Edmonton culinary institution Chicken for Lunch is closing after 32 years of business. The kiosk, located in the food court in Rice Howard Place (formerly Scotia Place), is known for its long line-ups and Amy Quon, its gregarious proprietor. Its last day of business will be Feb. 29.
Quon, whose family also owns and operates The Lingnan (which just celebrated its 75th anniversary in November), decided not to renew the lease ahead of the food court's planned six-month closure for renovations. Quon also shared that she turned 65 this year and challenges with her knees and hands have slowed her down. By closing Chicken for Lunch, Quon can now work exclusively at The Lingnan.
"Right now I get up at 5am and pick up my staff," said Quon. "I'm at Chicken for Lunch at seven and I work there until 2:30, and then work at The Lingnan until 10:30. Now, I can come at two. So Amy not retiring, only Chicken for Lunch retiring."
Quon opened Chicken for Lunch in 1992 when her youngest son was six (her husband, Kinman, was a partner in The Lingnan at the time, but their family did not yet own it outright). "Chicken for Lunch was my first restaurant," Quon said. "My kids were still young. I wanted a job from Monday to Friday, so after 2pm I can go home and be with my kids. That's why I chose an office building with short hours."
From the beginning, Quon focused on chicken because she observed that many people didn't eat pork and beef. But the menu evolved. "When I first started, I only had chicken burgers, chicken fingers, chicken cutlets, and clubhouse (sandwiches)," Quon said. "But I see people eat more spicy, and went the direction of ginger chicken, Korean chicken, Thai chicken, because I can see the crowd like it. I am not a (trained) cook, but what I do is go to the restaurant to eat, and go home and do experiments. It takes a long time to develop a recipe."
Quon's famous dry spicy chicken was adapted from a more traditional dish. "My husband and me know Canadians like crispy (things)," Quon said. "How can we make it crispy and spicy? Chinese have dry spicy tofu. Why don't we do some similar chicken?"
People so demand the dry spicy chicken that it's on the menu at The Lingnan, too, and also sold frozen for home preparation at The Lingnan and at Confetti Sweets in Sherwood Park.
Quon said they had to stop making the chicken from scratch after the pandemic due to the labour involved and difficulties retaining staff. "My son Miles asked me, 'Do you want to die with your chicken?' I said no. But we still have to wok it (ourselves) and make it spicy," Quon said.
Quon is emotional as she speaks about her customers. "My chicken boys and girls are so loyal," she said. "They are very good to me. Some have been coming for 32 years."
Quon made it a point to remember regular clients and their orders by bestowing them nicknames. "I don't know computers or emails, but I put my energy into my customers," Quon said. "The most funny thing is I give people names and they like it. If I give them a name I remember their order. Noodle Boy, they eat noodle. Steam Rice Friend, they eat rice. Hungry Boy, they eat everything."
Regular customers also appreciated Quon's generosity. Quon often tops orders up with additional food. "You give them gift to show them your love," she said. "The only gift I have is chicken I want to give them extra. That's why people come back."
She said she has even become a mother figure to some of her customers. "They won't listen to their real mom, but they listen to me. 'No vegetables? Bad boy!' I say. But they eat it! If I told my son Marty to eat vegetables, he doesn't eat it."
Quon's regulars have asked if frozen versions of her other types of chicken will be made available, or whether she might consider hosting Chicken for Lunch pop-ups at The Lingnan. Quon hasn't made any final decisions but knows it wouldn't be the same. In the meantime, she encourages customers to come see her at The Lingnan to reminisce.
"I want my customers to remember how much fun they had at Chicken for Lunch," she said. "The relationships you build with customers are more important than the business. I'm rich in my heart. And I really want them to know how much I love them."
The Quon family is soliciting video messages from customers who want to share their well-wishes with Amy. The deadline to upload a message is Feb. 10.