Asian-born developer promotes cuisine, culture and entrepreneurship

For over 25 years, Eric Duong, an entrepreneur born in Vietnam, has played a key role in promoting Asian cuisine, culture and entrepreneurial values in Cleveland. Alongside his brother, Michael, he came to Cleveland to be reunited with their father. The latter arrived as a refugee in Northeast Ohio after being forced to flee his home country and leave his business behind due to the Vietnam War, during which the communist government of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, its South Vietnamese allies, fought against the government of South Vietnam and its key ally, the United States.

Before joining their father, the two brothers spent several years in France, where they opened and ran their first successful restaurants. Soon after their arrival in Cleveland, in 1988, they launched their first entrepreneurial endeavor in their new home. They opened The Asia Food Inc. on St. Clair Avenue, situated in  AsiaTown, a business and residential community in Cleveland’s east side, which has the highest percentage of Asian-Americans in Ohio.

The market offered a wide selection of products from countries across Asia, ranging from China and India to Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. It took time to establish a viable business, but it managed to attract a wide variety of vendors working through a network of importers. The business also succeeded in securing a diverse clientele.

As The Asia Food Inc. continued to grow over the years, Eric decided to take another entrepreneurial leap to support its expansion. He opened the Asian Town Center, a mixed use retail destination center, to provide the market a needed larger space, but also to create a centralized location in Cleveland for Asian businesses. While the development began in 2003, it was not until 2010 that the Center was opened, after facing some challenges. The City of Cleveland Economic Development Department was instrumental in completing the project, by providing assistance in 2008, as Eric was facing cost overruns, since the price of materials was skyrocketing.

Just as in the case of Asia Food Inc., Eric chose to place the Asian Town Center in AsiaTown, where a significant part of his potential clientele lived. The 2010 U.S. Census emphasized that around 39 percent of the population in midtown, of which AsiaTown is a large portion, identified as Asian, which is well above the national and state average. The building selected for the Asian Town Center was the former headquarters of Kichler Lighting, a Cleveland-based building since 1938, which had become the world’s largest decorative lighting fixture company.

It was the only building in the area with enough scale and parking to accommodate multiple tenants, and it was also located right in the heart of AsiaTown, allowing the Center to become its anchor. The Asian entrepreneur provided a complete redevelopment of the edifice and contributed to revamping the area by attracting new businesses. One of Eric’s long-term goals is to transform the AsiaTown neighborhood into an attractive destination for Clevelanders living in downtown or the suburbs and tourists alike, just like Little Italy or Ohio City. He also hopes the Center will become the premier regional community center in the four-state area, between New York and Chicago.

The Asian Town Center is on its way to achieving this latter goal. While opening in the middle of an economic recession with three tenants, at the moment, the Center has almost 20 successful businesses operating there. Apart from the Asia Food Co., the Center carries multiple other companies, with both Asian and non-Asian focuses, such as Miega Korean Restaurant and Bai Wei Herbal Store. The latest business to join the Center has been Viva Dance Studio, which opened in November 2014, and provides private and group dancing lessons.

The Center also organizes events that promote Asian culture, such as the Annual Luna New Year Celebration. The latter provides the Northeast Ohio community an immersion in Asian cultures, through cultural performances, martial arts demonstrations, as well as free tai chi and dance lessons.

As The Asian Town Center and Asia Food Co. have become smoothly running sustainable businesses, Eric has been preparing to launch a new business, Banh Mi and Noodles, an Asian fusion restaurant that will be located in the Center. This marks his return to the passion of his youth. In opening this restaurant, the entrepreneur has sought financial support from different institutions, such as the Economic and Community Development Institute, which provided startup capital to build out the restaurant space as well as technical assistance, such as coordinating with the city’s Storefront Design Program. The restaurant will open in the next several months.

Proud of his accomplishments as a businessman, Eric advises other people wishing to become entrepreneurs to “persevere and absorb as much information as possible.  When the right opportunity comes you will be armed with the right work ethic and knowledge to capitalize on it.”

Through his business savvy and his tireless work to build his initiatives, Eric has profoundly shaped the Cleveland community, by allowing it to experience different facets of Asian cultures and enabling its Asian businesses to thrive locally.