It's best to take Lulu Chi by surprise. The doyenne of Central Arkansas Asian restaurants doesn't relish attention.
"We are small people. We don't want a big deal," Lulu explained recently at Chi's. And she is, literally, small. She's about 4'9," smartly dressed in plaid pants, an olive turtleneck and an embroidered vest. She has a short, stylish haircut, wears a gold cross around her neck and appears much younger than her 66 years. Mondays are slow, and this Monday afternoon, she has transformed a table in Chi's lounge into a makeshift desk. She pores over figures, surrounded by stacks of bills, receipts and a calculator, while her husband, Bill Chi, pores over a Chinese-language paper. Bottles of vitamins are shoved in the far corner of the bar, and it feels like this restaurant is their second home. Lulu greets her patrons, making easy conversation, even with those who identify themselves as press.
"We are just trying to survive," she said. "It is a very bad economy, a bad time for restaurants. But we have done OK so far because we started early. Who knows what will happen?"
If Little Rock has a restaurant dynasty, the Chis are it. Lulu and Bill Chi came to Little Rock in 1981. They had a business background and young sons, so they took out a loan and opened Cuisine of China, a small restaurant on Geyer Springs Road. Since then, they have owned and operated about 10 Asian restaurants in Little Rock and served as consultants for a handful of others. Often their restaurants open and change hands with little official notice — which isn't to say that these changes slip under the radar entirely.
"My parents tried to retire from Chi's about five years back. They sold the main Chi's, but there was such an outcry from their customers that a year later, they ended up buying it back," said their son, Dr. Jasen Chi.
According to Lulu, "You have to keep up with what people want." When they spot a restaurant trend, the Chis jump. When that trend slacks off, they sell. They've operated Mongolian barbecues, Japanese hibachi grills, American-Asian fusion cafes and sushi joints. But the traditional Chi's, opened in 1993, is by far their most formidable holding. It's a tasteful, airy structure perched on a hill, overlooking the traffic of Markham. It blends well with the surroundings — competing Asian chains like P.F. Chang's and Tokyo House. ("They weren't here when we first opened," Lulu lamented.) To a passerby, Chi's, with its neutral exterior and big red sign, might appear to be just an unfamiliar chain.
But Sunday buffet and weekend dim sum (different from weekday dim sum because the carts come out) have proven so popular that even now, as Lulu frets over small profit margins, people spill out the front door and take seating numbers.
Sundays are the only time Chi's offers a buffet. "People do it because it's cheap, because it is a bad economy, and it's what they can afford. But we can't do a buffet," Lulu explained. "We can't train Mexicans for two months; we don't make food massive like that. We have chefs, not cooks. They have to know how to make everything to order." So Chi's recruits chefs from China, Taiwan and Chinatowns scattered throughout the United States.
"It's expensive, but we have to hope people recognize the art," she added. "Some people, they come only to us when they want Chinese food, but they used to come a few times a week. Now they come once a week, once a month, once a year, because of the economy."
Lulu gestures as she speaks. Sometimes she'll touch your forearm for emphasis. When she's anxious, her voice drops to a low, barely audible murmur. She can't imagine what they would do if their restaurants go under, she confessed — even the thought of hanging out with her five grandkids doesn't console her. "What would we do with all that time?" she pondered.
Currently the Chis own four restaurants — besides Chi's and Chi's Express, there's Sushi Cafe in the Heights and Sekisui, across the street from Chi's. Sekisui has several locations throughout the South, but according to Lulu, it is not a franchise. "One Japanese man, our friend, he owns them all, except the Little Rock one," she said. They plan to open another Sushi Cafe along Highway 10 at some point in 2012, a new restaurant and lounge in the heights this spring and there are rumors of a Mexican restaurant.
Lulu laughs when she hears this. "I am the last to know," she said. "Maybe someday. Maybe someday Mexican, but maybe not."
They also own the Ramada Inn, the Candlewood Suites and an apartment complex. According to Lulu, the real estate is a retirement investment. "We are getting old," she said. "One day we won't be able to work 14 hours a day in a restaurant." Bill Chi is just past 70, but Lulu talks like this day is still in the distant future. The Chis are not afraid of work.
Lulu and Bill were both born on mainland China. Lulu's family moved from Shanghai when she was 2, and she grew up in a paranoid Taiwan, always worrying about the unpredictability of Red China. "When we had the opportunity to come to the U.S., we came," she said. She was fresh from college. She thought about getting her master's, but with a young family, she couldn't afford that luxury. "So we made a restaurant, we got to work," she said. Thirty years later, they're still at it.
Visual art, through Nov. 4, "Nature & Nurture", works by Carol Corning and Ed Pennebaker,…