South Charlotte

Fire didn't dampen lifelong dream of owning restaurant

They spent months, then years, traveling down the East Coast, from New York to Florida, searching for the perfect location to start a business.

Finally, Steve Li, 38, and his wife, Yisa Yang, 26, found the perfect area to live in and the perfect place to open a business. Both are on the same street, right behind Carmel Commons shopping center, on the outskirts of Ballantyne.

Li, who has spent 15 years in the restaurant business, sold his New Jersey shop five years ago.

In 2008, he began the journey south to open his sushi bar and Asian cuisine bistro.

He chose a building that had not seen success in the past. One restaurant after another has closed after operating there for a short time. Li took a chance, and the first year proved to be a success.

In February 2010, his dream became a reality as Wild East Pan-Asian Bistro opened its doors. Over the next year, Li, Yang and front manager Patrick Peterson, 28, established a following of regulars from the local community.

Unfortunately, on April 28, a morning electrical fire at this popular neighborhood restaurant caused Li and his staff - not to mention his patrons - weeks of hardship.

"It's an old building," said Li. "The electrical box held connections and materials that are no longer in use at this time.

"Luckily we (Li and Yang) were there, no customers," said Li. "The fire didn't spread and no one was hurt. Thankfully, the fire was contained to just the electrical panel area, but the damage affected the building structurally, making for a long process of repair, waiting and extensive cleaning."

"If the (burnt) smell is there at all, it's distracting from the experience of dining with us," Peterson said of the cleaning process required for the furniture and décor after a fire.

When a fire takes place in a home, the family is affected. When a fire takes place in a community business, the owners are not the only ones feeling the pain. Staff, patrons and the community suffer the loss.

"The area is fortunate that Wild East is able to recover, reopen quickly and will soon start rebuilding their business," said frequent customer Nancy Urbana, owner of Urbana City Spa & Tea Bar, a neighboring business. "While the building they are in has been home to a series of restaurants that closed their doors prematurely and permanently, this is a restaurant that deserves to be around for a long time."

Li has received calls and Facebook posts of support from customers who missed the food, the staff and the atmosphere.

"The staff has been supportive and truly appreciative of the reassurance that their jobs are secure," said Peterson.

It was a long wait for all involved, but the restaurant reopened June 1, to a waiting clientele. Li was the happiest of them all.