David Fong's first opened its doors in 1958 as a small takeout chow mein joint. In 1966, it moved to its present location on Lyndale Avenue in Bloomington. David Sr. and his wife Helen started the business, and when they retired, they turned it over to eldest son Ed Fong, keeping it all in the family. He oversees the sprawling property, with its two bars, dining room, takeout business and banquet facilities.
The building itself is iconic, and the Fong family are some of the most prominent citizens of Bloomington, known for their community involvement as much as for their bar and restaurant. Ed generously took time out from his busy schedule to chat with the Hot Dish about the history of David Fong's, his family, and the legions of regulars that have loved and patronized the establishment for over 50 years.
[jump] How did the original Fong's Chow Mein get started?
Actually my father and mother were looking for a location in Richfield, got lost, missed the exit on 35W and were going to do a turnaround in Bloomington. There was a for lease space on 98th and Lyndale, and they inquired about the space. In fact I was there, three months old. The landlord said we'll do it and that's how my parents started. That was 1958. And then in '66 we opened up this location here at 94th and Lyndale. That's when the restaurant started.
What was the original place like and what was on the menu?
It was a takeout place. My parents started out with 600 square feet -- that included the kitchen, storage and the front desk.
Was there just chow mein on the menu?
It was basically chow mein, egg rolls, egg foo yung and fried rice. They were basically the only four items on the menu.
Was it takeout only? Or did they have any tables?
I think my parents had three stools there -- a countertop and three stools.
What made them go ahead and open the full service restaurant in 1966?
At that time Bloomington, in '58, it was, I believe still a township or a village. It was becoming a city in 1966, no 1965. And then they had a lot of support from a lot of locals here who said,"The food's so good, why don't you open a full restaurant."
At that time, in '66, Bloomington was just offering liquor licenses. So my parents got the 13th liquor license in town.
So you were three months old when they got the first lease. When did you start working in the restaurant, or were you always there?
You know I've been in the business all my life. I'd say I probably started taking a paycheck when I was 15. How's that?
And when you were 15, what were you doing to earn a paycheck?
I was a little bit of everything--cleaning out garbage cans, washing dishes, cutting celery, packing noodles. I learned everything from the bottom up.
You have five brothers and sisters?
Five other brothers and sisters, yes.
And did they all work here too?
They all worked here at one time or another.
What was it like growing up here?
Bloomington has always been a great city for us. They always accepted us from the beginning. Obviously we're a minority in the city, but my parents always felt gracious that they accepted us so well. And that if you look into our carry-out area, you can see a lot of plaques and boards -- I think you saw that -- because my parents believed very strongly that when the community supports you that well, you support the community. So we are very active in the community and community service organizations like the Lions Club. We support a lot of the youth activities here. We donate a lot to the other community service organizations through silent auctions and things like that. Golf tournaments and stuff like that.
What was Bloomington like when you were growing up? How is it different today?
Well, like I said, it wasn't a city yet. Where the restaurant stands right now was a cornfield. Right on Lyndale. Like I said the bridge across the river hadn't been built yet. At that point it was kind of the outskirts of Minneapolis. We were kind of on the edge. There before the metro area, really. It was very new, very growing.
You grew up in the restaurant, basically.
Yes, I did.
What lessons would you say you learned growing up in the restaurant?
It's definitely hard work. Customer service is number one. The fun part is getting to know my customers. You know, I probably have -- I know a lot of families third and fourth generations of their families. Where the grandparents started with my parents. I got to know their kids, their grandkids and now some of the great-grandkids are coming in. So it's always a lot of fun.
My employees are very loyal. I've had many thirty year employees. I've got a forty year employee right now and a lot of twenty year employees. I have a real faithful staff. That makes my job a lot easier too. And I hope it's because I treat them well.
You run the restaurant now, correct? And are there any other family members here?
Not at this time, no. Well, I shouldn't say that. My wife works with me and my son is one of my managers.
So your immediate family works with you.
Yes. Obviously my parents are retired now but still doing well. We helped open a restaurant in Prior Lake that my sister (Cindy) and her husband (Leo) run. And then we helped open one in Savage, that my youngest brother David, Jr. runs. He works with my sister Amy.
There are three related restaurants. Are they serving similar food?
We're the largest of the three. The one in Prior Lake has a full bar now and a banquet facility. And started out with most of our recipes, at least our Chinese recipes. We're the only one of the three that has an extensive American menu also. Because back then Chinese food was a very new item, so we had to have it. Having both American and Chinese was a big plus and still is a big plus for us.
I still have customers that have never had my Chinese food. And I have customers that have never eaten my American food. But I have a lot of converts over time that either have tried our American or Chinese and now they know they can have both.
Part 2 of our talk with Ed Fong continues tomorrow.