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Meet Jimmy Wong of Lee’s Burger in Newton Centre and Coolidge Corner

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jimmy Wong.

Jimmy, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
The story goes back 30 years in Harvard Sq., Cambridge when the first Lee’s opened up. About 8 years ago, it moved to the present location in Newton. Few more years later, the original owner decided to retire so that was when we came into the picture. We took over the business in 2013 and never looked back. Then in December 2014, we expanded to our second location in Brookline. It has been quite a journey! The original Lee’s restaurant started as a family-owned American diner business. Back then it was called “Lee’s Place” and they didn’t focus primarily on making burgers either. Their menu was something you might find at a local diner. But along the way, Mr. Lee discovered that his burgers were cashing in at a much higher percentage of the sales and a light bulb lit up in his head. So when he moved to Newton Center, he changed the business name to “Lee’s Place Burger”. Now let’s fast forward to the moment when we first rocked out onto the burger scene by taking over the business. In terms of direction, we continued to put the finger on the pulse and further developed our brand by unpacking the emotions and tastes that our burgers create. And one of the ways we do this is by taking something that is universally associated with the sense of taste, such as burgers, and attach it with a “look” to stimulate the sense of sight as well. The famous saying “you eat with your eyes first” has profound meaning for us. Not only do we want our burgers to taste good, we also want them to look good. Of course, everything that people loved about the original burger is still there; nothing has changed, except we simplified our name to “Lee’s Burger” to emphasize the romance of the burger. But the important take away is to remember that as our brand grows and matures, as we continue to explore new ground, we’ll always remain faithful to our traditions which have made Lee’s Burger successful. I believe strongly in our business and our crew. It is their skill, the quality of their work, the passion in them, and their unique personalities that bring our customers back again and again. Whether you visit the Newton restaurant or the Brookline one, you will be welcomed with the same good vibes. There is always a team of like-minded people trying to perfect their work. I personally have a long history of managing restaurants and startups, and I’ve always wanted to use what I have learned and put it into my own business. Lee’s Burger has 3 partners (including myself) and we work as a team, each covering areas he is good at. An interesting fun fact is that none of us have any previous experience in the burger business. It’s like 3 men and a baby! Two of them have backgrounds in finance and technology, and mine is in restaurant management.

Another interesting fact is that all the owners in the last 30 years to the present day have been Asian owners. It’s totally unintended, just happened to be that way. There’s nothing new about Asian business owners in the food industry, but specifically in the burger industry might be something new. Most people don’t immediately associate Asian and burger in the same mental picture. But I believe this particular feature is one that gives us a competitive edge and makes us stand out. And it also goes to show the open-mindedness of our customer base. So there is a little bit of an unintentional social experiment going on here too. In an indirect way, we are moving boundaries, stretching the range of acceptance, breaking old conventions, etc. Its what life is all about, isn’t it? Making real change one burger at a time. So taking everything in and with that said, it is a big learning process for us and I’ll give an analogy by saying the burger business is like a dance. You have to feel the flow and the music and be able to move elegantly with the rhythms and changes of your partner’s steps. Similarly, we’re now in the middle of this wonderful dance and we react to each turn with what we have learned so far. And thanks to our customers, we have been quite lucky. We are currently working on opening a third location.

Has it been a smooth road?
Well, nothing is easy. I’ve worked all my life. People will be surprised to know that I didn’t take a single vacation in the last 10 years, not because I didn’t like to but I actually enjoy working, be it for myself or for someone else. I get a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that’s quite rewarding. Working makes me happy. Isn’t that crazy? It’s really about loving what you do and doing what you love; investing in yourself. And I think this kind of investment really nurtures the soul. But there are many challenges too in our business. Daily hurdles and problems we have to solve; a machine might break, someone might call in sick, running out of ingredients, etc., it is endless. We all have heard how hard it is to run a restaurant business and it’s all true. One of the biggest challenges is finding the right people to join the team. I see this as maybe the most widespread issue for not only the restaurant business but for all businesses in general. We are still a small-scale operation so a strong team is very important. We are always working to improve how we operate, and I am constantly looking for new ways to better efficiency. And it’s my job to create a happy, healthy, working environment. I found one of the best ways to do that is by starting with myself, and lead by example. And all I have to do is be myself. Here’s my advice to people who are starting out their careers as business owners – be yourself, be who you are. Don’t look at other successful people and try to imitate them, that won’t work necessarily. I know everybody tells you something different growing up. They say look at this famous person or that rich guy and follow in their footsteps. Nope. A better way is to discover who you are and just be that person.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Lee’s Burger – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
You might have heard about our special sauce. Channel 5 Chronicle did a feature on us where I revealed the secret of our special sauce. So now it’s really no secret. But our special sauce is something of a legend and let me explain. First of all, I can’t take credit for creating the special sauce. I also can’t credit Mr. Lee for the recipe either. So where did this special sauce come from? Well legend has it that long time ago there was another establishment called Flippin’ Burgers in Newton at the exact spot where Lee’s Place Burger sits today. One day when Mr. Lee was inspecting the basement, he discovered a bottle of unused sauce in the freezer. He took it up and basically forgot about it, until later that same day an old-timer came in and thinking it was ketchup, squeezed some of it on his burger and took a bite. He was blown clear to the floor! “What is this special sauce, son?” the old-timer asked Lee. Right there a legend was born; a divine moment of discovery that led to its legacy. However, the name of the sauce inventor is forever lost. Today, people have used all sorts of adulation and flattery to describe the taste of our special sauce. Let me just give you a mental descriptor here to help you imagine this unique flavor – picture your tongue is a waterslide, happy screaming kids are sliding down and they are like little miniature burgers laughing and giggling. What the special sauce does is like the water on the waterslide, it adds that extra dimension of fun. I know it’s a crazy way of describing taste, but the special sauce is actually fun! Don’t take my word for it, I encourage you to try it out for yourself.

Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
Boston has a unique blend of goods and bads just like any major city. I have lived here for over 30 years and established a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. This is my home town and for that I have a deep love and respect for this city and the people who live in it. 30 years ago, Boston was a quieter city, smaller, less traffic, but today it has grown to a big player in the world. Look at the commerce, human population, economy and just the incredible diversity we have in Boston today. What I love about Boston is that it has life, pulsating live! The heart of Boston is beating strong. Since I’m in the food business I can also say that Boston’s large selection of restaurants really reflect the people that live here. You can find any kind of food in Boston. I can try authentic Spanish paella one day and then have Korean BBQ the next or Moroccan and Thai, or anything in between. In terms of food choices, the city of Boston has so much to offer. That’s what I love! What I like least about Boston? The Traffic!

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Image Credit:
Odi Jin Photography

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