The urge for egg rolls has had customers walking up and down the steps of downtown Janesville’s Cozy Inn for years.
All 40 of those steps—20 up and 20 down—for 100 years.
For 47 years, Tom Fong has helped provide those egg rolls, along with fried rice and other various Chinese dishes to a loyal customer base.
Fong owns the business along with his wife, Amanda, and sister-in-law, Michelle. Amanda is the head of the dining room and the star of the show as far as Tom is concerned.
“People know her more than me,” Tom said.
But he has gotten to know how to make an egg roll, which remains the most popular item on the Cozy Inn menu.
“It’s something everybody loves,” Fong said.
There is one loyal customer that moved to Las Vegas from Janesville. He returns here two or three times a year.
“He’ll call two or three days ahead,” Fong said. “He orders, like, 75 of them. He wants us to pre-freeze them so he can take them all back to Vegas.”
Fong had no idea the business would last this long when his mother, Marie Shum, and his then-stepdad purchased it in 1975.
By then, the Cozy Inn had already been in Janesville for more than 50 years. The restaurant was opened by the Wong family in 1922.
The two Wong brothers that originated the Cozy Inn had renovated the upstairs space on West Milwaukee Street that previously had been storage space for keg liquor and then a pool hall. Several generations of the Wong family ran the business before they sold it to the Fong family.
Marie was one of the first female head chefs in the Milwaukee area and became the backbone of the restaurant. Now 88, she still makes an appearance in the kitchen when needed.
Tom and his brother, John, who were 14 and 16 at the time, assumed major roles in the business right away.
“Because my mom and my stepdad at the time were back in the kitchen,” Fong said. “With their limited English, my brother and I ran this business. My mom was a great cook, but she didn’t really know the business side of this.”
When Fong graduated from high school, he ventured out and opened a large restaurant in New Orleans and later one in Miami. But when his now-33-year-old son was born, Fong did not want to raise a family in a large city and returned to Janesville.
He got a job at the General Motors plant and resumed helping out at the Cozy Inn.
Through the years, Janesville and area customers have shown their appreciation.
When COVID-19 hit and when the portion of West Milwaukee Street that runs in front of the front door was being torn up for renovation, business suffered. Someone posted on Facebook about the problems the Cozy Inn was facing.
The customer base responded.
“It went viral,” Fong said of the Facebook post. “It got like 1,500 shares. We were swamped for two weeks. My mom had to come in and help. We were so busy.
“We got a lot of support from the community.”
The Fongs have seen generations of families come through their door.
“There is one customer that used to come up here when she was 12 years old and pick up food for her mom,” Fong said. “Now she is a grandparent. It’s scary how that works.
“It makes you feel old, holy moly.”
Part of the charm of the Cozy Inn is that it hasn’t changed much over the years.
The dining area features rounded booths, which have their original woodwork.
Gone are the curtains that use to enclose the booths. Carpeting was put down on the original flooring. A banquet room located next door was closed off.
The Fongs applied for and received a Class B liquor license to add to the milk, tea, soft drinks and coffee that were the only drink offerings when they purchased the business.
The old-time charm and feel of the Cozy Inn has made it the city’s favorite Chinese restaurant for years, according to annual polls of Gazette readers.
When Fong worked at GM, word got around that he owned the Cozy Inn.
Soon he was was bringing in orders to co-workers in his department every Friday. Then some of those workers were transferred to different parts of the plant and word spread further still.
At the end, Fong would sometimes have to order, pick up, deliver and deal with money involving 30 to 40 orders.
And when the plant closed, some of the workers transferred to the plant in Arlington, Texas. Fong still sees them.
“When they come back, guess what?” Fong said. “They come back with coolers.”
Those coolers leave Janesville filled with Cozy Inn egg rolls.
Fong has been in the news during the past year for a reason other than his restaurant’s longevity. His biological father was a survivor of the Titanic, the British ocean liner that hit an iceberg and sank in 1912. Only about 700 of the 2,200 or so passengers survived.
Fong’s father—Fang Lang (Fang became Fong in translation between northern and southern China)—has been documented as the last survivor pulled from the water. He was one of six Chinese passengers who survived.
A documentary film “The Six” was made of those six survivors, who were quickly transported back to China and largely ignored until work began on the documentary, which attracted sellout crowds at the Beloit International Film Festival in February.
But this is the story of the Cozy Inn. Jackie Wood, a member of the Janesville historic commission and the Rock County Historical Society, determined that the Cozy Inn officially opened in November 1922. When that date arrives, Wood plans on having an official city celebration recognizing the milestone, which makes the Cozy Inn the second-oldest Chinese restaurant in the United States to do business at the same site.
The oldest? That would be a restaurant in Butte, Montana, that has been at the same location for 111 years.
Fong said despite the challenge the 20 steps make for some customers, he never has thought about moving the Cozy Inn from 214 W. Milwaukee St.
“You can’t beat these booths,” he said.
Fong could not say how much longer the Cozy Inn will last. He is 60, and the grind of running a restaurant takes a toll on him. Mondays—the only day Cozy Inn is closed during the week—is used to catch up on family matters and household chores that basically take a second seat to the day-to-day operation of the family business.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m getting old. It’s hard to say.”
Until the day when Fong decides to step aside, he will keep producing the dishes and Amanda will be the face of the business to customers.
“She is so good,” Fong said. “She knows the people’s orders as soon as they come in. They might order a dish with no mushrooms, but one time they might forget, and she’ll go ‘With no mushrooms, correct?’
“She treats every customer like family.”
That includes bringing orders downstairs to street level for customers wary of the steps.
But don’t even try to get the recipe or ingredients of those egg rolls, which take two days to make. The ingredients are a family secret, which even Amanda won’t disclose.
And that is a secret that has had people going to the Cozy Inn for 100 years—20 steps up and 20 steps down.