The Southern Palace Chinese Restaurant has been operating on South Main Street only since November, but has been a Statesboro family business, serving families of customers, for more than 17 years.
J.J. Fang and his mother, Huifen Han, are the owners. They opened the original Southern Palace in October 1997 in Gentilly Square shopping center, which was then home to a busy Winn Dixie supermarket and other retailers.
"Our customer base is all locals, and so we've seen a lot of children grow up and we've seen a lot of people leave us," Fang said. "We do have a pretty large senior crowd too, and we've literally seen a couple who met on a date here and married. Now their kid's like 12."
J.J. Fang, now in his 30s, has been helping at restaurants his family owned since he was 13 or 14. They operated a restaurant in Washington, D.C., before Fang's father, Dr. Quentin Fang, came to teach at Georgia Southern University, where he is a professor.
For a couple of years beginning in 2004, J.J. Fang and his mother also had a restaurant in Atlanta, but it is the one in Statesboro that has survived.
However, after the Winn Dixie closed a decade ago, traffic to the previous location began to decline. When the Southern Palace's lease at Gentilly Square expired last year, the shopping center's owner, the Hull Property Group, was seeking to empty the building for redevelopment.
So the Southern Palace closed at Gentilly Square in March 2014. When Fang and his mother sought to open a new restaurant, they looked at several locations.
Palace goes downtown
Meanwhile, the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority was looking for a new occupant for the former Taco Bell building on South Main. The Southern Palace owners were able to buy it, rather than lease, and received some DSDA incentives. They had a contractor remodel the building to blend with the developing streetscape.
The restaurant even became a neighbor of the new visitors center when the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau remodeled the former Shoney's next door.
Still, the former Taco Bell came with some space limitations, and the Southern Palace's owners couldn't do all they wanted in terms of renovations. Maximum seating is 68, compared to 80 at the Gentilly Square site, but Fang said this isn't really a significant difference, because usable space had been limited by the design of the old place.
In the kitchen, the Southern Palace reuses the existing ventilation hood, which accommodates only one fryer instead of the two the old place had, and there was no room for a smoker. So the menu has been simplified somewhat. Fried items with long cooking times, such as fried chicken, were eliminated, as were any smoked items, such as tea duck.
Very few customers ordered the smoked dishes, but the restaurant kept making them as long as it could to please those few, Fang said.
"Now we couldn't even if we wanted to," he said.
The menu of the Southern Palace includes some northern Chinese, Beijing style, items, and some southern, Hunan-style, items. But mostly it is very Americanized, Fang said. Some flavors have even been adapted specifically for the Southeastern U.S. Items from the sauce on General Tso's chicken to the crab Rangoon appetizers are made sweeter for Statesboro than they were for D.C.
"The South definitely has a sweet tooth," Fang said.
Focus on dine-in
But one adjustment the Southern Palace will not make is toward becoming a fast-food restaurant with large quantities of each item cooked in advance, he said. This is one thing he wishes new customers would understand better, as some ask why things cost a little more than at places that sell Chinese fast food, or why they can't order multiple side items. Each dish has to be cooked when ordered.
"We are a dine-in restaurant that also does to-go," he said. "We make every order from scratch. That's why you can taste the difference."
Insisting on ingredients such as white-meat chicken and high quality flank steak, he said, is also a part of this sit-down restaurant approach.
"That's one thing, no matter what happens or what we do, we try to keep consistency in our food and the quality that we present to the customer," Fang said. "I think that's why we've always had a strong customer base."
Traffic on South Main has been better than it was the last few years at the old location, he said. But weekends - usually the busiest time for a restaurant - can be very slow downtown, with the exception of the Sunday lunch crowd.
Fang has other interests and a degree from GSU in information technology. But he said his family will keep the restaurant here at least until his parents retire.
"We bought this place, we've invested into it, and we'll be here as long as we can," he said. "Hopefully, we'll be here another 17 years."
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.