Food, faith, and hugs
June 20, 2012
By CHET BAUMGARTNER
Technically, if Susan Zhang, owner of Co-Co China Buffet, wanted a larger customer base, she shouldn’t have left New Jersey’s 8.8 million population.
There, though, the customers don’t hug back.
“People are not friendly,” she said, while jotting down inventory in Chinese characters on a Tuesday afternoon. “When you say hi to someone, they just go away.
“I’m a people person,” she said. “I want to talk to people. That’s me. That’s the real me.”
For 12 years now, Zhang and her husband, Jeff Zhang, have catered to the population of Bluffton and beyond, with Jeff specializing in the food and Susan specializing in the hugs.
And in 2012, she was again nominated in a regional survey, which includes restaurants in Fort Wayne, as the best Chinese restaurant in Northeast Indiana.
She has already won the honor three times — 2008, 2009 and 2011 — and came in second in 2010.
When asked to talk about her restaurant and accomplishments, though, Zhang spent more time talking about the people of her adopted hometown, Bluffton, and her future home, heaven.
“I am so glad that I’ve come to Bluffton,” she said. “I’m so glad I (met) Christians.
“I just pray to God, ‘I don’t want to move anywhere,’” she said.
Zhang grew up in China, a country of 1.3 billion people, and while she went to school like other children, she also received an education in her mother’s restaurant.
“I grew up at a restaurant, just like my daughter,” Zhang said. “I watched what my mom did.”
Zhang lived in Fuzhou in southeast China, but at about the age of 5 her family started moving to New Jersey.
First, her parents moved. Later, her brother followed, but Susan stayed in China until she was 19, when her grandmother died.
By then, though, her brother owned and operated the New Jersey restaurant started by her parents, who had owned various businesses for 43 years, and he offered her a job working there.
Six years later, though, Susan wanted a new opportunity. She wanted to keep working in a restaurant, but she wanted different customers.
Then, a couple from Bluffton gave her the chance.
“I’m not a big city girl,” she said.
In March of 2000, Susan and Jeff bought Co-Co China Buffet from its previous owners.
Her first restaurant could only seat 48 people, and she could only serve about 20 items on the hot buffet line and eight items on the cold buffet line, as well as ice cream.
But she was finally serving people who didn’t mind her hugs, and not too long after moving to Bluffton, she met a group who wanted to show her a different type of love, she said.
Growing up in China, Susan said she had never seen a Bible, and even if she had, society wouldn’t have invited her to read it.
Christians there, she said, are often discriminated, even persecuted.
“If you are a Christian in China, you have no friends,” she said. “You couldn’t find good jobs.”
Deb Fiechter first took Susan and Jeff to Hope Missionary Church after she moved, introducing her to her future godparents, Wayne and Janet Lowrey, and to a Father she had never met before — a Father she soon fell in love with.
“I can’t live without him. He’s just my Father. He’s perfect,” she said. “God is amazing. He completely changes you. He’s powerful.”
About five years after she moved to Bluffton, Zhang said she was ready to serve more people, so she rented her current location and today can seat 220 people.
In 2010, they were even able to expand both their space and their menu, installing another buffet line, featuring a salad bar and American food for children, and another room, primarily for birthday parties, church outings, wedding rehearsals, family reunions and more.
“During the weekends, we are always full,” she said.
Susan admits that she didn’t always intend to be this busy. In fact, as a child, she told her mother that she didn’t want to own a restaurant.
It took too much time, she said back then.
Today, she says, it’s never say never.
Still, she said she takes time off to spend with her two children, Emily, 10, and Brenton, 2.
Also, she said, she hasn’t run out of hugs, and she promises that she’ll most likely remember your name as well.
Shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday, a customer walked in — a familiar face from a Mother’s Day party.
“Back again,” he told Susan. “I didn’t get a hug on Mother’s Day.”
“Right now, I’m still busy,” Susan said, “but nice people make a difference,” she said.
“I will forever be thankful for the many customers I consider my friends, along with my church family,” she said.