As the fancy new Bourse reopens, tenants who built a life there weep | Mike Newall
The buffet that Moon and Mimi Yang opened in the Bourse 16 years ago fed more than just the courthouse and office crowd, the school students and tourists piling off the buses. It nourished her family.
At the mere mention of the Bourse building, Mimi Yang cries.
She's not crying out of joy for the shiny new renovations, the polished food court with its promised oysters and champagne and fancy marble finishings, set to open soon. She's crying because there's no room in it for her.
For 16 years, she and her husband, Moon, ran their Asian-salad-breakfast-cheesesteaks buffet in the Bourse food court, a prime location along Fifth Street where the tour buses pulled up, with a view of Independence Mall. When she and Moon looked at the place in 2002, recently arrived from South Korea, the old owner offered a particularly Philadelphian sales pitch: "It's the only restaurant in the world in front of the Liberty Bell," the sign read. At the time, it was. And Mimi liked that.
In time, Mimi became as much a fixture of the Bourse as the cheesy, charming souvenir shops and the heat lamps at the pizza joint and the old neon signs. The buffet they opened in front of the Liberty Bell, the Philadelphia Gourmet Cafe, fed more than just the courthouse and office crowds, the students and tourists piling off the buses. It nourished her family.
Back in Seoul, Mimi and Moon, both 55, had been accomplished journalists. Moon worked as a magazine editor and art director. Mimi was a reporter at a daily newspaper. They came to the United States for one reason: "Education," Mimi said, for their two young kids.
They landed in D.C., where Mimi went to apply for a job at the Washington Post but walked away because she felt her English wasn't strong enough. The Yangs spent a few years working in a shop with friends, then decided they wanted a business of their own.
They snatched up a struggling chain deli at the Bourse. Philadelphia it was.
The first few years, the food grew stale under the heat lamps. And then, as the family lore goes, one day, Mimi had a revelation: If the customers weren't going to come in, she was going to go out. She stood on the curb and waved to the bus drivers carrying precious cargo: hungry tourists. "Please help us," she'd say. "We have good food. Just try it."
And they did. Mimi even let the drivers eat for free. And in that way, in 18-hour shifts, with Mimi — not much over 5 feet tall — waving and pointing to her Benjamin Franklin-themed specials board, the Yangs built an American life.
"They became business owners through sheer will — they worked their butts off, man," said Mimi's son, Jay, 22. The restaurant put him and his sister through Cornell University. Sally is now studying to be a dentist at Thomas Jefferson University. Jay is in a graduate program in American literature at Cornell and wants to be a writer. A storyteller, like his parents.
Last year, the Bourse's new owners arrived, with their own vision for the place. Eviction notices came for nearly everyone. There was a lawsuit. The Yangs lost.
And in October of last year, they turned the heat lamps off for good. They walked Market Street, searching for a place to start over. They gambled on an Irish bar near Front Street, just about as far as you can get down Market Street without landing in the Delaware.
And Mimi and Moon and Jay, who's taking some time off school to help with the restaurant, went about polishing the place up — with a nod to the changing neighborhood. Craft beer on tap, wine for sale. Patio seating, and an upstairs dining room decorated with Philly tourist T-shirts.
They opened in March without Boursian fanfare. There's no space for Mimi to wave customers in, although regulars have found their way back. All things considered, the Yangs landed on their feet. Philly's Gourmet Steaks, they called the place. It's lovely.
But, still, Mimi cries.
Not just for the weird old Bourse, but for the life she and Moon built there.
And then she gets back to work, hoping the crowds will follow.