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Yang Chow Wok celebrates a decade

North Liberty eatery Tasting the success of 10 great years
Restaurant owner Cody Chen and his sister Anna Xie in the family-owned and operated Yang Chow Wok, at 555 Hwy. 965 in North Liberty . Chen and his family celebrate the restaurant’s 10th year of operation this month. (photo by Lori Lindner)

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader

NORTH LIBERTY– In any fast-paced, growing community, restaurant upstarts often come and go quickly.
It is a major accomplishment to stick around for 10 years, but that is the milestone celebrated by North Liberty’s Yang Chow Wok this month.
The restaurant opened Jan. 5, 2005, at 555 Hwy. 965 in the strip mall building just south of Fareway. Yang Chow Wok is still there, although the interior has undergone a few remodeling projects, the addition of a 20-capacity party room and even an expansion into a neighboring space, to accommodate its ever-increasing clientele.
Owner Cody Chen is originally from the Michigan area. He has worked in the restaurant business since he was 17 years old, learning to cook from more experienced chef mentors. In 1999, he and his family moved to Iowa City and started the Yen Ching Restaurant. He got a tip from SouthGate Development that they were constructing a new building in the growing town of North Liberty, and that the area was on the verge of a huge population boom.
“When we started here, there were only five or six restaurants in town,” said Chen. “SouthGate said more homes and businesses were going to go up all around here.”
Go up they did; the 2000 census put North Liberty’s population at 5,367. By 2010, the official count was over 13,000, and the City of North Liberty is preparing to conduct a special census, as current estimates put the population somewhere around 17,000.
But of those few restaurants Chen named who were his contemporaries in 2005, half are no longer in business. In the building where Yang Chow Wok is located, only his restaurant and Corridor Coffee retain their original storefronts; every other space has changed businesses more than once.
It takes something special to make a restaurant business successful, and in this case, Chen believes it’s the quality of food customers find at Yang Chow Wok.
“First, the food they get here is fresh. When people order, we start cooking it then so the food is always fresh and hot,” said Chen. If someone orders takeout but has a distance to drive, Yang Chow’s staff will adjust the cook time accordingly, and begin preparing dishes only 10 minutes before the customer arrives.
It’s one reason Yang Chow Wok has never offered delivery.
“Sometimes, a delivery could take an hour,” Chen said. “By the time you get your food, it would be cold.” Also, other Chinese restaurants may use frozen vegetables, but Chen said all the dishes at Yang Chow Wok are made with fresh ingredients because using frozen can cause it to become watery.
Still, on a Friday or Saturday night during dine-in experiences, customers can expect their Chinese and Japanese food, including sushi, made from traditional recipes, to arrive within 15 to 20 minutes. For commuters, Yank Chow Wok is in a good location for people on their way home from work in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, noted Chen.
Another reason Yang Chow Wok focuses on its cuisine instead of convenience is to keep meal prices affordable. Though wholesale food prices have increased over the decade, Chen said, he works hard to keep the price to the customers down.
“Ten years ago, chicken wings were $4.25. Now, we charge $4.95; only a 75-cent difference,” Chen said. “But 10 years ago, the price I paid for chicken was 90 cents per pound. Today, it’s $1.80. It has doubled, but I cannot double my price.”
One major change Chen did make, though, was to add a lunch buffet. It turned out to be an excellent business decision.
“At lunchtime, people only have about 30 minutes to eat. And if they have to drive to pick up their food and then take it back to work, they only have a few minutes to eat,” said Chen. “With the buffet they can come in and sit down and have a hot lunch fast.”
The popular all-you-can-eat buffet features many of the same dishes available on the menu, including crab Rangoon and egg rolls, entrees and a variety of rice, desserts and even a couple of American favorites like chicken fingers for the kids, still offered at the low cost of just $5.95. Dinner and lunch specials create combinations that make it possible to have appetizers, an entrée and rice at an affordable price.
“We always try to keep the price low, as best we can,” Chen said. “We don’t want to raise prices just to make a lot of money and then be gone; we’d rather stay here as long as we can.”
It has been a proven recipe for success for 10 years.
“We enjoy it here. All the people in town, and the people in our neighboring businesses, have been very nice,” said Chen.
In addition to dine-in and carry out, Yang Chow Wok will cater to larger parties. Regular customers include churches, the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and area banks. The restaurant does not offer a catering menu, but word of mouth has been a sufficient means of advertising. Customers ask for their preferred dishes, and he or his staff delivers the same hot, fresh tastes one gets at the restaurant or in their take-out boxes.
Watch for anniversary specials coming in February; it’s one way Chen can show his appreciation for his customers and their long-time loyalty.
“We thank everyone in the community. We have enjoyed having our business in North Liberty for 10 years,” Chen said. “And we will keep serving people the best we can.”