Skip to main content

Making a difference

Yee Lee: ‘My community has raised me to be who I am today’

share arrow printer bookmark flag

December 13, 2023

APPLETON – As a refugee from Thailand, Yee Lee said her upbringing helped instill the values of hard work, giving back and good cooking – skills and traits she still uses today as owner of Bowl 91, located inside the City Center Plaza (100 E. College Ave.) in Appleton.

Growing up, because her parents did not know English well, Lee said she had to “act mature at a young age” – which meant she had to wear “multiple hats” for her mother, including being her interpreter and banker and watching over her younger siblings.

She said she also helped her mother in the kitchen, where she gained her cooking skills.

“When I was going to college, my mom started at the Downtown Appleton Farm Market selling chicken wings so she (pay for her) children to go to college,” she said. “At that time, we were helping her, so I learned a lot of my cooking through her and her restaurant (Mai’s Deli)… I think that helped me develop the skills that are needed in my restaurants right now.”

Lee said she also owns Little Siam (208 W. Wisconsin Ave) in Neenah – a restaurant that specializes in Thai food.

From Thailand to the Fox Cities
Lee said her family moved to Appleton in 1991 when she was just three and a half years old.

Three decades later, she said the year served as inspiration for the restaurant’s name.

When she decided to start her own restaurant, Lee said she knew she wanted it to highlight “a part of my family’s history and culture.”

Lee said the “Bowl” portion from the restaurant’s name was also inspired by her childhood.

“We came up with the name because a lot of the food we eat and are served on our tables are all served in a bowl,” she said. “We wanted to blend the Asian cuisine we love, and we also have grown up with.”

Yee Lee, owner of Bowl 91, said she and her husband traveled to California to learn how to make authentic Japanese ramen from a chef originally from Japan. Photo Courtesy of Bowl 91

At the time, Lee was running a grab-and-go deli when the location Bowl 91 is now located became available.

“We did (the grab-and-go) for three years,” she said. “(But), we were ready to expand – we wanted something new.”

Viewing the space that would later become Bowl 91, Lee said, she felt a bit like love at first sight.

“My husband and I fell in love (with the space),” she said. “We said, ‘it could use a new energy, a new vibe,’ (but it’s the right location).”

By the time the shop, which was previously a restaurant, was in Lee’s hands, she said she already knew what she wanted to do with the space – thanks in part to her and her husband’s love of travel.

“My husband and I travel a lot, and when we travel, we would always see ramen as a popular place in bigger cities like New York City and Los Angeles,” she said. “It was like small little spots, and people were waiting in lines to come in and eat. We thought, ‘this would be so cool, to offer this here in the area.”

Though Lee had extensive, hands-on cooking experience from her mother, she said she came from a Hmong family, and she didn’t know how to make authentic Japanese ramen.

This, she said, led to more travel.

“We traveled to California to learn how to make authentic Japanese ramen (from a chef who was originally from Japan),” she said.

Supporting the next generation
Just as Lee’s passion and knowledge of cooking was inspired by her mother, she said her desire to help support the ambitions of the next generation were as well.

Similar to how her mother ran her stand at the farmer’s market to help pay for her children’s college education, Lee said she wants to do the same for her employees who want to pursue higher education after high school.

Pictured is Iyara Yang, a 2022 high school graduate that received a $2,000 scholarship to pursue higher education. Photo Courtesy of Bowl 91

“We believe in education,” she said. “I went to college, and I know it’s important to get a college degree or go to a trade school or whatever they decide they want to go in.”

Lee said she also recognizes, many employees don’t plan to be in the service industry, for the long-term.

“In the hospitality industry, a lot of employees we hire are mostly employees who come and go,” she said. “It’s not a career for them, it’s a job.”

Many of which, Lee said, are high school students.

To help the students who work at Bowl 91 take the next step in their education journey after graduation, Lee offers a $2,000 scholarship to graduating employees each year.

“We have offered more than $10,000 since the beginning of opening our restaurant,” she said. “We offer that scholarship so we can help them get started in reaching their dreams. We believe opportunities are important, and everyone deserves an opportunity.”

The heart of giving
As the owner of Bowl 91, Lee said it’s important to give back to the community that has supported her – starting with the Hmong Chamber of Commerce.

“We are a legacy donor for the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce,” she said. “We pledged for 10 years that we will donate $2,000 every year… because when we started our business, they were one of the sources of funding that were able to support us.”

Lee said it is important to her to be able to “give back to those organizations that have made an impact in our life,” as well as organizations she values in the community.

“Most of the time, any organizations that ask us for donations, we try our best to give donations either in cash or gift cards,” she said. “Or we sponsor events.”

Lee said there are “too many organizations to name them all” that Bowl 91 has helped, but one specifically special to her is the Fox Valley Literacy Council, an organization that teaches English to immigrants and refugees, as well as helps individuals with basic needs.

“I remember my mom not knowing English and taking classes when she first came to the United States,” she said. “These are the kind of organizations we want to give back to and align with who we are.”

When it comes down to it, Lee said “my community has raised me to be who I am today,” and it’s that community she said that is at the heart of Bowl 91 giving back.

“My parents, they gave birth to me, they brought me here to the United States, but without my community, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” she said.

Yee Lee, owner of Bowl 91, said community will always be over competition, and tries to help other local businesses and restaurants. Photo Courtesy of Bowl 91

Growing up, Lee said she was on the receiving end of the help some of the human services organizations, such as the Salvation Army, provide.

Knowing first hand the support those types of organizations offer, she said she’s proud to be able to help others in similar situations her family was once in.

“At one point in my life, I struggled,” she said. “But now that I am more financially stable, I need to be able to give back to those who need it. That’s why I choose organizations that support our community and give back to those who are in need.”

Community over competition
Helping out other local restaurants and small businesses in the area is not off the table for Bowl 91, either, Lee said.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, I knew so many small businesses were struggling,” she said. “We were able to purchase products from those businesses and (encouraged) our customers to patronize those businesses as well, too.”

Lee said it all comes down to her firm belief in “community over competition.”

“I believe when we all work together, and we all support each other, we’re stronger in our community,” she said. “I want everyone to be successful because there’s so much room and so much that can be shared and spread.”

Bowl 91 is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Visit Bowl 91’s Facebook page for more information on the restaurant.

share arrow printer bookmark flag