Powering his vision with a strong work ethic, restaurateur Jason Liu continues to grow his American dream.

Powering his vision with a strong work ethic, restaurateur Jason Liu continues to grow his American dream.

Of all the recipes Jason Liu covets as a restaurateur, his recipe for success is the most crucial. The formula is simple-hard work and a vision.

"When I arrived in Columbus in 1989 to attend graduate school at Ohio State, I had a few hundred dollars in my pocket. That was it. My family and friends back in China had pooled their money to buy me a one-way plane ticket. This was my chance of a lifetime." Since then, Liu has taken many chances along with calculated business risks to build two successful J. Liu restaurant locations with a third in the planning stage.

Raised near Shanghai, Liu first became aware of Ohio State University through the textbooks he used in his undergraduate studies, coincidentally authored by OSU professors. Through those books, he became curious about Ohio State, researched scholarships and decided to pursue his dream of living in another country.

With a scholarship to Ohio State for graduate study in material science and engineering, Liu came to Columbus with his American dream. "It was amazing to experience the freedom to do whatever you want," Liu recalls.

After earning his OSU degree, Liu considered a career in international trading or manufacturing. Instead he decided to open his own business-a restaurant. When asked about the leap from engineering to restaurateur, Liu explains, "Education in my opinion is to help people learn how to think, it's about problem-solving. What you end up doing doesn't have to be connected to what you study."

To make his restaurant dream a reality, startup capital was the first obstacle. "I am the oldest son in my family and began to cook rice when I was six years old. I knew I could cook but I didn't know how to get investors," he says.

Liu turned to his fellow classmates at OSU for funding. "I borrowed money from my friends at OSU. One gave me $10,000, another $20,000. I got smaller amounts from others. They just wrote me checks interest-free without formal agreements, never asking how I would pay them back. Their support made it possible for me to submit a $60,000 down payment for the Mark Pi franchise in the Worthington Square Mall. Those investors are friends for life."

Today, J. Liu's atmosphere ismodern, fusion-style fine dining with an extensive menu featuring both Asian and Italian entrees along with seafood, soups, salads, sandwiches and premium cuts of steaks. The menu has evolved dramatically since Liu entered the restaurant world by buying the Mark Pi Express location in October 1992. He retained the restaurant and changed the name to China Way after Mark Pi's bankruptcy in 1995, growing his business by 50 percent over the following eight years.

Expanding to Dublin, Liu opened his W. Bridge Street location in 2004 as a sit-down, upscale venue named Jason's Restaurant and Bar.

Next he purchased a former bank building in Worthington. As his own general contractor, Liu razed the bank and built the current J. Liu's restaurant, complete with a 250-seat banquet center on the second floor. "I had to trust my intuition," Liu explains. "Some people thought I was taking on too much risk and I would go down."

Now Liu is looking again to grow. With properties he began acquiring in 2010 on Lane Avenue in Upper Arlington, he plans a hotel, retail, restaurant and luxury apartments. Completion is projected for late 2017.

Liu credits his operational success to two key practices: maintaining a management team that believes in you and your vision and being adaptive. He feels it is crucial to listen to what customers want and be willing to change menus to reflect health-conscious choices with fresh ingredients.

Still cooking on Sundays and Mondays, Liu stays involved with the day-to-day restaurant operations. He says he and his wife, Tina, "worked for 12 years straight, only taking two days off a year to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. Her loyal support made it all possible."

Friend and business associate Ted Oatts describes Liu as, "a focused, hard-working kind of guy."

Customers marvel at Liu's willingness to go the extra mile. "My daughter's wedding reception was the first official function at the Worthington location," recalls long-time customer Cheryl Evans. "As in most construction projects, the schedule was behind and the building wasn't complete. Jason moved mountains to make the reception a reality. I think that he and his management team worked around the clock to get the carpet laid, set up the ballroom and prepare all the food. It was spectacular. Jason'scommitment and dedication to his customers is second to none."

"Yes we have worked hard and earned every penny," says Liu. "But the American Dream is real to us. We are so grateful to live where there's so much opportunity-and that we have the opportunity to serve others."

Darcy Reynolds is a freelance writer.