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Chinese restaurant founder Leeann Chin dies

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Leeann Chin
Leeann Chin, who founded the Minnesota chain of Chinese restaurants bearing her name, has died in Seattle. She was 77.
Courtesy of Leeann Chin's family

Leeann Chin, who founded the Minnesota chain of Chinese restaurants bearing her name, has died in Seattle. She was 77.

Chin died Wednesday from complications from a long-term illness, her daughter Laura Chin told MPR News.

Chin was born in 1933 in Guangzhou, China, and moved to Minnesota in 1957. She became a seamstress, working at a couple of clothing stores in Minneapolis before selling clothes out of her home while raising five children.

Chin, who had always enjoyed cooking, started preparing meals for her customers to thank them for their business, Laura Chin said.

"Then they started asking her to cater parties and teach cooking classes, so that's sort of how she got started in the business," her daughter said.

Chin opened the first Leeann Chin restaurant in Minnetonka in 1980. At first, Laura said, it had more than 100 menu items. Soon, however, Chin decided to make the restaurant a buffet so that it was easier to keep up with demand.

A second restaurant opened in 1984 in the downtown St. Paul train depot. General Mills bought her name and the restaurants a year later.

Chin's business took back its independence in the late '80s, and Chin stayed involved in the business until the late '90s. By that time the restaurants had evolved into fast food and takeout Chinese.

After leaving the business, Laura Chin said her mother continued cooking for family members and friends. She also enjoyed teaching others how to cook.

"Even the day before she died, she was telling us how to cook soup," Laura Chin said.

Chin came to the hospital with sticky rice -- her daughter's favorite comfort food -- after Laura's children were born. Laura Chin also said she'll remember how well her mother treated her employees and impressed people with her math skills.

"She would surprise the bankers," Laura said. "They would have all their calculators and all this stuff and she could figure out numbers faster than they could. They would just look at her and say, 'Really? Wow, she's right.'"

Chin is survived by five children, including Laura Chin, the only one who still lives in the Twin Cities area. Chin also has 11 grandchildren. Her husband, Tony Chin, died earlier.

The restaurant chain bearing her name now has more than 40 locations mostly in the Twin Cities area.