Silicon Valley is rife with businesses that have pivoted — changing course from their initial offerings in order to prosper. Among them, Chef Chu’s in Los Altos. Thanks to owner Lawrence Chu’s sage decision to shift his strategy early on, the beloved Chinese restaurant celebrated its 50th anniversary last month. “Failure is actually the mother of success,” he says, recalling how he almost shuttered after six months. “If you fail and then you continue and overcome the obstacle, you will be a success.”
As Chu tells it, central to his arc is the notion of belief — the belief that opportunity, along with a lot of hard work and perhaps a little luck, can lead to triumph. Born in Chongqing, China, and raised in Taiwan, he studied photography in Hong Kong. In 1963, at age 20, he arrived in San Francisco, where the rest of his family was already living. He spent his days learning English and his evenings as a busboy at Trader Vic’s, picking up the finer points of service and presentation (not to mention how to make a great mai tai). His knowledge came in handy when his father, a designer by profession, founded Mandarin House in Menlo Park. Chu shared his learnings from Trader Vic’s, and the chefs at Mandarin House taught Chu to cook.
By the late ’60s, he had ambitions of opening his own place: a takeout spot specializing in “quick, healthy, simple, delicious” Chinese fare. Chef Chu’s debuted in January 1970 in a 1,000-square-foot space — fun fact: his rent was $425 a month — with only a dozen menu items and a handful of seats. But that’s not what customers wanted. They wanted a restaurant with more selection, where they could bring their families. “We listened and changed our first idea,” says Chu.
A year or so in, his now-wife, Ruth, quit school and joined him in the endeavor. They took over an adjacentspace that could accommodate 35 diners and soon went from barely surviving to thriving. The couple gradually expanded, leasing more and more space in the same building; within a few years, they purchased the building itself. Today, Chef Chu’s occupies its entire 6,500 square feet. The upstairs and downstairs dining rooms seat about 220. The menu has upward of 85 dishes.
The Chus, who reside in Los Altos Hills, own several houses near the restaurant that are earmarked for employees to live in. His staff, which totals 75, is like family, he says. Establishing roots in the community has also been key to the restaurant’s success, Chu adds. Philanthropic projects are a priority, and beneficiaries have included El Camino Hospital, the YMCA and local rotary clubs. This month, Chef Chu’s is hosting a sold-out fundraiser for the Los Altos History Museum.
At 76, Chu is a daily presence at the restaurant whenever he’s in town. On his phone, he shows me a series of photos taken on the New York set of In the Heights. The director of the film, which comes out in June, is the youngest of Ruth and Lawrence Chu’s five children, Jon. Posters from his previous movies, including Crazy Rich Asians, adorn the bar at Chef Chu’s, while the waiting area is lined with photos of famous patrons: Steve Young, Justin Bieber, Charlotte and George Shultz, Serena Williams, Martin Yan.
The Chu brood also includes Larry Jr., Christina, Howard and Jennifer. Larry, the oldest of the kids, stepped into the family business two decades ago as its manager. Although Lawrence has imparted a lot of wisdom to his son, there’s one piece of advice that stands out. “Treat every day like it’s your grand opening day,” says Larry. In other words: Bring the same energy and excitement to the business as you did on day one. Always pay attention to the details and take pride in your work.
Reflecting on his gold anniversary, the elder Chu acknowledges that 50 is a milestone. But the real achievement may be his ability to “set up something that my kids could be proud of and want to continue the legacy,” he says. “I told Larry, ‘If you treasure every customer, take care of your staff, love your family and support your community, we will be here forever.’”
Chef Chu’s 1067 N. San Antonio Road, Los Altos; chefchu.com