CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Carina Kwok's many repeat customers marvel that she knows their names when they walk through the door of Main Kwong Restaurant or when they order over the phone. Caller ID helps, of course, but she also asks if they want the usual and remembers their favorites and customary substitutions.
"It's getting harder as I get older, but I usually recognize them and know what they want," said Kwok, 43. "I have a strong connection with my customers."
Her memory is especially remarkable given the high volume of Chinese food that is prepared and delivered from the modest storefront and kitchen on Washington Street East. General Tso's Chicken, Sweet & Sour Chicken and Crispy Chicken are particular favorites, but she'll have her hard-working cooks, mostly her relatives, prepare custom orders if they don't happen to appear on the broadsheet menu crammed with more than 100 dishes.
The phone rings constantly and Kwok answers in accented English, and then calls the order in Chinese into the kitchen, where the cooks bustle to do her bidding. As she takes one order, she packages another in a paper bag, layering the containers between sheets of cardboard to stabilize them for transport. Most of her business is take-out or delivery.
She hands another filled bag, marked in her cryptic style, to a customer who phoned ahead and welcomes a new customer who studies the lengthy menu. She smiles encouragingly, as he studies the menu.
She greets nearly everyone by name, even customers who have moved from Charleston, and stop by on visits.
"I like it when my customers come in. It's what I like best," she said. "There are lots of nice people in Charleston."
Local high school students, always looking for a bargain lunch, cram into the few tables in the dining room. They say they appreciate her quick service and good prices. Some students text their orders to her, so they're ready when they arrive.
"Many come back to see me after they leave home to go to college," she said. "They tell me they always want to stop at Main Kwong when they are home for the holidays."
Of course, she remembers their order.
Two delivery drivers rush in and out with carefully packaged orders for customers downtown, on the East and West sides of town, South Hills and Kanawha City. Pharmaceutical representatives pick up large orders to assure them of a welcome in the physicians' offices they visit.
Neighboring car lot salesmen, hospital workers and hotel guests walk to Main Kwong to pick up their orders or grab a seat at one of the four tables.
Kelly Johnston of Clay County stopped by during a slightly slower-paced mid-afternoon last week for her weekly fix of General Tso's. The classes she takes in Charleston give her an excuse to feed her obsession.
"She has the best Chinese food in the world. I'm kind of addicted," Johnston said. "Once you try it, you'll be a regular customer."
Kwok was born in China. Her family moved to Hong Kong when she was 10, but her father had immigrated to the United States when she was just a toddler. After working in the restaurant business, he opened his own Chinese restaurant in Connecticut.