Nancy Lee – Owner of “Pig Heaven” in Manhattan, NYC
by Mike Pirozzi
Home. Sometimes it is more than a place where you live. It goes beyond the four walls, the windows and doors, past the furniture or the backyard. Home, as they say, is where the heart is. And in the case of Nancy Lee, and her restaurant Pig Heaven, it may also be where the stomach is. Not only does this Upper East Side establishment serve some of the best Chinese food in Manhattan and maybe the best Spare Ribs on the planet, but to the scores of customers, many of whom have been coming for 30 plus years, it IS home. As for Ms. Lee herself, her journey to her new “home” encompasses many years, many miles and a LOT of hard work.
Born in Taiwan’s capital city of Taipei, Nancy always had a love of hard work. The 8th in a family of 10 children (1 boy, 9 girls) Nancy would go to work with her father when she was a little girl. It was quickly evident to her how working hard to get to achieve goal was so rewarding. She was in tune with the sense of accomplishment that the hard work produced. Her father was a very successful businessman. The family businesses included transportation, manufacturing, and real estate. Business always intrigued her and it has come natural to her.
She was also acutely aware that discipline along with the hard work was important. As an athlete, this became evident to her right away. Nancy started as a track star, then played volleyball and ultimately became a basketball player. This hard work ethic as well as the discipline required to succeed carries with her to this day.
Her schedule was grueling. At 14 years of age, Nancy, was now being groomed for the Taiwanese National Basketball team. Her day started at 6 AM. There was basketball practice until 7:30. Then it was school from 8-12. From 12-1 was another hour of practice. After that, school until 5 PM then basketball practice from 6-8 PM. Along with all of this, there were her studies. In Taiwan, especially back in those days, there was a very competitive atmosphere for students. There was maybe room in college for maybe 25 percent of the population, so getting good grades was paramount to get into school. And as is her way, Nancy succeeded at both.
She even met her husband thanks to basketball. He was a center for the men’s National team and the number 1 ranked player in Taiwan. At 6’3” he was considered tall for that time. With each passing generation, Nancy knows that at 6’3”, her husband would maybe be a guard now. Where would that leave Nancy? She is maybe 5’6”; tall enough to be a guard in her day, but probably too small to play in today’s game. When asked if she was a point guard or a shooting guard Nancy says” There was no difference back then. I took the ball up court and whatever happened happened”.
Her love and talent for basketball got her to travel around the world. At 14 she travelled with the basketball team. Her first stop was Hong Kong. She notes that at that time, visas were not easy to get, and basketball allowed her to travel and see the world. She went to many places, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and all over the Asian region. It opened up the world to her. Her husband was also playing. He played for the Taiwan team at the Olympics in Munich, Germany. They were married in 1979.
In 1980 Nancy and her husband moved to the United States. They settled in Elmhurst Queens. He studied computer science at NYIT in Long Island and she worked a minimum 2 jobs. In Taiwan, she worked for Cathay Pacific Airways, in the Taipei office. In New York, she took a variety of day jobs. She wanted to experience as many different jobs as possible. The only constant was that she worked at the restaurant at night. She was a cashier and hostess. The restaurant was called Szechuan East and was part of a corporation owned by restaurateur David Keh. She worked at a jewelry store, a computer company, travel agency…She was always learning and very ambitious.
This is where the work ethic and ambition she was born with kicked in. She worked almost around the clock, sleeping on the train going to and from Manhattan. She settled into her evening job at the restaurant and worked her various day jobs also. It was 9-5 at the office, then off to the restaurant till after midnight. On the weekends, she worked at the restaurant. She felt that when she got here, she was behind so she needed to go 24/7.
“I needed 72 hours in a day to catch up” she said. “I didn’t know the language that well or the culture so I always was driven to learn more and more”.
At this time, Nancy and her family has settled in New Jersey. In 1983, Nancy and her husband bought a small house in Riveredge. They couldn’t afford a house in New York and thought that the school system in NJ would provide an excellent education for her soon to be born daughter. Eventually they settled in Oradell in 1985. They started in a small house and then moved to a bigger house also in Oradell.
1984 Szechuan East decided it was time for a name change. Since the Pig is considered good fortune, that became the symbol of the restaurant. And since eating at the place was like being in Heaven, the restaurant became known as Pig Heaven. David Keh, wanted to do something a little different. He styled the restaurant and some of the menu choices with a French Flair. This is where the legendary Spare Rib recipe was born. This is where the rest of the story takes place.
In 1987, David came to Nancy and asked her if she wanted to become a partner in the restaurant. Since he was getting older, and owned many restaurants, he wanted to slow down a little bit. He knew that Nancy was a hard worker and that the people in the neighborhood loved her. There was another party involved so Nancy would have been a third partner. This brought her to a kind of crossroads in her life. When she was in college in Taiwan, she studied banking. At this point in her life, she needed to make a decision, go into the safer, more traditional world of banking, or take the leap of faith and buy into the restaurant.
This decision prompted her to call her Mom and ask her for advice. Let it be known that while she was in the US, Nancy never let her parents know what she was doing for work. Her parents, like so many other parents, always wanted a safe and steady job for her daughter. If they knew she worked so many different jobs during the day and at a restaurant in the evening, they would have been unhappy. Not because they didn’t trust her, but that they wanted security for her and her family.
So naturally, Nancy’s Mom told her to go the steady route and get into banking. She never even bothered to talk to her husband, because he always wanted her to work less and stay home more. He barely saw her as it was, becoming an owner, would mean that she would be home even less. So with all that Nancy did want was in her heart. Her spirit of entrepreneurship took over and she decided to buy into the restaurant and become a partner. This was the realization of her American dream. She came here with nothing but ambition and a love of this country and the opportunities it afforded her, and now she was a business owner. This was something she had wanted her entire life.
This did nothing but fuel her energy and drive. In 1990, in typical Nancy Lee fashion, she got her real estate license and her life and casualty license. So during the day, while raising her family, she sold real estate and insurance, them came into the restaurant in the evening and worked until closing. Sometime in 1993 David again came to Nancy, and said that he wanted to get out of the restaurant altogether. Nancy and her partner agreed and bought out David. She was one step closer to being the sole owner of the place. In 1999, her remaining partner wanted to be bought out. So now that Nancy was going to be the sole owner, she wanted her name reflected on the business name. Much to the dismay of the neighborhood locals, who had been coming to the restaurant for years, she closed for five weeks during restaurant renovations.
Later in ‘99 the restaurant reopened. The sign on the top read Nancy Lee’s Pig Heaven and once again the neighborhood was thrilled. In 2014, a developer decided to buy up the block and put up a high rise building. Her lease was not going to be renewed. After over 35 years at the same location, the restaurant, and Nancy were again at a crossroads. Was this the time for her to finally slow down, maybe retire, or get into a new field. Was Nancy Lee ready to not go 100 miles an hour for 24 hours a day? This time she couldn’t call her family for help. Her Mom and Dad had passed, so she decided to leave it up to fate.
First of all the story of what this woman meant to the neighborhood cannot be overstated. 3 and 4 generations have grown up going to Pig Heaven. And as fantastic as the food is, as legendary as the spare ribs are, it is Nancy Lee that makes the place so special. She knows almost everyone that comes into the place. If she doesn’t when you do, she will by the time you leave. She must hug 200 people a day. Her staff has been with her forever also. One waitress has been with her for over 28 years. Celebrities, socialites and everyday New Yorkers had converged there since 1984. Now it was all in jeopardy.
The week leading up to the closing was a real celebration. People came from everywhere to pay homage to a local legend, many of whom had moved away or had always wanted to go but never did. 7 days of a packed house finally came to an end on July 31st 2014. Nancy had decided to look for another place and had been doing so prior to the close. She had found one place and even signed a temporary deal, but the restrictions placed upon the lease were not conducive to the business. As you would expect the loyal clientele had besieged her with possible locations for her to move. It became so many, that she didn’t look at her emails anymore. Then fate stepped in. A real estate broker called her regarding an Italian restaurant that was closing. It was literally around the corner from the original location. So on August 1st. Nancy went to see the place and knew it was right.
This did not mean it was a lay up for her. There were terms and her previous commitment and she still wondered if it was all worth it to do this and practically start all over. But life is funny at times. As it so happens, the owners of the new location are longtime customers of Pig Heaven, and one of the largest real estate owners in Manhattan.
So fate stepped in and made the decision that Nancy had struggled with. On August 26th, less than 1 month after closing, Nancy had found a new home. She began to renovate and negotiate and on November 7th, Nancy Lee’s Pig Heaven re-opened 1 block away from where it had established itself for over 3 decades.
The grand opening was a smash. The restaurant is a bit smaller, but now beautifully appointed. Business is good and getting better. The Neighborhood has its friend back and Nancy is again where she was meant to be, standing at the front door, hugging you as you come in, and serving the best spare ribs and Chinese food you may have ever eaten.
So where does she go from here? She keeps her energy levels, by still playing basketball and working out every day. She still works day and night.
“I am not an alcoholic; I’m a workaholic she says. Work is in my blood”.
Maybe she wants to expand, open several locations, and franchise the place. She is also interested in the entertainment industry. Wherever she decides to go next, it is certain that she will put everything she has into it and that she will not slow down to get there.