When the woman at the Small Business Administration discovered that 25-year old Tee Tran wanted a loan to open a Vietnamese restaurant even though he had absolutely no experience in the food business, she laughed at him. “You’re kidding me, right? Do you know your chances of getting a business loan,” she asked rhetorically. “It’s zero! Don’t even think about it.” Rather than discourage him, those cutting remarks inspired Tran to prove her wrong.
Monster Pho, his often-mobbed, year-old Oakland restaurant is a testament to Tran’s tenacity. At lunchtime, the airy dining room is buzzing with banter and tables are filled with a blue-green sea of scrubs, sported by numerous Kaiser Medical Center employees. It’s not just proximity that repeatedly brings Kaiser folks, Cal students and locals alike to the restaurant with the cute monster logo, but gracious service and dependably fresh, traditional Vietnamese cooking. Hearty bowls of pho soup, vermicelli noodle plates, crispy imperial rolls, Vietnamese crepes and banh mi sandwiches are served in a welcoming, light-filled room. Unfailingly polite, Tran treats both his customers and employees like family.
Opening a successful restaurant is not the first time this family has beaten the odds. When he was a toddler, Tran, his parents and two older brothers escaped from Vietnam in 1989 as “boat people.” After spending two long years in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines, they landed in Oakland--with literally nothing. He remembers the five of them sleeping huddled together for warmth on their bare living room floor.
Tran’s mother, Tina Le, has always been his hero, mentor and inspiration. “She worked four jobs to keep the family afloat [as a dishwasher, babysitter, caregiver and seamstress]. She never took 'failure' as an answer," says Tran. Part of his motivation to open a restaurant was to honor his mother and make sure he could take of her, the way she had taken care of the family. Ironically, his devotion to the family recipes resulted in Le’s insistence on working in his kitchen daily to prepare her sauces.
Tran, now 31, has been an ingenious entrepreneur since the age of eight, when he borrowed money from his mother to purchase candy bars, which he then went door to door and sold for double what he paid. The whole family worked together on paper routes and sewing upholstery samples to earn money for the household. Tran also learned from his mother that no matter the difficulties thrown in one’s path, one should still treat others with respect and kindness.
The Monster in his restaurant’s name stemmed from Tran’s desire to be different and appeal to kids. Its family-friendly atmosphere includes crayons and coloring book pages to keep little diners busy; plus scissors and small bowls are provided so parents can cut up noodles and pieces of meat into kid-sized bites--in the traditional way. Tran has also made his restaurant 100% peanut-free, an unusual move for a Vietnamese restaurant--where peanuts are regularly ground into sauces or crushed and sprinkled over dishes for texture--but one that has parents of children with peanut allergies cheering. Tran aims to cater to a range of diners, so his Vegetable Pho uses a 100% vegetarian broth and his Chicken Pho is made with a chicken broth (without beef).