to wait because business opportunities kept beckoning. By the mid-'90s, Sunny built a fortune cookie factory off of Lake Street. The family put a spin on the business by allowing clients to request customized messages. The family accepted the orders via fax and crafted the fortunes by typewriter.

Growing up immersed in the family business, Michelle learned early how she could pitch in. She woke up alone, fed herself breakfast and watched "Sesame Street," then ambled downstairs to help however she could. She remembers begging her parents to play, only to have her dad explain that he and her mom needed to work this hard to give their kids things they never had.

It was long assumed that Michelle would one day take over the business. None of her siblings, who pursued careers in teaching and corporate roles, expressed interest. Still, she resented it when her father's best friend disapproved of Sunny passing the business onto Michelle. "Don't give it to her. Look at how hard you work," he'd tell Sunny. "You don't want to put that on your daughter."

Michelle, a U of M graduate who started managing the bakery in 2017, now sees his point. She would arrive at the shop at 5 a.m. to start prepping. The shop opened at 10 a.m. and closed at 9 p.m. She'd usually get home by 10, take a shower, crash for the night and then repeat it all in the morning.

Making the pastries, all by hand, demands patience and precision. Take the char siu bao, the BBQ pork bun, for example. My grandfather in Chicago used to tell his friends at the factory that it was a Chinese hamburger. Shorthand for: It's a light fluffy bun, but don't be surprised by the meat inside.

The meat filling must be marinated, roasted and chopped. The sauce must be prepared, then combined with the filling. Then it's time to make the dough. The Kwans weighed each piece of dough, calibrated the ingredients depending on that day's humidity, and baked them in batches of 300. "It takes years of experience of knowing the feel of the dough," said Michelle.

As she sought to push the bakery into its 2.0 phase, one that expanded into vegan-friendly options and aspired to pay its staff a living wage, she realized running Keefer Court on her own would not be sustainable. Under her parents, the business had become an all-family affair, with aunts, uncles and cousins chipping in, sleeping in bunk beds in the Kwans' living space upstairs.

"The benefit of having family help you is you don't have to pay them that much," Michelle said. "Growing up, I thought we lived in a hotel. My dad housed and fed a lot of his family."

Michelle, 37, says she wouldn't count out reviving the family recipes one day for a Keefer 3.0, which might involve subscription boxes. But it will be done at a pace that won't burn her out.

Closing the brick-and-mortar store now allows her parents to stop working. Sunny's elusive dream — a house in the suburbs — looks like it's finally in the cards, after the owner of a rambler in Prior Lake recently accepted the Kwans' offer.

Sunny said he's touched as he marvels over the loyalty of his customers. It's the international student who felt less homesick after a bowl of congee. The Jewish man who asked for, and received, the recipe to the Kwans' sticky rice dumplings because they reminded him of his Brooklyn upbringing. The droves of people who supported them during the pandemic.

"I'm here to thank them in my heart," Sunny said, adding that he feels a mix of joy and sadness.

I feel it, too. At its best, comfort food assures you that even if you are away from your family, you are loved and protected. The Kwans offered us that for four decades. And one of Sunny's most important dreams has already come true.

"If my kids are doing well, [following] their passion," he said, "I am OK with whatever they decide."