By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET -- It may seem incongruous for a weary old mill town to host a stage that regularly draws world-class musicians, but to John Chan it’s perfectly natural.
He’s been promoting “eggrolls and jazz” from Chan’s Fine Oriental Dining for more than four decades and he hopes the tradition can go on for a while longer – without him.
In news that’s shocking some of the artists he’s nurtured over the years, Chan has put the iconic business at 267 Main St. on the auction block as he plans to retire.
“I’ll be 70 years young next month and I have been working at Chan’s since I was 15 years old, from the back of the house to front and no family members are interested in keeping the tradition alive,” he told The Call. “I’m healthy with many interests and hobbies to keep me busy in the next chapter of my life. I have no regrets.”
Chan was just in the news last week because his alma mater, Providence College, announced he is to receive an honorary doctor of fine arts at the school’s 103rd commencement on May 20. The 2018 inductee into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about drawing attention to his plans, but after the story about “Dr. John” appeared in The Call, a link to a real estate advertisement offering Chan’s for sale as a turnkey business found its way to this reporter’s e-mail.
The reason for the sale?
“Retirement,” the ad says, and Chan reluctantly acknowledged it’s true.
Alex Biliouris, the director of commercial real estate for Keller Williams Central Rhode Island, has the listing. In an interview, Biliouris said the real estate is not for sale, but everything else at Chan’s Fine Oriental Dining is, including the furnishings, recipes, equipment, the name – and the music business. Admittedly, Biliouris says finding a buyer who is up to it all will be a challenge, but it would be short-sighted of a smart investor to overlook the value of the model that Chan has built.
“We’re hoping we’re selling Chan’s as the institution,” he said. “Anything could happen, but in the end I think a potential buyer would be foolish not to take over the trade name and the good will he’s created.”
The asking price is $275,000 for a buy-in to a long-term lease of the premises, and includes $100,000 toward the furnishings, fixtures and equipment in the 6,100-square-foot landmark. That includes the 130-seat “jazz and blues” room, which is separate from the dining room.
Chan is willing to stay on to help a new owner learn the ropes of the music promotion business. Training is “available and negotiable,” according to Biliouris.
“Ideally finding a buyer with the same interests would make me very happy,” said Chan via text. “Hopefully, they’ll keep all my wonderful employees, and keeping all the talented musicians working is very important.”
For some in Chan’s musical family, hearing news of his plans felt like getting hit with a drumstick.
“This is upsetting for me to hear actually as Chan’s has to be the best music room in New England...” said saxophonist Greg Abate.
A Woonsocket native, Abate has been a regular performer at Chan’s since the 1970s and has a gig scheduled there for May 29. After cutting his teeth at Chan’s as a “fusion” artist Abate began embracing more traditional forms of jazz and grew in popularity, prompting Chan to give him the nickname “The Prince of Be-Bop,” which he considered an honor.
“John is relentless with his tenacity booking so many shows – all these years I’ve often thought of how he does it,” Abate said. “Every time I answer the doors with my group to play he is always up and never discouraged – always excited about the show and I feel more like playing because of it.”
Songstress Daryl Sherman, a Woonsocket native based out of New York, was also taken aback.
“Yikes,” she said.
Established in 1905, albeit under a different name and ownership, Chan’s location in Monument Square is also one of the longest continuously-operated Asian restaurants around. His parents, Chinese immigrants who have both since passed away, purchased the restaurant in 1965 as The Shanghai and later changed the name.
Chan, inspired by a restaurant in Providence that he frequented as an undergraduate at PC, proposed mixing food and live music at the restaurant for the first time in 1977 and has since showcased a who’s who of jazz and blues legends, from Dizzy Gillespie and Rebecca Parris to Duke Robillard and John Hammond. Parris, an American jazz singer who performed on the world stage, cut an album at Chan’s in 1998, fittingly titled, “Live at Chan’s.” She died in 2018.
“For Woonsocket and for the Blackstone Valley and Rhode Island – and New England – that is the location for blues and jazz musicians,” said Robert Billington, executive director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. “John has made it that and that’s his sole creation.”
Like the Stadium Theatre, Chan’s plays an oversized role in bringing outsiders into the city to juice the nightlife economy that many Main Street boosters see as a vital component to the longevity of the traditional downtown.
Can Main Street survive the post-Chan era?
“I was surprised to learn the business was for sale and I was hopeful that when this day came and John was ready to retire or partially retire that someone within the family would potentially carry on, like he did with his mom and dad,” says Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt. “As we know, what we can’t do is we can’t stop the clock and we all grow a little older each day.”
The mayor said she remains optimistic that someone will step forward to fill Chan’s sizable boots to keep the traditions he pioneered alive.
Biliouris said that despite listing the business for sale, Chan’s will continue operating in “status quo” tempo for the foreseeable future, and Chan will continue doing what he’s always done. The listing just went live a few days ago and efforts to market the business won’t ramp up to full strength for perhaps two months, he said.
“Chan’s is not closing,” Biliouris said. “It continues to operate until we find the successful candidate to take over.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo