When 22-year-old Benny Liu arrived in New York City from his native China in the early 1990s, he couldn't speak any English and had only a middle school education.
He'd followed two brothers-in-law to the United States, looking for more business opportunities than he had at home.
Today, Liu is the head of Wichita's Great Wall restaurant chain — a rapidly expanding business that includes 12 restaurants and employs nearly 50 of his family members, all of whom followed him here from China.
"We're not making a lot of money," said Liu, now 40. "They are small restaurants. We just wanted something to give our family a more steady life."
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Liu's sister, Mei Liu, opened the first Great Wall in Wellington seven years ago. (She and her daughter, Linda Ni, now run the Great Wall at 21st and Tyler.)
The Wellington business did well, so a few years later, the family opened a second Great Wall in Derby. The third opened at Central and Hillside in 2004, and Liu's wife, Jenny, runs it now.
Since then, the business has grown fast. Liu has family members operating Great Walls at 37th and Woodlawn, 21st and Rock and on South Seneca. The newest Great Wall opened last week at 21st and Amidon.
There's a Great Wall in Andover, and the family also operates Sino at 13303 Maple as well as Yamasa, a fast Japanese/sushi restaurant at 327 N. Hillside. A second Yamasa will open in a couple of months at 407 E. Pawnee, and Liu says he's negotiating to build a third at 21st and Maize.
Great Wall is mostly a carry-out business, though the restaurants have seating as well. Customers choose selections from a lengthy menu and place their orders at the front counter, where an efficient, no-nonsense cashier usually shouts — loudly and in Chinese — instructions to the kitchen staff.
The food appears quickly and is hot and tasty (especially the crab Rangoon, sweet and sour chicken and General Tso's chicken, which are Liu's top sellers).
The food is also cheap. Great Wall's delicious wonton soup costs $2.70 for a quart and could feed a wonton lover for days.
The restaurant caught on quickly for a couple of reasons, Liu speculates.
One is his approach to the food.
"Our product is good quality," he said. "People go to those buffets and it's cheap, but they don't get good quality food."
Another secret of success, Liu said, is that his family members run and staff every restaurant. The Great Wall chain employs more than 60 people, and the majority of them are relatives of Liu's who came to the United States to work with him.
Among the few family members Liu hasn't managed to lure to Wichita is his 80-year-old mother. She lived in Wichita for a few months but didn't speak English or drive. She moved back to China and, Liu says with a laugh, is happy to have her giant family out of her hair. She visits once a year.
Growing the family business has been fairly easy in Wichita, Liu said. Though he's still self-conscious about his English, he's been able to develop strong relationships with real estate agents and customers. People are welcoming and helpful, he said.
"We are doing successful business in Wichita," Liu said. "We'll be here a long time."