Orange Garden isn’t closing – but it’s up for sale after iconic neon sign auctioned for $17,000

NORTH CENTER — The owners of Chinese restaurant Orange Garden are selling the 90-year-old business after auctioning off its iconic “Chop Suey” neon sign, hoping to find a buyer to preserve the restaurant specializing in Cantonese dishes.

A relic of antebellum Chicago dating back to at least the early 1930s, the Orange Garden sign sold Saturday at the weekend’s Chicago Joe auction which sparked strong interest in local restaurant memorabilia . Auctioneer Randy Donley said the nearly 10ft red sign sold for $17,000 to a woman in suburban Highland Park who hopes to reuse it for another restaurant.

Preservation Chicago tweeted about the Orange Garden auction, raising fears of the closure of the North Center staple. Ben Ruan, who helps run Orange Garden for his parents, told the Block Club on Tuesday that the restaurant is still open but the family are ready to move on and put the business up for sale.

Although the real estate listing invites potential buyers to open a new restaurant in the space, Ruan said the family hopes to find someone who will continue to operate Orange Garden and keep its half-dozen employees on board. The family does not own the Irving Park Road building.

“The main reason we want to bring it to market is to find people who want to take care of it,” Ruan said. “We want to ensure that Orange Garden continues to operate in the Central North region for our customers.”

Credit: Noah Asimow/Block Club Chicago
Orange Garden in the center north.

The Ruan family have owned Orange Garden since the 1980s. The exact opening date is unclear, but co-owner Julie Ruan said the restaurant has existed in the same location since the early 1930s – the sign bright neon light as an instantly recognizable welcome mat and for North Central residents and visitors wanting homemade egg rolls and generous portions.

The Ruans said they had worked long hours running the restaurant in recent years and their 70-year-old father wanted to retire. Instead of closing, they said they would try to find a buyer to keep Orange Garden under new ownership.

“If we close it and don’t find another person to continue it, it seems like a waste,” Ruan said. “This place has been well known for many, many years. We have stories of people who had their first date here, proposals, people who had their birthday here, people who had their child’s first birthday here. There is a lot of history here.

Ruan said the family had long wanted to sell the aging sign and had received various offers from potential buyers. Donley said he also inquired about the sign years ago.

Ruan said the sign has become more expensive and more difficult to maintain with city zoning regulations and increasing permit fees. According to city codes, any sign that extends onto a public road requires a public road use permit and the approval of the city council. The large red sign with green neon – almost as old as the restaurant itself – almost sticks out the sidewalk.

Ruan wanted to sell it before changing city rules forced the family to retire it.

“Doing business in the city of Chicago is not easy,” Ruan said. “Sooner or later, the city will change the requirement further. I don’t want to remove it then, and then go through this hassle.

When Ruan heard about the Chicago Joe auction, he said he thought it seemed like a great opportunity to find a conservation-minded buyer.

“The panel was getting old, it needed to be refurbished,” Ruan said. “We wanted to make sure it went to someone who appreciates it.”

In addition to Orange Garden’s art deco exterior, the stretch of Irving Park Road between Damen and Ashland has other businesses reminiscent of a bygone era: old-fashioned bar signs, a retro 24-hour restaurant 24 and an eight-lane, hand-scored bowling alley dot the streetscape. The closure of Chicago Joe’s and the sale of the Orange Garden brand comes as the area sees more condo and parking lot developments.

Other north side neon signs were also auctioned. Donley said the Chicago Joe’s sign sold for $27,500 to an anonymous buyer.

Donley said he also plans to sell the huge Dinkel’s Bakery sign later this month, after the century-old business closed over the weekend. Proceeds from the auction will go to Misercordia and Sisters of the Poor, Donley said. The date for the auction has not been set.

Ruan said the lights going out on the Orange Garden neon sign doesn’t mean they can’t stay on in the restaurant itself. He said he would help train any new owners and that all house proceeds would be included in the sale.

“I will be very selective on the buyer, because I don’t want them to return it and do a McDonald’s,” Ruan said.

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