Pictured: Bu and Jenny Hwang at the Wienerschnitzel on Harbor Blvd., in Ventura they’ve owned and operated for 30 years. July 30, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers. 

by Kimberly Rivers

It’s an unlikely location for a love story, a Wienerschnitzel restaurant. And perhaps even an unlikely setting for a story of community connection. But those are the threads woven together in the story of Bu (pronounced “boo”) and Jenny Hwang as owners and operators of the restaurant (or, in their words, “the store”) for over 30 years.  

Bu Hwang’s eyes light up when he shares the story of a young woman who started working at the shop over 30 years ago. During her time as a Wienerschnitzel employee, a group of young men would come in frequently, one of whom would often spend time talking with her. Eventually they were dating and Bu found himself encouraging both of them to finish high school. He insisted that their school schedules came first, and there was plenty of time to work after school. 

Jenny and Bu Hwang at their Wienerschnitzel on Harbor Blvd. in Ventura, on the first day they owned it July 11, 1990. Photo submitted.

He spoke with plenty of pride and joy as he discussed the couple, who eventually married and are still together today. They now run a successful trucking business, and their “first son” is a doctor. They still come by to say hello, and recently took the Hwangs to dinner. 

This family’s story is just one that has its roots in the little building on the corner of Seaward and Harbor with the bright yellow roof. A simple fast food joint best known for hot dogs, chili dogs and the like, it has nevertheless loomed large in the community, thanks to the quality and warmth the Hwangs have brought to their enterprise. 

Now, the Hwangs are hanging up their aprons and getting ready to retire. As this story goes to print, the Hwangs’ “store” will be under new owners.

Serving community

Four of us were sitting in a corner booth in the restaurant, all masked: Bu and Jenny, and their daughter, Lisa Hwang, who in addition to sharing her recollections helped to clarify or explain the nuances of her parents’ stories. They both speak solid English, but with the masks and different cultural phrasing, the clarification was helpful. 

It was just after the lunch rush. The restaurant’s simple interior was spotless. An employee was thrilled to see the Hwangs and said hello to Jenny. Lisa explained that Jenny had recently been ill and staff hadn’t seen her for a while. 

The Hwangs began operating the Ventura Wienerschnitzel franchise in July 1990. The first day they opened, breakfast was served from 7 to 10:30 a.m. and grossed just $20. Day two saw $30 in the till. Not a lot of Wienerschnitzel locations have breakfasts; it’s an optional menu. 

“Breakfast is my dad’s favorite part,” daughter Lisa Hwang wrote in an email to the Ventura County Reporter about her parents’ retirement. 

When they first bought the business, she explained that “it was not that great. Dad was here in the morning, Mom did the night shift.” 

Then “little by little” the business grew — success the owners credit to their regulars and word of mouth. By 2011 the store grossed over $1 million dollars, and regularly ranked in the top five nationally for Wienerschnitzel locations. The Hwangs have even won Operator of the Year from the franchise brand. But what seems most important to them is the experience of community that they and their customers walked away with. 

Lisa recalled one day in particular when her father came home “mesmerized.” 

According to Bu, one morning a young man came in for breakfast. Bu chatted with him and learned that he had just been released from jail. The young man had heard about the country breakfast, particularly the biscuits and gravy,  from other inmates and came to try it as his first meal after being released. 

“Wow, he knew nothing [about the restaurant] and he came here,” Bu said with a laugh. 

That is how people found the Wienerschnitzel: Through word of mouth, as one customer told another, and those customers brought in their friends. 

Online reviews confirm the public’s amazement at the quality of the food at what one would expect to be a basic fast food chain. Customers praise the tasty preparation, the surprisingly good breakfast, great service and a clean and ship-shape dining experience. Many mention coming again and again, and knowing Bu and Jenny.

Wienerschnitzel on Harbor Blvd at Seaward. July 30, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

Dan’s story

“We had a lot of really good people, one of them . . . I will not forget him,” Bu said of a retired teacher named Dan who would come in every single morning, early for breakfast. 

“He would sit at that table,” said Lisa, pointing to a small table at the front of the shop. 

Bu explained that on several mornings, he’d arrive at his restaurant to find city employees removing graffiti from the building. When he asked them how they knew, the answer was always the same. 

“Dan would call the city when he saw graffiti. He called before I even knew.” 

Dan’s helpfulness extended into other areas, too.

“Sometimes we’d have some trouble with something, I’d ask him, he’d give advice and [it would be] perfect,” said Bu. 

When her parents were out of town for a convention, Lisa was in charge of opening the store for five days.

“Dan was there every morning,” she recalled, pointing to his table. He knew her father’s morning routine and would tell her she was getting it correct. “It felt like a very tight community, they really looked out for each other.” 

“One day he doesn’t come in. He passed away,” said Bu. He found out about the funeral and in the Korean custom took a very large flower arrangement to the service. 

Lisa explained that Bu found himself to be the only person of color at the funeral. He placed the flower arrangement, which included Bu’s name on a ribbon, per tradition. 

In the following week, Dan’s family came to the restaurant. They wanted to see where he ate breakfast so many times. 

“I cannot forget him. Someday I’ll see him in heaven,” said Bu. 

“All the money I had in my pockets was $240”

The Hwangs immigrated to the United States from Korea in 1975 on Aug. 17. Bu remembers the exact date because two days before is, in Lisa’s words, a “reference date” for him. Aug. 15, 1945 was the day that Korea became free of Japanese colonialism following World War II.

“When I first arrived, all the money I had in my pockets was $240,” said Bu. “That was all we both had.” 

When the Hwangs arrived in Ventura County in 1975, their first endeavor was renting and running a ranch with lemon orchards in Camarillo.

Three years and three months later, with $1000, Bu went to the car dealership in Fillmore to buy his first truck. He had only ever driven tractors and other vehicles on the ranch before, never a vehicle he had owned. 

He explained that he wanted “just a small car, no air conditioning is OK, a Chevy car that will just go.” But he didn’t have any credit, so the dealer wouldn’t sell him the car. Bu told the ranch manager what had happened, and the manager, who knew the car dealer, called and Bu went back and bought a truck. 

Bu and Jenny Hwang, with their daughter Lisa Hwang. July 30, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

“All my life that was the first time I had driven my own car.” He remembers with a laugh driving on Highway 126. “My palms were sweating, my whole body was sweating. I cannot forget that kind of memory.” 

Shortly thereafter the family moved to a two-bedroom condominium in Oxnard and got “a small car for Jenny.” Bu was now working in a flooring company, installing tile floors “all over Los Angeles County.” But he started having problems with his knees, and his doctor told him to stop doing that type of work. “He said if I keep working I would never walk.” 

Bu said he prayed a lot; he didn’t know what he could do. Then a member of their church mentioned they were selling a restaurant. 

“I know nothing about the kitchen, I’m son one,” said Bu. 

Lisa explained that in Koren families, the first-born son is unlikely to ever learn anything about cooking. He almost never even went into the kitchen. 

“My mom is the cook,” said Lisa. 

Bu nodded, and looked at Jenny, “She is very expert.” 

July 11, 1990 was the day the Wienerschnitzel on Harbor at Seaward opened under the Hwangs’ ownership, with Jenny in charge of the kitchen. Over the years she ensured that staff were well trained and comfortable in their work. She also kept the restaurant up to all legal standards. 

With obvious pride, Bu explained that in three years, sales doubled in volume at the store under their ownership. In their fifth year, they earned an Operator of the Year award from the Wienerschnitzel brand, beating out all of the other locations across the U.S.

“Wow, I couldn’t believe that,” Bu said as he remembered hearing his name being called out at a corporate event in Hawaii. “I didn’t know why they called my name.” 

In 2011, that location grossed over $1 million in sales. And it remains consistently in the top five nationally in the Wienerschnitzel chain. 

Bu credits Jenny with “almost 95%” of what made their restaurant so successful. Lisa explains that her mom “ran the kitchen.” She did all the training “in the back and made sure the restaurant was “compliant and clean.” 

When asked what she changed at the restaurant to make it so successful, Jenny responded modestly: “Nothing.” She explained that she really just ensured their staff were well trained. “We didn’t change anything, just worked with the entire team. Made work stations clear and clean, really working with each person and training them.” 

“One act of generosity . . . would inspire people in the room.”

The Hwangs’ care for their employees is obvious as a current staff member greets Jenny excitedly. 

But when thinking back over the years, they keep coming back to their customers. The spot became a routine stop for many. Lisa emphasized that they never changed their prices. Breakfast, a full breakfast, as of July 31, 2021, was still just $3.50. 

The Hwangs credit word of mouth for the growth. Many customers would come back with friends in tow. 

The same technique worked for hiring.

Bu explained that when they are hiring a new employee, they inquire about family members who may also be looking for work. He said he found this approach worked well in finding good employees. 

Lisa also pointed out that her parents frequently would provide scholarships for community college classes to their employees. 

In all his stories about the shop, Bu spoke with clear joy. He mentioned this directly as he talked about the people he was able to help, or the people that he himself saw assisting those in need. 

Bu noted that during the summer, a lot of unhoused people are in the area, coming down near the ocean, “hanging out. Usually I give them biscuits and gravy, cups of water. They are so, so happy.” 

He’d see customers buy a hungry person a meal, and others would witness that and chip in. 

“One act of generosity . . . would inspire people in the room.” 

“It seems like a small thing,” buying a small meal, but Bu said it creates a “happiness that comes from my mind,” touching his chest to indicate his heart. “A peace of mind . . . I know everybody is working hard. Sometimes a hard worker can have hard times.” 

Based on the things Bu has seen, he has found that sometimes an act of generosity not only helps the person in need, but the person giving as well. In his words, a kind act will often “give them peace that [you] cannot buy with money.” 

The fact that their business creates the space for that to happen brings the Hwang family joy. 

Lisa has memories of her parents coming home after working at the “store” and the family talking around the dinner table about the people who came in and the events of the day. How one customer would buy something for a hungry person outside, and other customers would see that and do the same. 

“I loved hearing the stories, and when working the drive-thru as a young person, you meet all kinds of people. It really shapes one’s character. Working in a business like this changes your perception,” said Lisa.  

As for what’s next, Bu, who’s now 78, wants to travel to South Korea. He has never been back since moving to the U.S. and he’d like to visit the cemetery where his grandfather is buried. He was the only grandson. He also has two sisters and cousins he’d like to visit. 

“The old memories come out” as he’s getting older. 

As for what’s next for Jenny, now 70, “Everything,” she said. She’s an avid walker but she’ll also discover what “everything” is going to be.