Leeann Chin (the woman, not the business. But also the business.) In the politically correct world of contemporary business buzzwords, diversity can be defined as the attempt to encourage the sharing of cultural differences. Businesswoman Leeann Chin embodies more buzzwords than a whole stack of new age self-help cookbooks. Holistic. Entrepreneurial. Innovation. Vision. And yes of course, Diversity.
Leeann is also an inspirational story of personal accomplishment, a case study that dampens the eyes of even the most stoic Small Business Administration employee. A young Chinese immigrant, Leeann first operated as a seamstress out of her family’s home, learning English from her clients and occasionally sharing her cooking with them. This led to her teaching cooking classes, catering, and finally establishing her own restaurant with help from her family, the SBA, and investors including Sean Connery and Robert Redford, who had been impressed by her culinary creations as guests at a party she catered. She quickly built that one restaurant into three, and likewise built her name into a celebrated brand in the Twin Cities.
The new unofficial ambassador of Chinese cuisine, Leeann’s first cookbook was published by General Mills in 1980. The restaurants themselves were bought by General Mills in 1985, but retirement didn’t suit Leeann, so she acquired the chain in 1988 and worked to continue to expand and grow. And grow it did. Three restaurants became dozens as Minnesotans warmed to her simple but delicious casual cuisine.
To root her brand even more deeply into down-home Minnesota culture and tradition, Leeann Chin became a fixture at the most consummate of Minnesota gatherings, the State Fair. A tenant of the aptly named "Food Building" (never accuse us Minnesotans of being uncreative), the restaurant is all too happy to put their crowd-pleasing appetizers and entrees onto sticks, and indulge and celebrate (and sweat) with the rest of us. For visitors whose palates might not be attuned to anything as "exotic" as ginger or lemongrass, Chin's fair fare acts as an ambassador, foreign yet somehow familiar.
Proving that fast-food doesn’t have to kill you, Leeann took great strides to personally ensure her kitchens were run with a high standard of nutrition. (At least, a relatively high standard as fast-food restaurants go.) The chain claims to have never allowed MSG in its restaurants’ kitchens since the very first egg was rolled. The company was also an industry leader in the more recent movement to eliminate trans fat from America’s diet.
Leeann has collected scores of professional accolades and honors including the 1993 Minnesota Entrepreneur of the Year and the 1998 American Woman Business Owner of the Year. Though her leadership role in her eponymous business has come to an end, by no means has Leeann left the public eye. Her recent endeavors include a family cooking series aired nationally on public television.
My entire household is so enamored of Leeann Chin, it has become a ruler by which other restaurants, fast-food and otherwise, are measured. It is also our default standard; the phrase "Should I pick up supper tonight?", in our hosehold, holds no ambiguity. "Picking up supper" means you'd better come home carrying chopsticks.
I've heard some call Leeann Chin the McDonald's of Chinese food. I prefer to think of it as a nodding, encouraging grandmother, urging otherwise hesitant Minnesotans--children and adults alike--to try something new. If that's not a true proponent of diversity, I don't know what is.
~Curt Lund, Minneapolis, MN