Young woman runs two Vietnamese restaurants in New York

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Ms. Ton Thi Hong Nhu’s two restaurants in the United States are consistently ranked among the finest Vietnamese restaurants in New York, with a 40 % rise in revenue after Covid-19.

After 8 years of living in a foreign country, Ton Thi Hong Nhu – a young woman born in Dak Lak in 1990, has achieved her goal of opening a Vietnamese restaurant in the United States. According to the Michelin Guide, her Ninh Kieu Com Tam is now ranked as one of the top 5 Vietnamese restaurants in New York City.

Despite being in the middle of the Covid-19 outbreak, her restaurant “survived well” during the pandemic.

Ms. Ton Thi Hong Nhu

Stepping into the U.S with only $100 in pocket

Nhu is the youngest of four siblings. “Since childhood, Nhu has always known to cherish family members, especially her mother”, said Ton Thi Huynh Giang – Nhu’s older sister.

Giang revealed that their family was poor at the time, and their mother relied on a little business in the market to raise her four daughters. Every day, Nhu assists her mother with her business when she returns home from school. Giang claimed that when her sister found that she had been accepted by the university in Saigon, she was thrilled but at the same time worried that her mother would be lonely.

Meanwhile, their father is the one who frequently academically and spiritually nourishes his children. He usually buys books for his children to read every day. Nhu, like her father, has always had great aspirations to explore new places since she was a youngster. During her time in university, she desired to study abroad, but her family circumstance said different.

Nhu didn’t know about the internship program in the United States until her last year of university (2012). She applied for and passed all of the interviews for the internship position at Crowne Plaza. Nhu borrowed money from many people in order to buy an airline ticket. The decision to leave Vietnam for the United States with only $100 in her pocket seemed insane but was full of desire for this young girl.

When Nhu arrived in Baton Rouge – a remote, isolated place in the US state of Louisiana, everything in sight bewildered her. This is hardly the “promised land” she imagined. In order to stay and study in this place, Nhu worked all kinds of jobs with a meager wage of roughly 35 USD. Nonetheless, she did not allow herself to crumble.

Nhu had the opportunity to learn about the culture and people of the United States while traveling through many different states. She noticed that the cuisine in her hometown is amazing, but they are uncommon in a foreign country that few people are aware of. And if there are any restaurants serving Vietnamese, the flavor is also often “mixed”, no longer keeping the original flavor of the dishes. So, in Nhu, the aspiration to offer the whole essence of Vietnamese cuisine to the world grew at that time.

After 4 years of saving money and gaining experience, Nhu purchased a struggling Vietnamese restaurant in the Bronx in November 2017. She decided to keep the restaurant’s original name – Com Tam Ninh Kieu.

“I spent 6 years learning and working in every position of the restaurant: greeting guests, serving tables, bartending, washing dishes, assisting in the kitchen, cooking, and even cleaning toilets… I would do any jobs and work 14 to 19 hours every day”, Nhu shared.

At the beginning of her career, she stayed up late tinkering, testing recipes, training employees, and learning business skills. But, at the time, she was young and had a strong work ethic, so it wasn’t difficult for her to strive through. Nhu believed that she acquired this from her mother.

“My mother worked from dawn to dusk 364 days a year, except for the first day of the Lunar New Year. Thus, I always attempt to work harder and be more persistent than anyone else, even though I don’t have the skills or experience at first”, Nhu said.

Ninh Kieu Com Tam’s menu offers traditional Vietnamese dishes such as pho and banh mi, as well as diverse regional cuisines such as Hue beef noodle soup, spring roll vermicelli, spring rolls, ky tofu…

Fresh food, rich Vietnamese taste, affordable prices, friendly service, and a one-of-a-kind restaurant environment all contribute to Nhu’s restaurant drawing a huge number of customers and getting more popular.

Within 9 months, Nhu and her colleagues turned a struggling restaurant into one of the trendiest in New York City’s Bronx, with revenues doubling. There are some weekends that guests have to wait 15-30 minutes to be seated. Each customer will spend between $25 and $50 USD, excluding beverages, on average.

Customers dine at Nhu’s restaurant

More difficulties arose as a result of the pandemic

When everything started to fall into place, Nhu decided to open a second restaurant – Banh Vietnamese Shop House. Unfortunately, it was around this time that the Covid-19 outbreak swept New York. When difficulties arose, Nhu, like many other entrepreneurs, was bewildered and concerned.

The pandemic became serious in late September and early October of 2020, with New York having the highest death rate in the whole United States, and even reaching a global peak.

When the citywide shutdown order was issued, eateries that provide essential services were permitted to sell takeaway. However, because the majority of the Ninh Kieu Com Tam staff is elderly, Nhu has decided to temporarily close the restaurant to secure everyone’s health and safety. She also set aside a sum of money to assist each employee. Although it is not much, it is enough for them to pay for food for around two weeks to one month.

Although the restaurant is temporarily closed, Nhu is responsible for substantial expenses such as space rent, taxes, and insurance… Meanwhile, the restaurant Banh Vietnamese Shop House is still under construction. All of this put a lot of strain on Nhu and the rest of the group.

Willing to “push through the challenges”

After a brief time of worry, Nhu determined that she couldn’t just sit still because the source of money was nearly depleted. She sat down to assess the situation, seeking solutions to assist the restaurant in overcoming this tough period.

The challenge for Com Tam Ninh Kieu is how to keep employees and customers safe when the restaurant reopens. To meet the opening date, the construction progress for Banh Vietnamese Shop House must be hastened as much as possible. However, managing budgets remains a significant concern at the time. As a result, Nhu decided to modify the business plan, focus entirely on product quality, reduce unnecessary arisings, and complete business legal procedures when the government reopens.

Before the pandemic, Nhu had paid for an interior design unit, but due to the high cost of construction, she and her colleagues opted to turn down this design board and build the entire restaurant space themselves.

Instead of hiring a few media agencies to undertake marketing at exorbitant fees, Nhu sought to advertise the food via social media, mainly Instagram.

At the time, the US government promptly implemented support packages and refunded payroll taxes for businesses. However, Banh Vietnamese Shop House is ineligible for assistance since it was established before 2019 (during the pre-pandemic period) but did not begin operations until near the end of 2020.

Amid the bustle of work, she managed time at home to experiment with new recipes in order to create the best menu for Banh Vietnamese Shop House.

Nhu made the decision to reopen Com Tam Ninh Kieu restaurant just before Halloween and to launch Banh Vietnamese Shop House on January 1, 2020.

Because the pandemic was at its peak at the time, it was extremely difficult to find employees. Not only that, but the remaining money was going to run out, so the restaurant could only operate on the last three days of each week. The profits from Ninh Kieu Com Tam were used to help Banh Vietnamese Shop House continue to operate. In exchange, by operating two restaurants on the weekend, the number of visitors would be higher, and customers from other districts or remote areas would have more time to visit.

Having a flexible business strategy has tremendously helped Nhu’s two restaurants in attracting customers. People arrived in significant numbers once the city reopened, often having to wait nearly two hours to dine, and the number of takeaway orders grew far more than the number of customers eating in. With Banh Vietnamese Shop House, there were occasions when Nhu had to stay up all night in the kitchen and still couldn’t prepare enough food to sell.

Currently, when the pandemic has subsided, Nhu’s restaurant revenue has increased by 35-40%, with over 150 customers per day on weekdays. During the day on weekends, there are almost 1,000 visitors.

Nhu’s two restaurants were also reviewed in detail by Pete Wells – New York’s leading culinary expert on the New York Times’s page and many other renowned newspapers. New York Magazine food critic Adam Platt was also among the reviewers, and he raved about Banh Vietnamese Shop House. Many celebrities, such Alexander Wang, Ali Wong, and others, are interested in and come to enjoy Vietnamese cuisine.

“For me, the culinary sector is fortunate in that, regardless of what happens, eating remains the most basic human need. Businesses can always grow if their business models adapt in a flexible, timely, and cost-effective way. However, in order to succeed in the long run, a business must be enthusiastic and persistent”, Nhu shared.

With achievements Nhu has accomplished during the 4-year journey of building and developing Vietnamese restaurants in New York, Nhu was also honored in the book “Radiant Vietnamese talents in five continents,” along with the remaining 20 young faces who are becoming a source of pride for young Vietnamese around the world. The journey of bringing Vietnamese cuisine to international friends has been diligently pursued by Nhu with a great love for her homeland.

Thu Phuong – Hanh Nguyen