'Our customers are like family'
When Douglas Nguyen moved to the United States from Vietnam in 1993, he imagined settling into a career in medicine. He had a job at a children’s hospital there and thought he’d likely continue on in the same field when he relocated to La Crosse, Wis. His path took a different course, though, and he ended up finding an interest in business. These days Nguyen co-owns the Rochester restaurant Pho Chau with his sister-in-law, Chau Nguyen.
They started their first restaurant in Rochester, Hunan Wok Express, in 2004 which served primarily Chinese takeout. The size of the property was limited, and Chau and Douglas wanted to expand the business, so in 2011, they purchased a new property on North Broadway and opened Pho Chau, which serves eat-in and takeout Vietnamese food.
While Douglas runs the kitchen and financial aspects of the restaurant, he depends on Chau to run everything out front. It is Chau who customers often get to interact with during a visit. Both Chau and Douglas make it a priority to get to know their customers and refer to them by name. “We put a lot of love into all of it. Our customers are like family,” reflected Douglas.
A typical day begins at 2 a.m. for Nguyen. “The first thing I do is make coffee.” He’s at the restaurant by 3 or 4 every morning to begin all the prep work. “Our food is all prepped fresh every day. I like to be hands-on with everything,” he described. “I store all the recipes in my head. I don’t like to write anything down. I show our employees but I don’t write it … I want it always to be consistent."
Raised in Saigon, Vietnam (a city of over 8 million people), Nguyen was used to the bustling excitement of city life. He was raised in a family of twelve siblings and credits his mom for much of his work ethic. “She taught us to be responsible and work hard and that built up our confidence.”
Nguyen’s mother was also the person who taught him to cook. “No matter what in our family, boy or girl, you had to learn to clean and cook. Starting from the age of 12, when it was your turn, you had to go to the grocery store and decide what to prepare for the family.”
After graduating with a degree in business administration and international business in 2000, Nguyen worked for at time for Rainbow Foods as the produce manager. After Rainbow Foods closed down their Rochester locations, it was time for a new plan.
“That’s the way of life. One thing doesn’t work out, you have to try something else. Life is too short. Move on. Keep going,” Douglas shared.
It was with that spirit that he decided to collaborate with his sister-in-law, Chau, on a new business idea. Pho Chau now employs twenty people with four of them working full-time and the rest part-time.
Nguyen told us his style of management and leadership was inspired by advice he got from his mother long ago. “When my mother was young, her family owned a lot of land and had a lot of workers. She would work closely with them and make sure they didn’t have to work too hard or they would become too tired … She told us, 'If you become the owner or the big boss someday, you will know how hard the people are working. You know what to do. Treat everybody like you’d want to be treated.'"
While it’s a lot of work and not very much play for Douglas and Chau, the restaurant does close for a week or two every summer. It’s the only time that Douglas describes really stepping away from work. Otherwise, he admits, “I hate sitting down. I have to be doing something. I have to work.”
Asked about the secret to Pho Chau’s customer loyalty and business success, Douglas reflected, “You have to work hard. Put in a lot of effort and you’ll get something back. But don’t do it for the money. Do it for the love of the work and you’ll find success.”
For a look at Pho Chau’s amazingly elaborate menu and to check their hours, visit http://places.singleplatform.com/pho-chau/menu or call (507) 281-3342. They are located at 1014 Broadway Ave N, Rochester.
Emily Carson is a curator of curiosity. In addition to her work as a local columnist and communications professional, she is also a Lutheran pastor. Find Emily on Twitter and Instagram at @emilyannecarson and on her website, holyeverything.com.
Cover photo: The Pho Chau team