FOX RIVER GROVE – When the restaurant his parents opened in 1975 was gutted by a fire in January 2013, owner William Gee never considered giving up on the family business.
“I’m not a quitter,” he said late last Tuesday after working a full day at New China Restaurant in Fox River Grove.
Gee, 49, said he and his wife, Xiao, haven’t had a day off since the restaurant reopened Sept. 18. An institution in Fox River Grove for 37 years, the restaurant was so busy after reopening that some customers were turned away. Gee said New China was selling 400 to 600 egg rolls a day, 300 mai tais a night, and going through hundreds of pounds of chicken each week.
After the fire, it took the family 19 months to get the business back up and running. But it wouldn’t have been possible without a tremendous outpouring of support and an infusion of nearly $16,000 from loyal customers and community members.
“I’m very humbled,” Gee said. “The people helped us get back our livelihood. I can’t thank them enough.”
A grease fire in early January 2013 damaged 80 percent of the restaurant’s kitchen. Other parts were damaged by smoke. At the time, fire officials estimated the fire caused about $150,000 worth of damage.
“My father and mother opened the restaurant in 1975, and we’d been in business for 37 years,” he said. “I cooked in the restaurant for 30 years, my wife worked there for 27 years, my mother still comes in to talk to customers. [The fire] broke her heart.”
Afterward, Gee realized the insurance money wouldn’t cover the entire cost of fixing the restaurant and rehabbing the building to meet present day village codes. The building had been grandfathered as the code changed over time. But to reopen, it had to meet the current code requirements. Gee blamed further setbacks on mismanagement by a contractor. He eventually brought in another contractor to complete the work.
In the meantime, Gee had to get a temporary job working in the kitchen of another restaurant to feed his family.
“I was working 12- to 13-hour days in someone else’s restaurant just to put food on the table,” he said. “I almost had a nervous breakdown.”
Amid the stress, he found solace and perspective at an area church.
Gee realized he’d need help to get New China open again. Asking for money wasn’t easy.
“It was very humbling,” he said. “But it was do or die. We were going to lose the property to the bank. With the fundraiser, we were able to piecemeal together the repairs.”
A longtime patron helped organize a fundraiser on YouCaring.com. The crowdsourcing effort had raised $15,909 from 188 donors as of Friday. Some customers chipped in $5 or $10. Others, even some who had moved out of state, also contributed. Some kicked in much more. The fundraiser, which ends later this month, has a goal of $45,000.
One donor wrote: “It broke my heart to hear about the fire and I wish I could give more ... unfortunately I’m unemployed now so the best I can do is $100.”
Giving money to a for-profit business didn’t make sense to some. However, others were eager to help a struggling family enterprise.
For Amy Krigas, director of the Cary-Grove Performing Arts Centre and a Fox River Grove resident, it was an easy decision.
“The Gee family and New China have been a staple in my life since I was a little girl,” said Krigas, who grew up in Cary and now lives in Fox River Grove with her family. “There are not a lot of restaurants that have stayed that long – it was always a great place to gather. It’s the kind of place where you go and you know you are going to see people you haven’t seen in years – it’s that kind of place. It’s also the family’s legacy.”
Furthermore, Krigas got to know Gee’s son, Daniel, through a musical production at Cary-Grove High School. And as a small business owner, she could empathize with the family’s situation. After donating, she showed up for New China’s opening weekend in September, and has been back three times since then.
Cary residents Bob and Anna May Miller donated $500 in July in an effort to keep the fundraiser’s momentum going. Bob Miller is the Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner. Anna May Miller, R-Cary, serves on the McHenry County board.
“We have a soft spot in our hearts for a struggling local businessman,” Bob Miller said. “It looked like they were doing all they could to keep a business alive, and we wanted to help.”
He added: “It’s obvious the community really cared about the restaurant and the Gee family.”
Since the fire, the New China building got a facelift by participating in Fox River Grove’s facade grant program. The village board approved a $43,000 grant/loan for the restaurant in March 2013. New China will have to pay back a portion of that money, which was spent on the exterior of the building, including a new entrance. The village’s facade program didn’t pay for interior renovations and was part of Fox River Grove’s broader economic development efforts.
“We were delighted to see [New China] re-open,” Village President Robert Nunamaker said. “I wasn’t surprised to see so many contributions. New China is a village institution.”
The rebuilding process was difficult. Gee said he would advise other business owners to review their insurance coverage and advised policyholders to hire a good public adjuster to get the most from the claims process.
In putting the family business back together, Gee said he cut some items from the menu to give a more narrow focus that emphasizes New China’s specialty dishes and tropical drinks. He also modernized the building and most of the restaurant’s equipment. The restaurant is running better than ever, he said.
Gee said: “The people who come in and support us, that’s what keeps me going.”
New China Restaurant
What: A 37-year-old family owned restaurant serving Cantonese cuisine
Where: 308 Route 14, Fox River Grove
Information: Facebook or 847-639-5525