A lot has changed since Buck Chan first started working at Keoki’s Oriental Restaurant nearly four decades ago.
The city, its residents and their taste in food are all very different now than when Chan and his family emigrated to Yakima from China in 1980.
One thing that has stayed the same, however, is Chan’s presence at the restaurant. The part-owner and longtime general manager takes only three days off per year — Thanksgiving, Christmas and 4th of July — because he feels it is his duty to be available for his loyal clientele when they are craving Chinese food.
“I’ve been here 36 years and have never taken a sick day,” said Chan, who moved to town with his family when he was a teenager. “Some of my customers have been coming here since day one, and I always look forward to seeing them. Some were even coming here before me. That’s my favorite part about working here — seeing all of my friends.”
Chan’s father, Hon Chan, moved to Yakima in the late 1970s and worked for the original owners of Keoki’s, who opened the restaurant at 2107 W. Lincoln Ave. in 1974. Chan’s uncle, Andy — a former bartender at The Dragon Inn — had been living in Yakima and needed Hon’s help.
Eventually, the entire family — Chan, his mother and three siblings — moved to the Valley, purchasing Keoki’s in early 1983. Chan became the general manager at age 18 and has never looked back.
“None of us spoke any English — not even our ABCs,” said Chan, who attended Davis High School and Yakima Valley College when he wasn’t at the restaurant. “I had no intention of working here; I just did it to help out my family. I did whatever I needed to do to provide a steady income for us.”
Chan explained that when he left his home country, his only focus in life was playing volleyball. He was on track to play for an elite Chinese volleyball academy, but when the family moved to Yakima, he had to channel his energy elsewhere.
“When I wasn’t working here, I would be playing volleyball over at YVC,” he said. “I dominated that court for about 20 years. Some days I would play for 12 or 13 hours — I just loved it. But as I got a little older, I started spending more time working.”
Chan is just as high-energy today as he was during his younger years, often running the entire restaurant by himself.
He has a part-time wait staff to help him in the evenings, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see him making the rounds in the dining room. He likes interacting with his customers whenever he can because that personal touch is what has made him successful.
“The people of this town have always supported me and I really appreciate what they’ve done,” he said. “Even when I didn’t speak English very well, they were always very accepting of me. They tried to educate me and help me learn the American culture, and even when I messed up, they kept coming back. I owe a lot to the people of Yakima.”
Quality Is Job One
Aside from the friendly ambiance, another reason people keep returning to Keoki’s is the quality of the food. Chan buys only the best meats and vegetables, and he doesn’t believe in additives like pepper, baking powder and other flavor enhancers.
He even buys his fortune cookies from an authentic Chinese manufacturer, not some factory in Southern California like most places. People can tell when a restaurant is trying to make up for substandard ingredients, he said.
“You can’t cut corners with anything, even if it costs a little more,” Chan said. “And I don’t raise my prices to make up for that. I work even harder so I can give my customers a better price. I try to give back to my royalty customers, and I want to bring in new customers, too.”
The Chinese food business in Yakima isn’t what it used to be, however. Chan said people’s tastes have changed, but he also laments that there are too many restaurant options these days. All of the national chains that have sprouted up are making it even harder for family-owned restaurants like Keoki’s to compete.
Business remains steady, he said, although the number of customers coming through in a given week is about half of what it was 20 years ago. He’s not sure what the restaurant’s fortunes will be in another 20 years, so he’s just going to keep working hard and hoping for the best.
“Even if it’s slow, I always find a way to stay busy,” said Chan, who lives alone and has a college-age son. “I’m just trying to pay the bills and have a little fun.”
Fun, friends and quality food — that pretty much sums up the past 36 years for Buck Chan.
“I feel pretty lucky,” he said. “They say it’s better to be lucky than good, but I’m a little of both.”