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Kathy Yee Featured

10:41am EDT August 30, 2002
 

Kathy Yee, owner of Ya Fei Chinese restaurant in Robinson Towne Center, was at home nursing a cold on April 28, 2000, when she got word that two of her employees had been shot in her restaurant.

In the course of a shooting spree that started in the killer's Mt. Lebanon neighborhood, claimed the lives of five and left one paralyzed, Richard Baumhammers targeted minorities and killed them with seemingly calculated precision. Two of the dead were Yee's employees, Thao Pham and Ji-Ye Sun.

The murders took their toll. Half of her employees quit. Sales dropped 50 percent. Yee was depressed and contemplated closing her doors, but knew it would be a distressed sale. More important, Yee knew that closing the restaurant would be a disservice to her customers and her employees -- and a victory for the fear Baumhammers had wrought.

"If I quit, he wins," says Yee.

She brought in crisis counselors to assure her and others that the deaths of the employees weren't their fault. Yee, prominent among the region's Chinese restaurateurs, asked fellow operators to close their establishments and attend a candlelight vigil in the parking lot in front of Ya Fei a week after the shootings.

She says about 2,000 people showed up for the service.

Yee got help from customers and fellow restaurateurs and even a boost from popular TV and radio talk show host Fred Honsberger, a customer who urged his listeners to help Yee and her employees through a tough time by patronizing Ya Fei.

"I got a lot of support, and that helped me to be strong," says Yee.

Sales at Ya Fei rebounded, but it took much longer for the pain of the emotional scars to relent. Customers had a hard time coming in, says Yee. One regular customer parked his car in front of Ya Fei on four occasions, only to drive off without entering the restaurant.

Only on the fifth visit did he manage to come inside.

This year, Pittsburgh Magazine chose Yee as its Restaurateur of the Year. It would be easy to conclude it was a sympathy vote were it not for Yee's extensive contributions to the local restaurant community. She consults with the Allegheny County Health Department, writing a food handler test for Chinese speakers and helping Chinese restaurant operators comply with food safety standards.

And she is vice president of the Chinese Restaurant Association of Western Pennsylvania and on the committee of the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association.

Yee talked with SBN about the shootings at Ya Fei, how her business was affected, why she got into the restaurant business and her passion for teaming California wine with Asian food.

Where were you when the shootings occurred at Ya Fei?

"That was during my allergy season; March, April is allergy season for me. I had the allergy symptoms, so I thought it was the allergies. I got worse on a Thursday night. The next day I didn't feel any better. I called and said I wasn't coming in until the next day.

One of my employees called me on the phone and told me Tony and Jerry got shot. I was upset with them because I thought they were joking, and they called me when I'm sick in bed to tell me that Tony and Jerry were shot. I hung up the phone and realized that my employees wouldn't joke about something like that."

Yee turned on the TV and saw the Ya Fei storefront on the screen, emergency and news vehicles parked in the lot and crowds of onlookers. She drove to the scene, hoping and praying that her employees had survived the shootings.

The police took her to a storeroom and questioned her. Did she or her employees have any enemies? Was there anyone who had a grudge against her or her workers?

Then she got the news she dreaded. The police asked her to identify the bodies of the employees who were killed. She said she would, but another employee volunteered to identify them.

Ya Fei stayed closed for more than a week while Yee and her employees tried to deal with the loss of their friends and co-workers. Grief counselors intervened, and Yee tried to overcome the feeling that she was responsible for the deaths of her employees and the thoughts of how close she herself came to death.

She spends much of her time at the front of the house, answering the phone and greeting customers. Had she been at the restaurant at the time, she theorizes, she might have been killed as well.

Says Yee: "At the time I felt responsible because they worked for me and helped me in my restaurant, and it was all my fault. That was my reaction at the time."

How did your customers respond after the shootings at Ye Fei?

"They were afraid to come in, they didn't know how to face me. Eighty percent of them, when they'd walk in, would start to cry.

"They didn't know how to handle the situation, not because they didn't want to come in and support me, but they just didn't know how to handle it. I thought about Baumhammers every day.

"Even now I still think about him. When you turned the TV on, he was on every channel."

How did you get into the restaurant business?

"A friend had a restaurant downtown. One night they were short-handed, so they called me to help. I came and they put me to work waitressing. Fortunately, it wasn't too busy, so I was able to handle it all by myself. I worked there on Fridays and Saturdays, and I kind of liked the business."

Yee went to work for Anna Kao, who owned a prominent restaurant in Fox Chapel. Kao put Yee to work doing everything from waiting tables to managing the operations. She liked the business and Kao saw Yee's enthusiasm and aptitude and encouraged her to open her own restaurant.

"Anna asked me if I ever thought about having a restaurant of my own. I said 'No, I don't think I have the ability to do it.' She said 'I think you can.' So that's how I got the idea, because of her. That was a very big influence."

Are you still friends?

"I was just at her house last week. I'm going out with her daughter tomorrow. We are still very good friends."

Is owning a restaurant what you expected?

"I knew it was going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of pressure because you have to make all kinds of decisions and you can't afford to make too many mistakes. If you expect all of these hard (demands), you'll come out OK. It's very different when you're an employee."

Why did you locate in Robinson Towne Center?

"Thirteen years ago it was a newly developed area. The landlord said there was a lot of promise, that a lot of businesses were going to come in. I came to study the area. It was a growing area and (Pittsburgh International Airport) was being built. So there were a lot of reasons for me to pick this location.

"For 12 years we kind of struggled along. A lot of businesses have come in and out. The Point has grown like crazy in the past two years, so we have a lot of traffic. And (Robinson Towne Mall) opened. Plus, we've been here for 13 years and people know us and that helps.

"Last year was a very good year, but then after Sept. 11 we struggled a little again. The stock market isn't doing well, a lot of people got laid off nearby, so we kind of hurt a little."

Yee stands out from other Asian restaurants in part, she says, because of the wine and food tasting events she holds at Ya Fei and her experiments with teaming Asian cuisine with California wine. She's visited California with a Pittsburgh wine aficionado group to sample the wines and gain an understanding of how to select the characteristics that will complement the subtleties of Pacific Rim foods.

Yee says that one customer, a Steelers fan, skipped a Monday night game so he wouldn't miss one of the restaurant's tastings.

What does it take to be successful in the restaurant business?

"You have to have a lot of passion, and I do have a lot of passion. I'm always thinking about how I can improve it. I've tried a lot of new things, a lot of Pacific Rim cooking, and I experiment in food and wine tasting. I have to give a lot of credit to my CPA, because he's a wine connoisseur and he kind of taught me how to pair the food and the wine together." How to reach: Ya Fei Chinese restaurant, (412) 788-9388