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Decades-old Kansas City family-owned restaurant faces uncertain future

Princess Garden
Posted at 5:00 AM, May 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-31 07:54:38-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In May, KSHB 41 celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

As part of that coverage, we went inside a Kansas City, Missouri, restaurant that’s been open for decades.

There are lots of family restaurants in town, but Princess Garden is at a crossroads. It's been open in its current location on Wornall road since 1981, but the next generation of the family has other passions, and doesn't want to take over.

Now, the family and their loyal customers know that closing for the first time in decades is a real possibility.

Chef and owner Robert Chang and his family came to the United States from Hong Kong in the early 1970s. His father was the original chef, and Robert quit school to help in the restaurant.

Today, he cooks almost every dish that comes to customers’ tables.

“On average, I cook about 200 to 300 dishes a day, every day,” Chang said. “I cook 800 to 900 dishes, entrees Christmas day. A whole day from 12 o'clock to 10 o'clock, non stop.”

Chang described what the early days, when the restaurant was in another location, were like for his family, including his four younger siblings.

"A two-man show,” Chang said. “My dad's in the kitchen. I was outside, and my sister, my brother, after school, they come back to the restaurant to help."

Chang says being an entirely family-run business is one of the keys to their longevity.

“I think that's what makes us so successful,” he said. “Because our family is always together. We go through the good time and go through as well the hard time.”

For decades, Robert and his four siblings have managed Princess Garden. Customers we spoke to raved about the food.

"We both only come here for one thing, it's cashew chicken and rice," Ken Dessert, a long-time customer said during a visit with his wife. “That's the only thing we order."

“I always say I'm going to (order something else), but their chicken chow mein is just to die for,” Shelley Austin said. “It's just so fresh."

But there's something else customers say makes this restaurant special.

"They're the kindest, nicest people, and it's like you're being invited into their home," long-time customer Michael Klein said. “You're called by your name when you walk in the door, and they give you a genuine, happy to see you greeting."

Robert's younger brother, Sam Chang, is often the one doing that greeting.

"Every day I come to work, I enjoy it,” Sam Chang said. “But without these good customers, without them we can't be here today."

Over the last couple of decades, the five siblings' children have joined the family business, working there as teenagers. But their “employment” doesn’t stop even though they’ve gone on to other careers as adults.

For example, Robert's son Ray played professional baseball for years and is now the Director of Baseball Operations for MLB China. When he comes home for the holidays, he still works at Princess Garden.

"Yeah, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day...those are working days for us," Ray said.

But this generation doesn't intend to take over when their parents retire. Whether it's baseball for Ray, or engineering for his cousin Darren Chiao, they have other passions. And over the years in this building, they’ve seen incredibly demanding work.

“As much as this restaurant provided for us, giving us the right education,” Chiao said. “It also took that family time away from us as kids from our parents."

"To be honest, the restaurant business was never something that I really caught on to,” Ray Chang said. “Maybe because I was behind the scenes and saw all the down and dirties I guess."

But this generation says that Princess Garden is also the basis for the success they're seeing in their own pursuits.

"I think my mom, my parents and my aunts and uncles have done a tremendous job sending us, my generation, our generation, up into further success,” Chiao said. “I think that's the American Dream, right?”

"When I grew up, that's how my parents wanted me to feel about growing up: do what you love," Ray Chang said.

Sue Chang is the youngest of the five siblings, so she also worked in her family restaurant as a teenager. She loves the place, and her customers. So even if the doors will eventually close, she remembers the words of her dad, and is at peace with Princess Garden's legacy.

"I started the restaurant so I can support my family, and I think I did very well," Sue remembers her father saying. “But to have the third generation to continue the restaurant business is not what I want them to do. If you guys decide that it's time to stop, stop. Enjoy life. Life goes by too fast."

The family tells KSHB 41 they're not planning to close any time soon. In fact, not for at least another two years, because that's how far in advance they have events booked. They say they wouldn't dream of closing without meeting those commitments.