While many restaurants identify with their customers via websites and social media posts, the owners of Leong Kitchen know their customers by their regular orders. There’s ‘chicken wing man’, the ‘Char Kway Teow men’ and many more.
But on Sunday, 24 May, the family-owned Chinese restaurant at Campbell shops will close its doors for the last time. Owners Weihon Leong and his wife Bianca Dai have operated the business for 26 years without a website, Facebook or Instagram page.
“The customers have made Leong Kitchen what it is today and we love each and every one of them. It truly is like one big family and it’ll definitely be hard to say goodbye,” Mr Leong told Region Media while preparing for their final weekend of trade.
He said they know so many of their customers and instantly know their order by the sound of their voice.
“There’s one man in particular who has ordered the same thing every Saturday for the past 26 years. He just calls up and says ‘takeaway for Hutcherson’ and we always reply with ‘Yes! Ready in 10 minutes’.
“Another man, Mr Col, has also come in every Saturday since the opening. My daughter sees him almost like her grandpa because every week he checks in on her and shows genuine care for the whole family. He is a treasure of Leong Kitchen.”
Mr Leong said his daughter found out that his actual name is Collin but she’s just always known him as Mr Col.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed some businesses, their customers were unwavering. They came in each week to check in on their much-loved restaurant owners and offered kind words of support.
“Though it’s been a hard time for everyone, it is moments like these that make us feel very grateful and appreciative. We hear awful things about racism on the news but luckily there’s been a lot of love here,” Mr Leong said.
He is unsure of what will happen to the restaurant, which has seen many well-known Canberra politicians and identities become regulars. Many customers have seen his children, Christina, 20, and Sarah, 23, grow up as well.
“We’ve seen so many kids grow up and even have kids of their own. Unfortunately, we’ve had a number of cherished customers pass away but it’s been a true privilege to have been able to serve them food and know them as people,” Mr Leong said.
He said while the decision to close the doors on the business was very difficult, the time was right.
“My wife and I need to rest and focus on our health. If I keep working the way I do, my health would definitely decline.
“My youngest daughter needs to focus on her studies with her final year of university coming up. My oldest daughter is also working full-time and I’d like her to have the freedom to explore her own career pathway.
“With the restaurant, we’re always eating at odd hours so we’re looking forward to having a consistent routine where we can all enjoy a meal at the table.”
Mr Leong said the cost of rent, decreasing returns and the loss of space also contributed to their decision to close. They share a common space with the IGA supermarket and the old bottle shop, but in recent months, they lost their storeroom and were asked to move their freezers.
“It is impossible to operate with such little space and we must still pay the same amount of rent. We’ve had to move a lot into our own house,” Mr Leong said.
“The food scene in Canberra has changed dramatically throughout the years and it’s not always been easy to adapt. For the last five years, the restaurant has been solely run by my wife, my two daughters and I.
“We are also open for seven nights and five days a week. Before and after opening hours, I am either cleaning, preparing food, ordering things or doing administrative work. The restaurant is on my mind from the moment I wake up until I go to bed.”
However, Mr Leong says it is an emotional time as they prepare the final meals for their beloved customers.
“I don’t think words will be enough to describe how amazing this experience has been. It’s been incredible to witness the cycle of life and be a part of birthdays and celebrations, seeing people enjoy their food and come back for more.
“I know many customers are wondering if we will be back and honestly, I’m not sure, you never know. Even if we were to come back, it would be a while from now and we’d have to find a better way to suit a healthier lifestyle.”