Snap Dragon buffet is back

The Snap Dragon restaurant’s buffet is back — almost four months after the Moorhead Chinese buffet turned to take-out orders during Minnesota’s mandated shutdown. Owner David Shih says strong support by loyal “regulars” kept the 16-year-old family business afloat during the closure. (Photo/Nancy Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Take-out orders may have saved the day, but David Shih finally could sigh in relief three weeks ago: The Snap Dragon’s Chinese buffet is back.

For a family-owned business that’s welcomed guests to that hot, fresh line-up of favorites for the past 16 years, it marked a return to at least a degree of normalcy. In the kitchen, David and kitchen manager Hugo Trujillo could bring back the soups, dumplings, deep-fried appetizers and classic Chinese dishes that patrons enjoy piling on their plates. After almost four months of preparing individual entrees one at a time, it was a return to what regulars – and the staff – count on.

When Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order closing all dine-in restaurants was announced in mid-March, David says, “We had no clue what we were going to do. Take-out was the only option. We needed to create a new business plan overnight.”

Take-out turned the kitchen on its head. Instead of preparing batches of their specialties for buffet service, Hugo and David (“I would never call myself a chef – I’m a restaurant manager”) were faced with the challenge of a new routine. “It’s completely different. Each entree essentially serves just one person rather than five to eight at a time. It takes much longer.” While getting their timing down, orders stretched out to uncomfortably long waits.

But Snap Dragon regulars kept the phones ringing, especially during the first difficult weeks. “The community has been wonderful,” David reflects. “When we had to shut down, so many of our regulars stepped up. They’d not only place orders – they would ask me, ‘What can we do to help?’” He pauses. “That’s what I usually am asking them. I love this community in general.”

You could say David was born into the restaurant business. His grandfather was a popular chef in Szechuan, China, before fleeing the Communist revolution. He reestablished himself in Taiwan as the private chef to top generals. His son – David’s father – became a chef as well. When he got the opportunity to work in San Francisco’s Chinatown, he went ahead, then brought his wife and 7-year-old David to the U.S. several years later. The family eventually moved to Austin and then Liberty, Texas, a small town near Houston, where David’s parents opened their own Dynasty Restaurant in a small town nearby.

Their son had no intention of following the family tradition. Instead, David graduated from Texas Tech with a degree in advertising and marketing. He started a direct marketing company with a friend; eventually they specialized in fund-raising for nonprofit organizations.

He did manage his parents’ restaurant, then purchased another. But along the way, in one of those unexpected twists that have brought so many to the area, he met Ms. Right, a Casselton, North Dakota, native. The College of St. Benedict graduate had come to Texas as an Americorps volunteer. After David and Kathlene were married in 2003, they headed north to her homeland, an area David had never even visited. “It was good, though,” he says. “I hated the heat in Texas.”

The Shihs purchased the former site of the Village Inn on the corner of 30th Avenue South and Highway 75 in 2004, where another Chinese establishment had opened and then closed a little later. “We worked hard for five years to establish it as a consistent, quality place,” he remembers.

They achieved that goal, but not without setbacks. When neighboring service station Orton’s was sold and demolished to become the Holiday Station Store, the construction caused a surprising degree of disruption. Then, in 2018, the Minnesota Department of Transportation replaced the busy intersection of Highway 75 and Interstate 94 with the diverging diamond interchange – a major year-long construction project that caused dramatic disruption for all the businesses in the area.

“We were finally back to normal,” he says wryly. “Then COVID came along.”

Today business is looking up again. But the view is far from what the Shihs used to regard as normal. Their buffet boasts the same wide array of favorites, but the routine has changed. For one thing, it’s only open from 4 to 8 p.m. for dinner, while menu carry-out is available until from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The reason: the difficulty finding help to reliably staff the noon shift.

The eatery follows all of the Department of Health and CDC guidance to keep diners safe. Every other table is blocked off to keep occupancy to 50% of capacity. Customers are asked to clean their hands with sanitizer each time they approach the buffet. Masks are required for their trips to the buffet and the time they spend, except for while actually eating. The food service area is cleaned almost obsessively; all serving utensils are replaced every 30 minutes.

As for the Plexiglas barrier that separates the cashier from customers paying their checks or picking up orders, that’s somewhat of a point of pride. “I’m not very handy,” David confesses with a smile. “I’m pretty proud that I managed to figure it out myself.”

He adds, “People are still really reserved about coming out.” And he has learned something interesting. “Now, 75% of the people who are coming in to eat are 50 and older. People that age don’t tend to get take-outs. Those mostly go to younger families.”

That reserve also applies to what he’s come to recognize as the region’s distinctive culture. “I love the people here, but I’ve come to understand some things about the culture,” he observes. “When people don’t like something, they go out of their way not to let you know.

“It takes getting used to. When a customer has something to negative to say, you do cringe inside. But it’s important to hear it. I can’t fix anything unless I know about it, and I can’t be everywhere.”

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