When Gabe Foo was growing up in Philadelphia, he thought of the city as a scary place. He specifically remembers avoiding the 1700-block of Sansom, which was just up the street from his parents’ first restaurant — a business he had no desire to get into.
But, things change.
Last year, Foo successfully convinced his 72-year-old mother, acclaimed Philadelphia chef Susanna Foo, to join him in opening a restaurant on that exact block. SUGA will begin serving modern Chinese cuisine at 1720 Sansom Street sometime in mid-January.
“I didn’t think I wanted to be in hospitality, because I saw my parents were always at work, and always working hard,” Foo says.
Years later, after starting a successful career as a doctor, he had a change of heart.
Celebrity status, 7-day workweeks
Foo’s stern assessment of his elders’ daily grind was no exaggeration.
In 2009, when Susanna Foo closed her popular eponymous Walnut Street restaurant after 22 years, she told Philly.com it was because she needed a break — she’d “worked six- and seven-day weeks since 1979.”
Gabe, now 45, was there for all of those long weeks. He remembers coming home after school to both parents occupied on the dining floor of Hu-Nan, the Chinese restaurant they ran at 17th and Chestnut.
“They’d send me and my brother Jim upstairs to amuse ourselves,” he recalls. “Sometimes they’d make us fold napkins.”
As he grew up, he spent more and more time in the restaurant, working the coat check, washing dishes, acting as busboy and manning the host stand.
In 1987, culinary enterprise became an even bigger part of his childhood when his mother opened Susanna Foo across the street from Le Bec-Fin. Her menu of Chinese classics infused with French technique was trailblazing, and the restaurant became an immediate hit, elevating Foo to celebrity chef status — and taking up even more of her time.
So by the time he was ready to attend college, Gabe wanted nothing to do with hospitality. Instead, he majored in biology, went on to earn an MD, and began practicing internal medicine, initially in Florida and then in California.
The first inkling that Foo might be ready to give up his studied career came in 2003, when his mother opened Suilan in Atlantic City’s Borgata.
“Even when I was a doctor I’d still dine out all the time, plus cook at home. I was always watching cooking shows — it’s in my blood,” he says. “Then my mom opened Suilan. When I came to visit, I was really impressed. It was gorgeous.”
He returned to the West Coast and resumed life as a doctor, but a seed had taken root.
When his mother began to talk about creating another restaurant, this time in Radnor, Gabe decided to take the plunge. He gave up his medical practice, moved back to Philly, and became general manager of Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen, which opened in 2006.
A different Philadelphia
The city Foo returned to was nothing like the one he’d left behind.
“In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Philadelphia was kind of a dump, and young people were leaving the city like crazy,” he says, “but between then and 2006, it had completely changed.”
Taking stock of the metropolis around him, he discovered a renewed Center City and bustling retail corridors in previously run-down neighborhoods. Most surprising of all was Philly’s fantastic restaurant scene — something he quickly realized he wanted to be a part of.
“I would ask friends to come visit me at [Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen], but when they discovered it was out on the Main Line, they’d turn me down,” Foo recalls. A few years after he started there — although his mother had only recently left the city (the original Susanna Foo location is now a Chipotle) — he slowly, subtly began planting the idea that a return, with a fresh concept, might be a solid plan.
It’s not that the Radnor restaurant wasn’t doing good business; it was buzzing along fine. But it had never gotten anywhere close to the kind of recognition garnered by Susanna’s namesake original, and Gabe wanted more.
“It took some time to convince her,” Foo concedes, describing his mother’s initial resistance to coming back downtown. “She’s older now, and opening a restaurant is a lot of work.”
Eventually, however, he prevailed, and the idea for SUGA (for SUsanna and GAbe) was born. Moreover, the Foos announced they would be closing the Radnor restaurant, so the new endeavor could benefit from their full attention.
A new beginning
SUGA will serve a tight, focused menu of modern Chinese cuisine that combines Susanna Foo classics with several new ideas. Unlike the former Walnut Street restaurant, there will be no tablecloths (“They’re kind of out of fashion”) and the price point will aim to be relatively inexpensive (around $40 per person for a full meal with drinks).
Asked if there’s really room for yet another player on the crowded Philadelphia dining circuit, Foo expressed confidence in his mother’s talent and reputation, and also laid out what he sees as keys to success.
“You have to be good — serve good food, at a good price, with great service — but you also have to be lucky,” he says. “You have to choose the right location at the right time and open the right way.”
Also required are those long hours he was previously hoping to avoid, Foo admits — but he also points out that experience can change your perspective on what “long hours” really means.
“When I did my medical residency, it was back before they put restrictions on how many consecutive hours you could be on call, and it was exhausting,” Foo says. “After I made it through that, I figured I could do anything.”