Van Ai (Karen) Chou
"PNC has always been there for me. When I need something, my banking team comes to meet with me to discuss solutions. PNC is clearly dedicated to my success."
Embarking upon a Courageous Journey
Ask Van Ai (Karen) Chou about taking the risk of moving from a waitress position to buying her own restaurant, and she smiles politely. It was a risk, of course, buying a restaurant with virtually no clientele and having limited business management experience, but Karen has taken much larger leaps in her life.
Born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, Karen came to the United States as a refugee in 1979, after North Vietnam took over South Vietnam. Only 16 years old, she bravely took her place among family and neighbors in a boat headed toward freedom. Rescued at sea by the crew of a Taiwanese fishing boat, Karen and the others were taken to a temporary refugee camp in Hong Kong. Shortly after, friends helped her relocate to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she lived until 1985.
"I moved to Middletown, Ohio, and took a waitressing job at Mark Pi's China Gate restaurant," says Karen. Mark Pi's is a chain of 20 independently owned and operated full-service restaurants in Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia under the Asian Concepts Inc. brand.
"In addition to waitressing, I managed the restaurant with my husband, David, on the owner's days off. We decided we would like to manage our own restaurant, so in 1987, when the vice president of Mark Pi's offered us the opportunity to buy the China Gate restaurant in Zanesville, we didn't hesitate."
Challenges Give Way to Success
When Karen and David purchased the restaurant, it was in poor condition and business was so slow that it quickly became clear that the couple would be unable to make the monthly mortgage payments. "Mr. Pi wanted to close the restaurant, but we were confident we could turn it around," says Karen. "I talked him into giving us a few more months, and David, my mother, my sister Binh and I went to work."
Karen began cutting labor costs by eliminating the waiter's morning shift and doing all of the cleaning and set-up labor herself. She and her family also worked to improve food quality and customer service. Mark Pi helped by hosting luncheons with city officials to encourage word-of-mouth promotion for the restaurant. Within three months, word had gotten around that China Gate had excellent food and service, and Karen's clientele began to grow. Today, her restaurant is one of Zanesville's most highly regarded businesses.
Karen has counted on PNC for support since opening the doors to her restaurant more than 20 years ago. "PNC has always been there for me," she says. "When I need something, my banking team comes to meet with me to discuss solutions. PNC is clearly dedicated to my success."