Women of Distinction--Agnes Yao

Agnes Yao
Agnes Yao

It's the kind of story that has people around the world working to come to America. Agnes Yao came when she was just a teenager. She struggled along the way to get by. But now, 20 years later, she's doing much better than that. She owns two successful restaurants and is getting ready to open a third.

When most are still fast asleep, Sunrise Breakfast on Tybee is preparing to brighten your day. "5am, cook our grits, have our bacon ready do all prep work ready," said Yao.

Yao does all she can to keep the customer happy. "It says open at 6am, but most of the time before six we have customers come in so I let them come in," she said.

Agnes came to the United States at just 19. She made the journey alone from Hong Kong in 1969 to study biology at Armstrong Atlantic State University. "Hong Kong is such a busy place. It's like busier than New York City," said Yao."And I drove through Savannah, like 'Oh my God where am I? In the country? There's nothing here."

But there was someone here. She met Paul, who was soon to become her husband. He wanted to follow in his parents' footsteps by owning a restaurant, so they opened Sunrise Breakfast on Hodgeson Memorial in 1987. Three years later, Sunrise on Tybee was born. "When we first started, my husband would be cooking and I would be waitressing and we do almost everything ourselves. You have to put a lot of time and effort and work and your family has to support you."

Paul and Agnes' family included three children. And being parents and restaurant owners was not easy. "What we have to do is both of us is working, so we drag the kids to work at 5:30am and they stay in restaurant and about 7:30, we have a taxi take them to school because that's the only way," she said.

Paul handled the restaurant on Hodgeson until he sold it three years ago and Agnes took over the Sunrise on Tybee. Life was finally going as planned for the Yaos. They had a thriving business, their children had careers, when the unexpected happed. Paul died last year of a heart attack while on a cruise with family and friends in Alaska.

"It was shocking," said Agnes. "Nobody expected him to leave me that soon. I thought we would have 20 more years together."

Agnes keeps the restaurant open in his memory and the restaurant in turn gives life to Agnes. "I enjoy it so much, especially the regulars that come in every day."

"We're here every day, every morning for breakfast, we're right here, it's a good place to come, it's a family place," said regular customer Walter Mitchell.

Two years ago, Agnes decided to expand the family atmosphere by opening a second Sunrise Breakfast. She also owns the Sunrise on Wilmington Island in addition to the Tybee location and soon she hopes to open up a third sunrise on Chatham Parkway.

Agnes' son-in-law Marcus Hilles runs the business on Wilmington Island and he'll oversee the new one. But Agnes is still the lady in charge. And her success comes from truly caring about her customers. "I think the most important thing is you have to treat people right, be honest," she said. "People can get food anywhere, but if you treat them right, they will come back."

"There are a lot of women in the business field, they don't feel like they can be that loving and giving and all and still be successful, and she's done both," said customer Kathy Mitchell.

"I'm very proud of myself and I think my children are proud of me and I see a lot of women who can do a lot of things if they want to they can do it," said Agnes.

And she is living proof, making the owner of Sunrise Breakfast a Woman of Distinction.

Reported by: Shannon Royster, sroyster@wtoc.com