On Saturday, August 29, Hong’s Garden Restaurant in Renton closed after 21 years as a popular go-to restaurant for nearby Boeing workers and families craving home-style Chinese cuisine outside the International District.
Owner Faye Hong, who turns 74 on September 20, was matter-of-fact about the closure, noting that his original plan was to retire much sooner. Hong established the restaurant in a strip mall near the Renton Airport in 1994 at a time when other businesses in close proximity were bustling.
“I’ve been doing this for too long,” Hong said in an interview the day after the restaurant closed. The soft-spoken Hong sounded especially fatigued after a busy final week. “I’ve got to start looking out for myself.” Hong, who still looks deceptively young for his age, said he’s eager to spend some down time. He said he wants to manage his chronic diabetes, exercise, and try to lose weight. “I can still work twice as fast as two of my employees in the kitchen, but I don’t want to keep doing this,” he said. “I’ve got to rest up.”
Hong’s retirement will also provide a welcome break for his wife Janie, a perennial fixture at the restaurant’s front counter. Meanwhile, Hong’s daughter, Melinda, who worked as a waitress and cashier, will look for other employment.
The restaurant’s closure has been received with great sadness by regular customers who came to rely on the speedy take-out service, delicious dim sum lunch choices, and classic Cantonese fare. “For the last 10 days, all the loyal customers have been coming in,” Hong said. “They heard I’m retiring. In fact, some have come in for four straight days.”
Hong said that in the past seven or eight years, The Landing, the upscale Renton development on the south shore of Lake Washington, had drained potential customers and traffic away from his business, prompting a downward spiral. During the past year-and-a-half, he had been trying unsuccessfully to sell the restaurant.
“I enjoyed it for the first 10 years,” Hong said. “But last few years have been kind of hard. I’ve been losing money. The rent structure is too high.”
Hong, a well-respected leader in the Chinatown-International District community for decades, has been in the restaurant business since 1956 when his father, Hong Louie, opened a tiny, but very popular eatery, the Atlas Café, on the corner of Maynard Avenue and South King Street. At the time, Faye, a 14-year-old student at Franklin High School, washed dishes and helped out in the kitchen after school. He learned the restaurant trade from the bottom up, working alongside his father and mother and his younger siblings James, Hugo, and Susan.
After the Atlas Café closed in 1983, Faye opened the House of Hong on Eighth Avenue and South Jackson Street, at the former location of Officemporium, an office supply store. Hong purchased the property from the late Danny Woo, a prominent Chinatown business leader. But just three months after the new restaurant opened to flocks of customers, an arsonist torched the business, burning it to the ground. Hong, who had relied on a Small Business Administration loan to start up, was desperate. “It was the lowest point in my life,” he recounted. “I didn’t have any money. I had put all my money into the loan. I owed the bank so much. I hardly had any money to live on. We rebuilt it in exactly in 120 days. But not too long after that, the Wah Mee massacre took place and it affected people coming down to the area.”
Despite this inauspicious beginning, the House of Hong quickly established itself as one of the staple restaurants in the region, not only holding onto the loyal customers who migrated over from the iconic Atlas Café, but drawing additional downtown workers to the International District for lunch and families from the Eastside for dinner.
Faye operated the House of Hong until 1994 when he sold the flourishing business. He retired at the age of 51. “I was working too hard,” he said. “I was putting in 14 hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week.” He added that his partnership with his brother, Hugo, was not going well, helping push his decision to retire. “I didn’t want to run the restaurant anymore,” he said.
Hong’s retirement turned out to be short-lived. After he sold the House of Hong, some of his former employees coaxed him into starting another restaurant: “They said, ‘Start a smaller one. We’ll work for you. You don’t have to work so hard. You just have to manage it.’”
Hong then began looking for a location to start anew. As he drove around Renton, he spotted a brand new strip mall that had been built on the site of an old Black Angus Steakhouse that Hong used to patronize during the 1970s while he was working at Boeing. “I thought this would be a good place to open a restaurant,” he said. “There was heavy traffic on that intersection.”
“I got quite a few people that used to work for me to join me at the new place,” Hong said. “I told a couple of them, ‘Why don’t you guys invest in this restaurant, too? Put in whatever you can, and then I’ll put up the rest.’ Three of them invested. We started it. They got their money back within a year.”
Hong said he had originally planned to sell the restaurant to one of the partners after five years, but no one stepped forward. “After working for about 10 years, and no one wants to buy the place, I got stuck with it,” he said. “Two of them retired. One stayed with me and he’s going to retire now. So I got stuck for 21 years. My five year plan turned into 21 years.”
Despite the closure of Hong’s Garden Restaurant, Hong intends to continue his numerous community activities. He serves on the board of directors of Kin On and has been a leader in the Seattle Hop Sing Tong and the Lee Family Association.
More recently, Hong has been involved in the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Memorial Statue Foundation, established just last year. Hong, who helped raise money to erect the Chinatown Gate at Fifth Avenue and South King Street, says he wants to build on that success by placing a statue of the late Chinese political leader in a visible public location nearby. Hong said the group has already raised $22,000, with an additional state allocation of $10,000 recently approved. “We’re just trying to find a place to put it up now,” Hong said.