The sizable parking lot in the Hickory Grove Plaza has been vacant and all windows in the center have been dark since 2005 but for one neon, red, glowing “Open” sign: .
The family-owned restaurant has served the Hickory Flat community Mandarin, Szechuan and Cantonese cuisine seven days a week for 14 years, thriving through a recession in a tough industry at a location where no other business remains.
Why has Yen Ching survived where every other business has failed?
Restaurant patrons Melissa Brooks and Jesse Flint said the answer is simple: It’s all about the good food.
“I’m really impressed with how long it’s been here. It’s crazy,” Brooks said
Brooks and Flint, who grew up and now work in the area, are regular customers at Yen Ching.
Brooks has enjoyed the restaurant's menu since elementary school, when her grandmother brought her here.
“The lunch special is amazing. It’s not expensive, and it’s a lot of food,” she said.
Another possible reason Yen Ching has survived is its continued community service.
While Oriental decor covers most of the restaurant's wall space, one wall showcases local youth sports teams’ plaques, all expressing appreciation for Yen Ching’s support.
Local support and a good product may be the keys to success in the center, said Janeene Minik, owner of The Minik Co., who manages the 63,250-square-foot neighborhood center.
Minik said the center negotiated with Food Lion for a year and a half, keeping the center off the market, but the grocery giant walked away because of the recession.
“The world fell apart, and they pulled out,” Minik said.
Despite the center's convenience for surrounding neighborhoods, fewer than 15,000 cars pass Hickory Grove Plaza daily, so big retailers won’t even look at the property, Minik said.
Minik, who also handles Big Lots stores and has studied such data for larger corporations, said the traffic on Highway 140 just can't support large retail stores.
It would, however, be a great location for a YMCA or some kind of indoor recreation center, a private school, offices or a private business, she said.
“We would love to have someone creative in there,” Minik said.
“The right business could really prosper,” she said. “It just needs something local.”
The plaza carries no debt, so the space is affordable, Minik said.
The smaller shops, like Yen Ching's space, are $9 to $12 per square foot for 1,400 to 6,000 square feet, Minik said.
Businesses past include a Curves workout facility, a cleaners, several hair salons, a nail salon, a martial arts studio and the grocery store.
The property is zoned for Neighborhood Village Retail in the future land-use plans for the area.
The purchase price is $3.8 million for the entire center or $2.8 million for the big box alone, Minik said.
She said several parties have expressed interest, including a company that intends to open an antique mall. Still, Minik hopes more businesses come forward.
“When that area develops, it will be a prime corner," she said. "It has tremendous future value.”
And it has a Chinese restaurant that's not going anywhere.
Editor's note: The owners of Yen Ching speak limited English and asked not to be quoted in this article. They did, however, allow Patch to interview patrons and answered factual questions.