Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series about how locally-owned, small businesses in the Longview area are faring — and in some cases surviving — in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Crossing borders is how David Choy explains his success at his Longview restaurant, Goung Zhou Asian Bistro and Sushi Bar.
Keeping a restaurant alive and profitable is a task unto itself. In a COVID-19 world, it takes large doses of versatility, willingness to change and innovation to stay afloat, much less prosper.
Choy’s life story began on another continent.
Choy, 62, born in Hong Kong, is the son of a restaurateur. He and his mother immigrated to America in 1966, following his father who came to the U.S. in the 1950s. His father originally wanted to settle in Dallas, but decided Longview was a better venue for a restaurant.
The family bought the “old Hollywood Cafe” on downtown Longview’s Tyler Street, he said. Years later they built the Canton Restaurant on East Marshall Avenue in 1974 on what was popularly called the Miles of Smiles by various restaurant owners and businesses. Johnny Cace’s Seafood and Steakhouse owner Johnny Cace and the Choys, among many others, promoted that section of East Marshall Avenue as a destination.
Choy’s father, Frank Lew Choy, died in 1981, and David stepped away from college and returned home to run the business.
“Dad was not changeable,” he said, describing Canton Restaurant at that time as “an old fashion Chinese restaurant. We were outdated.”
Under Choy’s guidance, the restaurant added new dishes and brought in live entertainment, including local country singer Neal McCoy from 1985-87. It helped, but more changes were needed.
Any restaurant owner will tell you about long hours and thin profit margins. Statistically, about 60% of all restaurants fail in the first year, and 80% don’t make it past four years. A 10% profit margin is considered average. While chain restaurants usually have greater financial reserves to weather downturns, owners of individual restaurants don’t often have that cushion.
Canton Restaurant closed in 2006. Goung Zhou, a new Asian restaurant with a diverse menu and a more high-profile location, was the answer for Choy. Popularly known as GZs, it’s in The Village shopping center, 2002 Judson Road, suite 103. GZs opened in January 2007 and has flourished. Other upscale businesses in The Village, including Jim Bartlett Fine Jewelry and Hurwitz at the Village, mean more visibility as does the high traffic of Judson Road.
Playing to your audience, working hard and paying close attention to what’s happening locally are key to success, Choy said.
Vis-a-vis COVID-19, “We are following all protocols. Nothing is reused,” he said. For instance, menus are printed on paper and then disposed of after one use. Tables are 6 feet apart, and larger groups are socially distanced as appropriate. Waiters wear masks.
Another change was lunch — or the lack of it. On Oct. 3 the lunch menu was jettisoned and GZ’s now serves meals 2 to 9 pm Monday to Thursday and 2 to 10 pm Friday to Saturday.
Sushi, Japanese, sashimi, Indian, Thai and Chinese dishes are offered; steaks, seafood, fresh oysters and noodle dishes are all on the menu.
The bistro idea “crosses the borders for different dishes,” Choy said.
He has contemplated adding outside dining on the sidewalk in front of the building. This fall’s resurgence of COVID-19 has given him pause on that particular change. Its time may come, he said, but ever careful, he has placed those plans on the back burner.
Choy may have begun life in Hong Kong, but he’s no outsider looking in — he’s dug in in Longview, Texas. Part of his bonafides: He played football for the Longview Lobos, and the same year he graduated from LHS, 1978, he also became a U.S. citizen. He and wife, Patricia, have three grown children, all LHS grads, plus three grandchildren. His mother and a brother also live in Longview.
“Longview is a great city,” he said. “It’s full of caring people. They care for each other.”
Choy said he grew up thinking the United States “was made of gold. I got here and said, ‘Where’s the gold?’” Hard work and opportunity showed him the gold, he said. America “gives you the opportunity to create something for yourself.”