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Couple handing over beloved Okotoks eatery to next generation

Newcomers Kim and Kala Lee are excited to take the reins of New Mr. Spud Café

Two longtime Okotoks restaurateurs will soon be enjoying their retirement.

New Mr. Spud Café owners John Yu and Pauline Poon have sold the cozy McRae Street café they've been operating for the past 19 years.

During those two decades, the couple racked up countless Western Wheel Readers' Choice Awards for their staple fish and chips and burgers, while many loyal customers swear by their Wor Won Ton soup.

When their son asked if he was happy or sad, John’s answer was both.

“I’m happy because I’m retiring, while I'm sad because all the customers, for the past 19 years, I’ll really miss them,” said John, adding he still cherishes the community.

“Nice people, not too big a town, but bigger than small.”

The couple moved from Hong Kong in 1979, settling in Winnipeg, where they would get married in 1983. While John worked in kitchens from the get-go, Pauline continued the profession she started in China, working as an electronics technician, including on aircraft black boxes.

They started their first restaurant in 1986, and another in 1996, before moving to Okotoks to open the New Mr. Spud.

John was unable to find help to work in the café at the time, so Pauline joined him.

As none of their three children wanted to take up the business, she said it was time to sell.

“We were waiting for three years already, and my son said he doesn’t want to take over, so that’s fine, I’m not waiting any more,” Pauline said.

That will give them more time to spend with the aforementioned kids, and four grandkids.

The two are humbled by the public’s support after their announcement.

“The customers, for the last week, they drop in, say hi, say bye,” John said. “I’m very happy, I really appreciate it.”

The official hand-off took place on Nov. 18 as the husband and wife team of Kim and Kala Lee became the new owners of the New Mr. Spud Café.

“The customers want us to train them well,” Pauline said, with John adding they will be happily supporting them.

“We will stay until Christmas, and if they want us to help them out they can call us,” John said.

In the kitchen last Saturday morning, Kim and John were working shoulder-to-shoulder, prepping burgers for the coming day.

The new owners aren’t planning any surprises and are studiously shadowing their predecessors to ensure faithful Spud fans will know what they’re getting into.

“I’ll do my best to keep the taste the same,” said Kim.

The couple also came to Canada with a dream: Kala always wanted to run a restaurant, and so the two are chasing that dream.

Having only moved here a year ago, they are still refining their English, but eager to put down those roots.

“Because we are newcomers, we must learn how to speak the language,” Kim said.

It was love at first sight with Okotoks.

“I took my wife here the first time, she loved this town,” Kim said. “Ever since she was a child she wanted to have a restaurant or café. So, she loved this town and decided to come to this town and have a café.”

Pauline recalled as they were having trouble finding a buyer, along came Kala. Within days, the tentative deal was struck.

“In the morning she heard from a friend, and at 12 o’clock she came in asking,” Pauline said. “I said we were busy and to come back at three o’clock, and then on Monday, bingo.”

Kala is settling into the town so far.

“The people are very nice. I like the town,” Kala said.

The couple is looking forward to its new adventure in the downtown institution.

“All the people are very nice, they say they will support us,” Kim said. “Because John and Pauline, they really support us, and show us how to make the same meals, and we will do our best to do this well.”

Brent Calver

About the Author: Brent Calver

Award-winning photojournalist for the Western Wheel newspaper covering Okotoks and the Foothills region.
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