Published June 21, 2005
Volume 13, Number 6

After a Long Career in Software, Ed Lee's Dreams are Coming True at Baci

By Jay Hipps

Whenever one hears a story of a dream coming true, it’s often a bit of a mystery as to how it actually happened. However, in talking to someone whose dreams have come to pass, one can learn more about the nature of the phenomenon. Take Ed Lee, for example, the owner of the new Baci Seafood & Steak restaurant in Hacienda as well as the Baci Cafe in downtown Pleasanton.

Ed LeeLee grew up in Hong Kong and immigrated to the U.S. with his family as a young man. His sister, who had come to this country already, and brother-in-law found a job for Lee at a four-star restaurant in Minneapolis, where Lee worked while he finished high school.

“I started there as a cook, a helper, and I stayed there until I finished college,” Lee says. “I attended the University of Minnesota for four years and I worked for the restaurant for six years, at the end of which I was promoted to be a chef. Working in a restaurant is the best job for students because you’re working at night and you can go to school during the day. That’s how I learned the restaurant business.”

It was during that time that Lee first dreamed of a future in restaurants. “I guess everybody does the same thing on your first job. If you like the place, you think that in the future you might like to do something like that. At the time, it was my dream, that someday I would have my own restaurant, but of course you have no money so you can’t do that.”

After graduating with a degree in computer science, Lee had two immediate priorities.

“After I graduated, I thought, ‘This is too cold—I have to move back to San Francisco,’” he laughs. “Most of my family was here: my father, my sister. And I thought, ‘I’ve spent four years learning computer science. I better start working in that field.”

Lee did exactly that. As a software designer, he worked for an impressive variety of companies over a 20-year career, including Wells Fargo Bank, Ross Stores, SBC, and, most recently, PeopleSoft.

The bursting of the dot-com bubble and subsequent downturn in the tech industries got him looking at alternatives, however. “A lot of people’s jobs started getting outsourced to India and lots of people were getting laid off. I got sick of it.

“Besides, after 20 years in computers you don’t have many challenges. I’m not saying I know everything but everything is similar, there’s not enough challenges. This is new and a little more exciting. After you’ve done the same thing for 20 years, you want to make a change.”

Going back to the restaurant business was an easy choice. “Besides computers, the other thing I know is restaurants, and I like restaurants.”

There were other reasons as well. “My wife, Shirley, worked for her brother at one of his restaurants when she was in college. She was a server and also worked as a manager for her brother, because he owned multiple restaurants. Both of us are comfortable with restaurants and had experience with them, so it was the best alternative that we could go into besides our computer skills. My wife is a computer engineer too – that’s how I met her. But this is the thing we know best besides computers, so we decided to do that.”

Lee opened the Baci Cafe—“baci” is Italian for “kisses”—in downtown Pleasanton in 2002. A Danville resident, he was familiar with Pleasanton because one of his sisters lives here. He also spent time downtown during his tenure at PeopleSoft. “When I worked there we would go to lunch downtown, take a walk, sometimes go there after work. That’s how I got attached to Pleasanton. It’s really neat.”

Baci Seafood & Steak opened earlier this year and so far, Lee is enjoying being back in a restaurant. “I like it—that’s why I started the second one. Hopefully I can start a third and fourth and so on. I enjoy talking to people, greeting the customers. Every day is different.”

Lee gives special attention to ensure that all the ingredients are fresh. Their seafood is delivered daily and the steak is “the best that money can buy, prime grade.” It’s a pleasant change of pace from writing code but it has its own challenges as well, some of which are faced by any small business owner and some of which are unique to restaurants.

“It’s a challenge to balance your budget,” Lee says. “That’s different from when you’re working for someone and you don’t have to worry about that kind of thing. When it’s your business, you certainly have to balance your budget and make sure that you’re ahead.

“The second thing is that you have to manage your employees carefully. When you work for someone, even if you’re a manager or a supervisor, you don’t worry about them in the same way. If someone quits you can hire someone else.

“With your own business, it’s different. You don’t want the turnover too high because the food has to be consistent. If the customer thinks ‘this is really good’ the first time they have a dish, if it’s different the next time they won’t like it. It doesn’t matter if it’s better or worse, they won’t like it because they remember the first time and think ‘this is how it’s supposed to taste.’ If a new guy comes in, you have to train him and make sure that he does everything the same way.”

Fortunately, Lee is very pleased with the quality of the work that his employees provide. “I am lucky to have a lot of good employees. My manager helps me a lot, I have a couple of good chefs. I think I’m lucky to have these employees. They’ve done a great job. I treat them really well; treat them like family.”

While most of his staff has experience in the restaurant business, it’s always possible that among them is someone in his first job, dreaming as Lee did that someday they will have their own restaurant.

Perhaps that’s a clue to making one’s own dreams come true. It may help to be willing to help others live their own dreams.

“I remember when I had that dream and if I can have that dream come true, I want other people to be able to do the same thing. If there’s any way I could help them, I would.”


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