Mourning loss of Andrew Yee at 59

  • Andrew Yee speaks during a reception for the carpentry, culinary and hospitality management programs of South Hadley High School and the grand opening of the Tigers’ Den restaurant on March 20, 2018. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, June 07, 2021

SOUTH HADLEY — Andrew Yee, the prominent local restaurateur and businessman, whose contributions to the Valley’s hospitality scene were far-reaching, has died at 59.

In an announcement on social media, Yee’s business, Bean Restaurant Group, said Yee died on Thursday, May 27. The cause of his death was not immediately disclosed.

“Anyone who knew Andy knew that his laugh was contagious, his personality bigger than life, and he was always bursting with pride for his family and friends,” the statement read. “Our family appreciates your support and privacy during this time.”

Bean Restaurant Group began with Yee’s parents, Johnny and Linda, who founded the Hu Ke Lau restaurant in Chicopee in 1965, serving Cantonese and Polynesian cuisine that quickly brought the family success.

Andrew was one of the couple’s four children, and the restaurant group’s website said that he and his siblings “grew up at the Hu Ke Lau.” A 2014 Valley Advocate profile of Hu Ke Lau noted that Yee began to cut onions in the restaurant’s kitchen at the age of 5. The family closed the iconic restaurant in 2018.

“We all have fryolator oil running through our blood veins,” Yee said in a 2016 interview with the Gazette.

In a 2016 interview with the Gazette after Yee’s restaurant group opened Johnny’s Roadside Diner in Hadley, Yee described his family’s philosophy: “Give people good food and they will find us.”

Bean Restaurant Group owns eateries across the region, including: Johnny’s Tavern and Iya Sushi and Noodle Kitchen in Amherst; Johnny’s Bar & Grille, Johnny’s Tap Room, Iya Sushi and Noodle Kitchen, The Boathouse and The Halfway House Lounge in South Hadley; Johnny’s Roadside Diner in Hadley; and White Hut and The Student Prince & The Fort in Springfield.

Most recently, Yee opened Wurst Haus in Northampton — a spinoff of the iconic Springfield German restaurant the Student Prince. In a tweet Friday, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz described Yee as a “champion of our Pioneer Valley economy.”

“Andy’s vision and positive energy were infectious and I will be forever grateful for his investments in Northampton,” Narkewicz wrote. “My condolences to the Yee family.”

Remembrances for Yee poured in from across the state on Friday as people mourned his death. Gov. Charlie Baker, posting on Yee’s Facebook page, described his sadness that such an “amazing man” has left us.

“A bolt of lightning and a ray of sunshine for everyone who knew you,” Baker wrote. “God Bless you and your beautiful and wonderful family. And I will see you at the bar on the other side. RIP my very dear friend.”

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, also shared his sadness at Yee’s passing. In a statement, he said Yee was much more than a restaurateur. He was a family man, Neal said — a pillar in the community and “a visionary who was fiercely dedicated to making the Pioneer Valley a better place.”

“The restaurants he helped build and manage are places filled with celebration, laughter, and good memories — and that’s because of the type of atmosphere Andy created,” Neal said. “Everyone was welcome and everyone was made to feel special. My history with the Yee family goes back decades and I am grateful for the friendship that Andy and I shared. I offer my sincere condolences to his wife, children, family, and friends. We will all miss him.”

As a prominent local businessman, Yee was involved in politics, lobbying lawmakers and powerful interests and giving money to Democratic and Republican candidates alike.

State campaign finance records show that Yee gave $23,275 to Massachusetts candidates over two decades, including large donations to the Democratic State Committee, Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.

Yee grew up in South Hadley, where he had his largest impact as a businessman and active member of the community.

“This was his hometown and he had an unyielding pride that anything was possible in and for South Hadley,” Town Administrator Michael Sullivan said, describing him as the “ultimate advocate” for his town. “He and his family’s restaurants and other projects create jobs, taxes and attractions which benefit the entire community,” Sullivan said. “Through Andy Yee’s relentless lobbying, South Hadley was familiar to a wide swath of movers and shakers, elected officials, investors and business people across the state.”

As an example of Yee’s influence in South Hadley, Sullivan noted the rebirth of the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza, where Yee, Rocky’s Hardware President Rocco Falcone and Peter Pan Bus Lines CEO Peter Picknelly were building a 72-unit apartment complex and expanding Rocky’s commercial space.

“His advocacy at the state level for funding for road improvements, grants in that area, his bringing investors ... into the mix was really impressive.” Sullivan said. “We’re going to miss him in a lot of ways.”

Yee was a supporter and mentor in South Hadley’s schools, Superintendent Diana Bonneville noted. Yee served as an adviser in the creation of the student-run bistro The Tigers’ Den at South Hadley High School, for example, offering to make internship and co-op positions available for students looking for extra experience.

“His help and guidance in creating our culinary program to be a gem within our school community will always be remembered,” Bonneville said, offering her condolences to Yee’s family and friends. “This is such a loss to our community.”

With businesses across the region, Yee’s presence extended beyond his hometown.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, said Yee’s passion and support for downtown Amherst, and for all of western Massachusetts, was remarkable.

“The news this morning was heartbreaking,” Gould said. “His legacy, his style and attention to detail, his kindness, compassion, and forward-thinking will live on through his family and all he has done.”

“He is irreplaceable and this is an enormous loss to our entire region,” said Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

Pazmany, who said she was devastated when she heard about Yee’s death, remembers the ribbon cutting for Iya two years ago, and appreciates that his family shared his “bigger-than-life” personality at such events.

Yee, she added, exuded a passion for the hospitality industry, especially when opening a new business or pursuing a new project.

“His good character is woven through every aspect of his business; that’s what makes you want to be a regular at any one of his many ventures,” Pazmany said. “He knew that we all connected around one thing — food.”

Staff writer Scott Merzbach contributed reporting to this story. Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.