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How I Made It: Binh Nguyen

Cooking up a growth plan

March 21, 2008|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

The gig: Founder of Pho Hoa, a Vietnamese noodle soup restaurant chain that started in 1983 and now has nearly 50 North American locations, with nine in California, and at least 30 in Asia. He also is president of Aureflam Corp., which franchises the "fast-casual" chain. The privately held restaurant chain averages at least $50 million in revenue annually, Nguyen estimated.

Education: Abandoned law studies when he fled Vietnam by boat in 1975. After living in refugee and holding camps in Thailand and Arkansas, Nguyen graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor's in political science in 1979.

First job: Nguyen, now 53, helped his mother run a cafe and for-profit library -- "mostly novels," he said -- while in high school in Vietnam.

History: After Nguyen met fellow refugee Phan Jiang through mutual friends, the pair borrowed money and launched the first Pho Hoa -- or "harmonious noodles" -- shops in San Jose and Santa Ana. They split as business partners after six years but remain friends.

Got the idea: There were few Vietnamese restaurants in the United States, and immigrants craved their native cuisine. "Pho is very basic food for Vietnamese people, like hamburgers are for Americans," Nguyen said.

On the path: The noodle soup chain spread to Canada in the late 1980s, franchised in the 1990s and jumped to Asia in 1995. There are no branches in Vietnam because the competition there would be too stiff, Nguyen said.

Memorable moment: When the chain hit the $1-million revenue mark in 1987, Nguyen took several friends and managers to dinner -- American food.

Biggest challenge: Battling mom-and-pop pho restaurants for Vietnamese patrons and recruiting Vietnamese employees. "They don't think it's prestigious to work for a restaurant company when they could just open one themselves," Nguyen said.

Marketing tricks: When looking for areas to start franchises, Nguyen used the U.S. census to locate large pockets of Vietnamese residents. But pre-Internet, such research was a hassle. "I had to borrow the paper copy from the library," he said. Nguyen now advertises to customers of all ethnicities.

Advice: "There were a lot of things I had to learn about this country and this business when I started, but I never had any doubts," Nguyen said. "You just have to try your chances and never give up."

First splurge: A trip to Europe in 1989 to visit four of his brothers in Germany and France -- Nguyen has 12 siblings.

In the works: A Pho Hoa restaurant branch in Sacramento. Although the company is now based in California's capital, Nguyen has to travel to San Jose or San Francisco when he craves a bowl of noodle soup.

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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