Longtime Chinese restaurant chain Wong's Wok is expanding its store footprint for the first time in more than 20 years.
The Milwaukee-based chain is in the process of opening a new location at 242 E. Capitol Drive in Milwaukee. The 2,527-square-foot building was previously home to Wisconsin's only Church's Chicken restaurant, which closed sometime in the past year. Wong's Wok began leasing the space in July from owner Zahida Shakir of Palos Park, Illinois.
While an opening date has yet to be set and work permits for some minor renovations pend, the new location is an exciting step for the 41-year-old family restaurant that once had as many as 12 area locations, said Michael Chin, director of operations and one of founder Edward Chin's children who now run the business.
"I believe the last time we opened a new location was 1999," said Chin, who he left his role as a senior financial analyst at Johnson Controls in March 2019 to come back to the family business.
Wong's Wok used to be a mainstay at the food courts of several area shopping malls like Bayshore and Mayfair, but it became difficult to operate those businesses when consumer behavior shifted toward e-commerce and foot traffic decreased, Chin said.
Scaling back over the years, Wong's Wok currently has two free standing locations in Milwaukee, at 3702 S. 27th St. and 7424 W. Appleton Ave., and annually sells its food as a vendor at several summertime festivals on the Summerfest grounds, including Summerfest and Irish Fest.
But in recent years, the business has been gearing up for growth.
"We've been keeping our eyes open for prospective locations, looking to find one that fits the right community we're looking for, and when we saw this one open up, we thought it was a good fit for us," said Chin.
One of the major advantage of the Capitol Drive building is its drive-thru lane - a feature that's become "necessary" for Wong's Wok as it navigates the challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Its existing locations both have drive-thru access, which has allowed the restaurant to serve customers and stay in business without having to reopen its dining areas. The lobby at the 27th Street location has reopened for customers to pick up to-go orders, but both dining rooms are closed indefinitely.
"I feel bad for those restaurants that just weren't able to continue business like they normally did," said Chin. "If they don't have that outlet like a drive-thru, it just made it harder for them to keep their numbers up."
Like many local restaurants trying to adapt to government restrictions and shifts in diner behavior, Wong's Wok in April began offering delivery through third party services Door Dash and Eat Street.
Despite the difficulties of the past several months, Chin is optimistic that the new location will drive new and existing customer traffic, and said he's anxious to see how the store will do in the current environment. It will employ about 25 people.
"We're very thankful that our customers still appreciate us and come to our other two locations," he said. "Were very thankful for the business and were excited to open up a new store."