Lilian Lo: Leading Change and Innovation at Oriental Jade
Borrowing a term from the sports world, Lilian Lo is a “natural.” She embodies all the essential skills and attributes of a successful entrepreneur and instinctively knows when and how to make the just-right next play. She is a confident leader who embraces new systems and technologies, builds important relationships, and creates interesting opportunities for growth – all while investing in knowing her market, customers and employees extraordinarily well.
- Grow strategically through innovation and intelligent risk-taking
- Know your customer and your market thoroughly
- Surround yourself with trusted advisors and mentors
A Look Behind The Jade
Lilian Lo and her husband, Victor, have been 50-50 owners of Oriental Jade – affectionally referred to by insiders as The Jade – since 1981. Victor opened the restaurant in 1979, just prior to their marriage and Lilian’s emigration from Hong Kong to the United States.
Initially, the Bangor, Maine-based restaurant operated out of a 5,000-square-foot rented space in a retail mall. Seven years in, Lilian and Victor bought the property that the current stand-alone restaurant sits on. The 11,000-square-foot building is ideally situated near a cinema, a large shopping area and residential neighborhoods. It can seat up to 400 people and accommodates groups and events.
“We’re among the largest Asian restaurants in Maine,” Lilian said “And I think we have the longest history of any Asian restaurant in our state. People know us.”
The Jade was an early adopter of online ordering and has the infrastructure to accommodate large numbers of takeout, delivery and dine-in guests simultaneously. Their systems proved invaluable during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, enabling them to recover quickly from a two-and-a-half-month dining room lockdown.
Oriental Jade “did not close for a single day,” Lilian shared. “We had numerous phone lines already installed, so we didn’t have the problems other restaurants had converting to takeout only. We had suppliers for boxes and other necessities for takeout and delivery. We were more prepared than most at the onset of the shutdown.
“However, we did have to pivot some people into new roles and responsibilities,” Lilian said. Oriental Jade is accustomed to that – Lilian tirelessly explores ways to improve and regularly implements positive change. “Some staff took time off, so I reassigned roles, but we didn’t have to retrain people or let people know we had good takeout food.” Prior to the pandemic, 60% of the business was dine-in and 40% was takeout. In 2020, they lost significant dine-in business but were able to compensate with takeout and delivery orders. So far in 2021, she said, “Sales are up.”
The Jade’s unique selling proposition is authentic Asian cuisine cooked with the freshest available ingredients – plus some carefully selected add-ons to cater to their Bangor clientele. The Los also offer select international dishes, gluten-free and vegetarian options, and full bar service. And, according to the restaurant’s website, the Jade Lounge provides “a funky atmosphere and signature Tiki drinks, including our famous signature mai tai.” Oh, yes, and a beer selection from Bangor Beer Co. – a taproom also owned and operated by the Lo family.
Innovation, Expansion and the Next Generation
“The idea of a brewery and taproom was brought to the table by one of our sons,” said Lilian. “He thought it would be a good way to transition part of our business to attract a younger customer base.” The Los conducted market research and talked to advisors. While they considered operating the brewery out of the current space, they ultimately decided to keep the businesses separate and constructed a 1,600-square-foot, stand-alone space adjacent to the restaurant on the land they already owned. The two buildings are connected by an outdoor dining courtyard.
The Los’ two adult sons operate Bangor Beer Co. with support from their holding company, Everspring Company, Inc. They are now exploring a location for a second taproom.
“One of the things that strikes me about Lilian is that she is always looking for ways to adapt and remain relevant in the marketplace,” offered Sheri Quatrale, Key Relationship Manager and Key4Women® Certified Advisor. “Another is that she is savvy enough to seek input from professional advisors. Lilian recognized that traditional buffet dining was a thing of the past. Customers were no longer excited to serve themselves and were looking for more upscale dining options.”
Lilian took a calculated risk when she reimagined what Asian dining could be and dramatically changed a decades-old industry model. “We did not close a single day during the renovation of the restaurant,” Lilian pointed out. “Our restaurant is big enough that we closed half the dining room while we did the improvements and still served customers on the other half.” It took nine months to complete the remodel, but they had no down time and no disappointed customers. The new model also improved profit margins and lowered food waste substantially.
“The result has been a more vibrant business model with a loyal customer base and improved average dining tabs,” Quatrale observed. “When the pandemic hit, Lilian never panicked. She and Victor quickly focused on improving processes around takeout and delivery and keeping their staff safe and engaged,” Sheri added. “She came to KeyBank to help her with the first round of PPP (Payroll Protection Plan) and asked for information and guidance. As a result, their business fared better than many of their peers’ businesses.”
Recently, Lilian initiated research and discussions around the possibility of adding solar to the business as a way of better managing overhead and taking advantage of tax credits. “A project like this could be daunting because of unknowns,” Quatrale said. “But we were able to help them navigate financing options, and, as a result, they will be breaking ground on their solar project shortly.”
Lilian explains that “every now and then Victor and I swap hats,” but she manages the relationship with KeyBank. She and Sheri hit it off from the moment Sheri dropped in the restaurant one day to introduce herself. “At KeyBank the customer service is outstanding, which is very important to me.”
Lilian’s hope is for “the next generation to continue to grow the business. We have a very good team in place, and when the time is right, I look forward to some new hobbies.” What will she do when she isn’t working the long hours of the restaurant business? “It won’t be a 360-degree change,” said Lilian, “I also have fun baking, I’ve taken a Master Gardening class, and I’ve always liked to travel,” she admitted. Our guess is that she will continue to be a strong influence of change and growth at The Jade.
“Lunch anyone?” said Lilian, entrepreneur and Key4Women member.