In the Fast Lane
restaurateur’s new business blasts off with high-performance parts for cutting-edge motorcycle
Last year, while western Wisconsin restaurateur Henry Chan was waiting for delivery of the Dodge Challenger Hellcat he’d ordered, he saw an ad for another machine that seemed to have blasted out of a big-screen comic book.
“What the hell is that thing?” Chan, owner of Shanghai Bistro, remembers thinking to himself. “It looks like the friggin’ Batmobile!”
And while the angular, futuristic three-wheeler may resemble something you’d find in the Caped Crusader’s garage, the Polaris Slingshot is a real-life machine that started hitting the streets late last year. The two-person vehicle has a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine with 173 horsepower, plus bucket seats and a steering wheel, but it’s technically a motorcycle, not a car.
“It’s an absolute blast,” raves Chan. “It’s basically a road-legal go-kart.” Chan, an Eau Claire native, fell in love with the machine, cancelled his Hellcat order, and placed one for a Slingshot.
Even before his own super-powered three-wheeler arrived in January, Chan had turned his fascination with the machine into a business. It’s a pattern the entrepreneur has followed in the past: Chan’s obsession with cars led him to begin a motor sports businesses while still a teen in the 1990s, while his subsequent love of sushi led to the creation of Shanghai Bistro restaurants in Eau Claire, Hudson, and Stillwater, Minn.
As a rule, Chan is not content with the standard, the everyday, or the ho-hum. “I can’t keep a stock Slingshot,” he explains. “I’ve got to make it faster and look better.”
The desire to upgrade his very own Batmobile led Chan to create Alpha Powersport, the world’s first purveyor of after-market parts for the Slingshot. Housed in a large shop in the western Wisconsin burg of Houlton – just across the river from Stillwater, Minn. – Alpha Powersport welds and fabricates most of the parts it makes and works with contractors to create others. Fifty or 60 products are in the planning stages, and a dozen are already on the market, including a turbo kit, an adjustable suspension, a cold-air intake kit, a coil cover to spruce up the engine’s appearance, a custom-designed gas cap cover, and more. Alpha parts are sold online and through a growing number of Slingshot dealers around the country, including Sport Rider in Altoona.
Cars to Cooking
Chan grew up in Eau Claire, where his parents owned Yen King Restaurant, 2930 Craig Road, which he describes as a run-of-the-mill Midwestern Chinese restaurant with a lunch buffet, red-and-gold décor, and dangling lanterns. While he washed dishes and waited tables there during his youth, Chan wasn’t much interested in the restaurant business. Instead, cars fascinated him, and he quickly learned that he could save money on parts by obtaining a business license and buying them wholesale. He began to make a profit re-selling parts to his friends, and after graduating from Memorial High School in 1997, he opened a real storefront business, Revolutions Motorsports in Altoona.
Chan began to attend the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) trade show in Las Vegas – “Anybody who does anything with automobiles worldwide is there that week,” he says – which is where he was introduced to sushi at a Japanese restaurant. “I don’t know what I just ate,” he thought, “but I loved it.” He began to look forward more to eating sushi in Vegas than to attending the trade show.
His automotive business grew quickly, but Chan sold it, leaving himself with time on his hands. His expanding interest in sushi coincided with his parents’ desire to sell Yen King in 2002, and he talked his father into teaching him how to cook Chinese, then began to operate the restaurant. Just as he had with cars, Chen began modifying recipes – and then the restaurant itself. Heavily remodeled and rebranded, in 2004 Yen King became Shanghai Bistro, a hipper urban eatery with a more daring pan-Asian menu. Chan hired a classically trained Japanese sushi chef and apprenticed under him, learning everything from how to pick the right fish to how to properly wash rice. “I kept polishing my skills,” he says. “It took me two to three years to get good at it and became proficient at it.” The first sushi bar in Eau Claire, Shanghai gained popularity, and within a few years Chan opened bistros in Woodbury, Minn. (which later relocated to Stillwater) and Hudson. The Stillwater location is the largest of the three, featuring a 6,000-square-foot patio and a booming summer tourist trade.
On the Ground Floor
And even while he established himself as a successful restaurateur over the past decade, Chan began to wish he was still in the motorsports business. He continued to buy, build, and race cars, and his purchase of the Slingshot spurred a return to the garage – this time with a business plan. Instead of crafting dragon rolls and sashimi platters, Chan and co-owner Andy Rosenau are designing, engineering, and fabricating specialty accessories for Slingshot owners.
Alpha Powersports has quickly positioned itself as the premier maker of after-market parts for the machine. Amazingly, Chan says, “We had parts for the Slingshot before the Slingshot was released to the public.” How is that even possible? When he ordered his own machine last fall, Chan learned that it was built around a common GM engine, and he quickly pulled one of those engines from a wrecked car. This gave him the chance to immediately begin engineering add-on parts, such as the coil cover and gas cap cover. It also helps that Polaris is headquartered in nearby Medina, Minn.; Chan was able to get access to Slingshot models that were delivered early to buyers in Minnesota. (And while Polaris is aware of Alpha Powersport’s products, Chan’s business isn’t in any way affiliated with or endorsed by Polaris.)
Alpha has attracted attention by exhibiting at motorcycle trade shows around the country, riding a wave of interested generated by the Slingshot. “This machine was never expected to be this hot,” says Chan, who has sold thousands of parts for the roughly 10,000 Slingshots on the road. Polaris is having trouble keeping up with Slingshot orders, he says, and Alpha’s orders are booming as well, with more customers and dealers seeking parts all the time. (For example, Chan expected to sell 30 pairs of custom shocks in a year; instead, they sold out in a week and a half.) “It’s more than a full time job for me,” he says. “Right now I’m working seven days a week, and maybe 14, 16 hours a day to get things done.” The work is fun, he says, but he’s worried what will happen when his restaurant business picks up in the summer months.
“The way it’s going right now, it’s probably going to get pretty big,” he says of Alpha. “We’re on the ground floor. Our parts are improving.” With his latest business going from zero to 60 in the entrepreneurial equivalent of a few seconds, Chan is optimistic about the future: “It’s a blank canvas,” he says, “whatever I want to make it.”