Why I’ve eaten at Kwok’s Asian Bistro 50-plus times

July 2, 2024 6:14 PM
  • Dennis Conrad
July 2, 2024 6:14 PM
  • Dennis Conrad

I first met Kwok Chen at Somersett Country Club in Reno, where both of us are members. We were paired together a couple of times and he was a pretty good golfer who was fun to play with. I had heard that Kwok owned an Asian restaurant and one member told me it was good food.

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One Sunday, I was playing with Kwok and as we approached the 18th green, he said, “Dennis, I’m hosting a gathering for 20 Somersett members tomorrow at my restaurant and I’d like to invite you and your wife to join us.” Although it was short notice and I hadn’t asked Becky, I immediately said yes. I haven’t passed up too many invitations for free food in my life.

Rather than talk about that first time at Kwok’s Asian Bistro, and the Kwok’s chicken made in the clay pot, or the honey-glazed shrimp, or the roasted-duck appetizer served on lotus buns, or the pot stickers the size of billiard balls, or … let me just say this: In the last two years, I’ve now been back to Kwok’s more than 50 times. I’ve hosted a few dozen friends and associates there and recommended it to a couple of hundred more people. Kwok’s hosted our 50th anniversary celebration for 25 of our Reno friends. And now I’m sharing the story of this delightful, gourmet, quirky, world-class, hole-in-the-wall restaurant with tens of thousands of readers of CDC Gaming Reports.

Yes, I like Kwok’s. But its story is also fascinating, chock full of lessons on how to run a successful business in the very fickle restaurant world. Casino operators, I’m telling this story for you.

Kwok Chen was an Asian chef at the Eldorado in Reno, long known for the quality of its restaurants in the Reno casino world. Kwok knew he could cook great Asian food and his dream was to open his own restaurant. Taking a big risk with all of the money Kwok could scrape up or borrow, he and his brother opened Jasmine, a 200-seat restaurant in south Reno, a growing area of town.

I’m not sure anyone cautioned Kwok that more than 95% of new restaurants fail. Even if he knew that, I think he was just supremely confident that his ability to cook great Asian food would ultimately win out.

Kwok almost did fail. First, it was the recession. Then COVID. Suddenly a 200-seat restaurant on the outskirts of Reno, no matter how great the food seemed, destined to join that 95% list of restaurant failures.

But Kwok Chen refused to give up on his dream. He let his brother take over Jasmine, then hatched a plan to move into a closed fast-food Chinese restaurant in downtown Reno (the former China Diner) and turn it into a 32-seat gourmet Asian “bistro.”

And he did just that. The “bistro” wasn’t fancy, but it was intimate. And it certainly was a family atmosphere, as Kwok’s wife, Mui, did whatever needed doing, and his son, Danny, took on the role of maître d’/reservation taker/business manager/expediter. His daughter, Wendy, while not really in the restaurant business, pitched in whenever necessary. Kwok’s longtime employee, Winnie, was the Chinese waitress extraordinaire, who was never shy about telling Kwok what he might be doing wrong.

And what has been the result of all this, several years since Kwok made the move to a tiny restaurant in the heart of downtown? Well, great food, persistence, and an amazing take-out business got Kwok’s through COVID. Word-of-mouth advertising almost exclusively drove the business at Kwok’s, which has arguably become the coolest and hippest restaurant in Reno. It’s challenging to get a reservation now and Kwok’s has to turn away more walk-in business than some restaurants have in actual total business. The buzz about the great food at Kwok’s continues to grow, even with only 32 seats and open only 4-8 p.m. six days a week.

So what can casino operators, with all of their numerous diverse restaurant offerings, learn from Kwok’s Asian Bistro? I think it’s this:

  1. Great food will get great results — Kwok is a great chef, with great recipes and great experience, who will buy only the greatest ingredients.
  2. Create the feeling of “family” — While you may not have an actual family like Kwok does to run your casino restaurants, how can you create that “family feeling” with the team you do have?
  3. Word of mouth is the strongest marketing there is — How do you capture and leverage that at your restaurants?
  4. Be laser-focused like Kwok — He knew his niche would be authentic gourmet Asian food. That singularity of focus drives his success. So, do you want to be an “Asian Bistro” or a Panda Express?

Being Kwok’s biggest fan, as well as a consultant who can’t help himself from pointing out growth opportunities for businesses that get it, I’ve tried to point out to Kwok the gold mine he’s sitting on. He could have 50 Kwok’s Asian Bistros (32 seats, open five hours five nights a week) in casinos across North America, with premium access for premium casino customers, especially Asian customers. He could move his whole operation, for a hefty fee, to a major casino that wants great Asian food (J Resort, I’m looking at you!). He could open for lunch. He could make an attractive take-out offer to the dozens of walk-in customers he turns away every day. He could stop turning down consideration for all of those food awards (James Beard, etc.) and grow his reputation.

I’ve suggested all this to Kwok. His response? “Dennis, you’re trying to send me too much business. I’m trying to retire!”

So if you’re lucky enough to try the gourmet Asian food at the corner of West and Commercial streets in downtown Reno, don’t tell Kwok that Dennis sent you. And be sure to get a reservation.

Earlier posts by Dennis

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