If a business survives for a decade it’s an accomplishment, especially given the unpredictability of the recent economy. So, when a local business marks 44 years – essentially qualifying it as an “institution,” that’s cause for celebration.
And celebrate they did, on the afternoon of Aug. 13 at the corner of 26th Street and Desplaines Avenue in North Riverside, as a public works crew fastened new streets signs to the traffic light standards on either side of 26th Street.
The signs designate 26th Street as “Honorary Paul and Susie Fong Drive” in honor of the founders of Chef Shangri-La, the Tiki-inspired restaurant the couple started in 1976 and which is still operated by the family.
The North Riverside Village Board voted unanimously in late July to approve the honorary street designation.
The extended Fong family was on hand to see the signs go up, along with some loyal patrons who were there for support.
“I wanted to be able to say thank you to my parents, because I was here from day one and I was only 18 at the time,” said Dr. Lisa Abrams, daughter of Paul and Susie Fong, whose husband, Irv, now manages the operation at Chef Shangri-La. “It was an amazing restaurant way back when.”
Aug. 19 marks the first anniversary of Susie Fong’s death at the age of 80, and Irv and Lisa Abrams are making good on a promise they made to Susie, who told them before she died that she wanted the business to remain in the family.
“Irv said, ‘Mom, don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of everything. You’ll be so proud,'” Lisa said. “This past year, he’s what’s holding this whole place together.”
It wasn’t what Irv expected to be doing at this stage of his life. He retired from a career as an area director for Walgreens in May 2017. Two months, later he was a restaurateur in North Riverside.
“That was the wish of mom, to keep the legacy alive, and I said I would do it,” Irv said.
His background in retail has served him well, because it provided some simple rules.
“You still have great customer service, serving great food, hiring great employees – that’s the secret,” Irv said.
Since taking over management of the restaurant, Irv has brought back former employees – servers and cooks – and has reintroduced other elements, like live entertainment on weekends that was a hallmark of the restaurant during the years when Lisa’s sister, Betty Hlavka, ran The Chef.
The restaurant has “flourished,” Irv said, during the pandemic after the state began allowing establishments to offer outdoor seating. Chef Shangri-La has two tents set up in the parking lot outside the restaurant, and they actively promote specials on social media.
The most popular are ones packaging food, like appetizers, with to-go quantities of the restaurant’s famous tropical drinks, like the Dr. Fong – which Paul Fong created and named after his daughter, Lisa, upon her graduation from medical school.
“A lot of places during COVID have suffered and we’re actually flourishing,” Irv said. “And I think that goes back to the brand of what my father-in-law and mother-in-law brought to the restaurant.”
Lisa Abrams credited the restaurant’s loyal regulars for sticking with The Chef through the years, especially over the past seven or eight years as it has navigated changes in management.
“The community has been so good,” Lisa said. “A lot of them come every week, some come two days of the weekend, just to support us.”
But, the glue over the past couple of years, she said, has been her husband.
“If it wasn’t for Irv, it would never have been like it is now,” Lisa said.