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Dragon Buffet closes, will reopen in April with new tenant, name

121518 Dragon Buffet

The Dragon Buffet at Southgate Park, shown Friday, closed Dec. 10, according to the park's owner, The Vireo Group. The restaurant's new tenant plans to make improvements and renovations before reopening on April 10.

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By Julian Eure
Managing Editor

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Dragon Buffet, one of two restaurants on the Southgate Park property in Elizabeth City, has closed for renovations but expects to reopen with both a new operator and a new name this spring, a partner in the shopping center’s ownership group says.

John Gibson, managing member in the Augusta, Georgia-based The Vireo Group, confirmed Friday that the Dragon Buffet closed on Dec. 10. The restaurant, which featured Chinese food, had been in business at both Southgate Park and its predecessor, Southgate Mall, for about 16 years and employed between 15-20 workers, according to Gibson’s partner in Vireo, Clay Boardman.

Gibson said the restaurant closed after Vireo allowed Dragon Buffet’s operator out of his 10-year lease early. According to Gibson, Vireo’s other tenants had made significant investments in improving their store spaces as part of Southgate’s conversion from an enclosed mall to an outdoor shopping center. Vireo wanted Dragon Buffet’s operator to do the same, but wasn’t able to reach agreement with the restaurateur on a plan to do it, he said.

Gibson said Vireo subsequently give the Dragon Buffet’s operator the option of ending its lease now, with between seven and eight years remaining, if the shopping center owner was able to find a replacement tenant.

“So we went out looking for somebody more capable of putting in the additional investment (Vireo needed) and who was dedicated to growth, and we were fortunate to find him,” Gibson said.

The new tenant is Liu “Leo” Huanfeng, a native of China who currently lives in the Raleigh area, Gibson said.

According to Gibson, Huanfeng is “an immigrant success story” who’s lived in the U.S. for about 20 years and whose son attends N.C. State University. Huanfeng has worked or been a partner in other restaurants but never owned and operated one himself. The former Dragon Buffet will be his first venture as sole operator, Gibson said.

“He’s wanted to run his own restaurant and we were in a position to help him do that,” Gibson said.

Huanfeng and his wife plan to spend the next four months renovating the Dragon Buffet’s interior, which contains over 12,000 square feet of space and can seat up to 250 customers. Both the kitchen and the customer dining space will get upgrades, Boardman said.

“We are excited to work with the new restaurant owners and expect the citizens of Elizabeth City will be pleased with the planned upgrades,” he said in a press release. “We look forward to improving Elizabeth City’s restaurant scene and providing customers with one of the best dining experiences in the area.”

Gibson said Huanfeng is planning to give the restaurant a new name. He’s tentatively calling it Liu’s Hibachi Grill, but that could change, Gibson said.

Huanfeng also plans to review his options before deciding what kind of menu to offer, Gibson said.

“He will be trying to figure out what’s best to position himself to be successful there,” he said.

April 10 is Vireo’s target date for reopening the restaurant, Gibson said.

Discussing Southgate Mall’s conversion into Southgate Park, Gibson said Vireo is happy with it. Not only did the makeover allow tenants Hibbett Sports, the Shoe Dept., GNC and Saslow’s Jewelers to increase the size of their stores or occupy brand-new spaces, it’s also spurred increased sales, he said.

Vireo also has gotten positive feedback from tenants on the revamped shopping center’s new landscaping and lighting and increased visibility, Gibson said.

There’s still room on the Southgate Park property for expansion. Gibson noted the outparcel in front of Belk and the pad where the former JC Penney store are two options for expansion, as is the space next to Belk. Vireo is talking to national retailers about potential deals but doesn’t have any new commitments as yet, he said.

“Right now, we’re looking forward to getting this (restaurant renovation) done ... and are hopeful that Elizabeth City will continue to see growth,” he said.

The Vireo Group acquired Southgate in an online auction in February 2017, reportedly for $2.3 million.

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