Inside Track: Restaurant business is a family affair for Chang
Lisa Change came to Grand Rapids to pursue a culinary degree but instead decided to open her own restaurant.
In the past six months, 32-year-old Lisa Chang has accomplished more than most people do in several years.
She oversaw the opening of a second Erb Thai restaurant location and began renovations on a third that is set to open in late November. She also launched a new business, Boba Bliss, and welcomed her third child.
When she sat down with the Business Journal, she was only three weeks into maternity leave — if you can call it a “leave.”
Chang grew up in the restaurant business. Her family owned several Thai restaurants in the Detroit area throughout her childhood, and by the age of 12, she was working her first job as a server in one of them.
“From age 12 to my late 20s, I was pretty much always working in the restaurant (industry), whether it was for family or at another restaurant,” Chang said.
She is from a tight-knit family, the eldest of six siblings. She joked that her parents had enough kids to staff their restaurants.
“That falls back to the culture and how everything was run in the motherland,” she said. “The more kids you had, the more help you had. They (her parents) are the first generation being in the states. That is the way it is — they like bigger families.”
Chang’s parents emigrated from Laos in Southeast Asia. Her family’s ethnicity is Hmong.
She said her parents learned to cook Thai food when they came to Detroit.
“The very first restaurants in Michigan, they were Thai restaurants by Thai owners, and my parents worked in the restaurant industry to gain more knowledge with the cooking,” she said.
“Southeast Asian cuisines are very similar. The way we cook at home is similar to the restaurant, and on top of that, our food itself is similar to Thai or Laos.”
Chang came to Grand Rapids in 2009 to pursue a culinary arts degree at Grand Rapids Community College’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Education, but soon found herself considering opening her own restaurant instead.
She met with realtor Scott Ryskamp who was already helping her aunt scout restaurant locations in Wyoming, and he pitched the Wealthy Street neighborhood to her.
“It was something I’d never even imagined,” she said. “Obviously, I was trying to start something in Grand Rapids with my huge move here, and that was right after we had closed down Erb Thai in Troy,” she said, adding that the Troy restaurant was not the same as her Grand Rapids restaurant.
“I just talked to my family about it and said I know it’s one of the higher-risk businesses or projects to start off, but there was potential in that area — I saw it.”
Chang was able to find a silent partner to invest in the new restaurant and, in 2010, Erb Thai opened at 950 Wealthy St. SE.
“I brought my family to help run it — my parents and siblings,” she said. “For the first couple of years, it was just the family running it and establishing it.”
Chang’s vision for Erb Thai has been to provide inexpensive, tasty Thai cuisine that appeals to everyone. The restaurant offers gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan choices, and is very cognizant of food allergies.
“We had to restructure what we were used to as far as our menu and recipes to accommodate (dietary restrictions), and that was a challenge for us,” she said. “We are glad we were able to do that.”
She said by appealing to people with all different types of dietary needs, the restaurant really took off and gained a lot of support.
Chang eventually bought out her silent partner, taking on full ownership of Erb Thai.
Now that her siblings are all in their 20s, Chang said they are starting to take an interest in running their own Erb Thai restaurants.
This year, one of Chang’s brothers, Joseph Her, opened the Erb Thai Café at 4160 Lake Michigan Drive NW in Standale at the start of this summer, and also has entered into a co-ownership agreement with Chang for a Michigan Street location called Erb Thai Xpress, which is set to open toward the end of November.
Chang is excited for the Michigan Street location to open, saying that, since the beginning, she has wanted to be able to cater to the Medical Mile businesses. For a period of time, the Wealthy Street location actually made deliveries to the Spectrum Health facilities there, but eventually had to stop due to lack of manpower.
Erb Thai Xpress will be slightly different than Erb Thai in that it will have a smaller menu and will focus on carryout orders. Although there won’t be any dine-in service, there are tables for patrons who wish to order and eat at the restaurant.
The restaurant is taking over the building that was briefly occupied by Donk’s Mexican Joint at 820 Michigan St. NE. Since renovations on the space had recently been done, Chang said she is focused on getting the kitchen up to par for Asian cooking, but the rest of the space won’t undergo any major changes.
Another endeavor that Chang launched earlier this year is Boba Bliss, a boba teashop, which is next door to the original Erb Thai on Wealthy Street.
Boba tea, also known as bubble tea, includes tapioca pearls combined with crushed tea and fruits to create a smoothie-like tea drink. Chang said Boba Bliss also offers wraps and a few other food items as well as an Asian beverage menu that includes Vietnamese coffee.
“I launched that in July of this year,” Chang said. “It’s a seasonal thing. As of right now, we are closed until late spring.”
With plenty to keep her busy for now, Chang said there isn’t anything else new in the works, but she said she does have ideas for other types of restaurants down the road.
“Yeah, don’t be surprised,” she said. “I know there are other restaurants that I want to do aside from Thai. When I am more grounded with these locations, then I do want to venture off and do other things, too.”
Chang credits her family and restaurant background with much of her success.
“I was brought up with such a strong family background,” she said. “The business has always been family — not just immediate family, but extended family.”
With three young sons of her own, she’s already on the way to being able to staff her restaurant with her own family, but Chang said she doesn’t want to push her kids into the business.
“We used to nag our parents all the time and say, ‘Gosh, we hate (working at) the restaurant,’” she said. “It’s long hours and a big commitment. It takes a toll on you, especially as a child. I honestly don’t want my kids to go through that. …
“You don’t want to force them, but yet they are there and learning, and they are going to appreciate that, ‘Wow, this is how hard you have to work,’ and eventually maybe they will be like me and take over — or become doctors, who knows?”