Bruce Johansen: It’s September 19, 2013. I’m Bruce Johansen and I’m at Ngon Vietnamese Bistro, located at 799 University Avenue West in St. Paul. This is one in a series of interviews I’m doing with business owners along the Central Corridor. My project is funded through a State of Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grant. [Audio at bottom]
Today I’m interviewing Hai Truong, co-owner and chef at Ngon. Thank you for accepting my invitation to be interviewed.
To learn more, read Ngon Vietnamese Bistro: “We knew this was right for us, and we knew light rail was coming,” by Bruce Johansen, listen to the audio below, and watch video here. This article is part of the series, Along the Corridor: University Avenue business owners navigating change, an oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Hai Truong: I was born in Vietnam. I got here when I was five, in 1979. I grew up kind of around the Twin Cities. I mean, when we first got here we lived at the Cedar-Riverside area, as with a lot of Vietnamese immigrants. We lived there for a while. We lived in St. Paul, lived in Mounds View, more or less the Shoreview area. Also lived in Maplewood.
B: Where did you attend school then, mostly in Minneapolis?
H: Elementary was in Minneapolis. I went to Mounds View High School. I also went to Tartan High School.
B: Did you live in this neighborhood as a kid?
H: I grew up, yeah, I also grew up around this area. This, pretty much grew up around here a lot because this location where my restaurant is now in the mid-80s, it was ’84, was my dad’s first restaurant. It was Caravelle Restaurant, and, I mean, it was Caravelle for a long time also. But when he owned it, as the Caravelle here, because he started the first Caravelle here, at one point there were like four Caravelles that his family, our family ran. His brothers and sisters.
B: Where were the others? I know that there’s one on Nicollet.
H: There’s one on Nicollet, there was one in Woodbury, there was another one. And he started the Nicollet one and the Woodbury one. This was the first one and he sold it to his sister, the Nicollet one, he sold that to his other sister, and he opened the one in Woodbury. And after selling that one, he retired. I used to come to work here when I was little, busing tables. We’d spend a lot of time here in the restaurant as kids.
B: So it’s in your blood.
H: Yeah, I mean my, we had a play area here with a TV, downstairs in the basement.
B: What happened to the restaurant in this location?
H: It was purchased by my aunt and it was run as Caravelle for a long time, and then it was turned into Pho Anh. And when she retired, I purchased the restaurant from her. At that time I was, prior to all that, you know, I had gone to school for economics and art.
B: At the University?
H: Yeah, the University of Minnesota and then I went into finance for about five, six years, and then left that industry. I wanted to get back into the restaurant industry. And my father knew I was looking for a restaurant. And then my aunt was retiring so I purchased it from her. Did a complete renovation of the whole space. Pretty much everything that was here is not here. Including the windows and the doors. My wife teaches interior design so she designed the place and built it all up.
B: Where does she teach?
H: The Art Institute.
B: She’s your business partner or co-owner, is that correct?
H: Yeah, yeah. I mean, she teaches and she helps out with the restaurant when she can. As she puts it, this is my baby and she helps out when she can.
B: What year was all of this happening, when you started the restaurant?
H: When we opened the restaurant, it was actually a year after we got married. Sorry, we started working on the restaurant a few weeks after we got married. So we started construction right away. Let’s see, it’s coming on seven years of when construction started.
B: I imagine you’d been doing a lot of dreaming and thinking about the business, leading up to that.
H: Well, we lived in the area and we wanted to, it was a good opportunity also to still be in the area and also be the location of my dad’s first restaurant. So there’s a lot of history here. I run into customers that they’re like, yeah, you used to come here when the restaurant was Caravelle. Well, you know, I was that little kid busing your table, so. And so I remember a lot of that.
B: And you still live in the area?
H: Yeah, I live two-and-a-half blocks away so it’s part of who we are what we want to do and what we want to be part of. When we opened the restaurant we knew that this was right for us and we knew that the light rail was going to come through. We wanted to do what we were doing and create a destination spot and customer base through word of mouth and that helped us survive light rail very well because a lot of people made a very conscious effort to come, so that helped out a lot.
B: That’s very different from some of your neighboring business owners who moved in NOT knowing that light rail was coming in and hadn’t planned for it.
H: I don’t know. I can’t say what they, I mean when they started. Some places started later. But we just didn’t want, the main thing was that we didn’t want to open a convenience restaurant, where it’s convenient for people that work in the area or who pass it by. People seek us out and come over. With construction going on, people are traveling to come to us already so what if it takes a couple more turns. It just creates a different kind of business. It makes it, for us, a little bit more sustainable during construction. And overall, our customer base is a little bit more…we attract people from all over the Twin Cities, not because they just work in this area.
B: Can you describe what this space was like before your moving in?
H: Let’s just say there was one window, probably three by five. It was dark. Just think classic Chinese restaurant with red stuff.
B: Where was the window?
H: Right against that wall. I tore that all down and reframed everything. What was nice was that in opening everything up I found the original entrance. And the tiles underneath, the original tiles so I just highlighted the whole thing. So everything on top was all original, so that’s how we pulled a cue for how the door was supposed to go. Because it was a long rectangular vestibule before.
B: What else did you do?
H: We put in new floors, new walls, molding, everything. What you see was not here. Literally. Built the tables, built the boxes, built the banquette, built the bar. There’s nothing here that was here.
B: You did some recent touch-ups or renovations?
H: Well, it was coming up on seven years. It was time for us to like re-sand the floors, so we got the floors re-sanded, I moved the bar, put this thing in, it was a little smaller bar, and I put this thing in, that made it a lot more spacious. Just fresh color paint. So it’s just one of those things after seven years that you need to touch up.
B: What does your family think of the restaurant?
H: They like it. They know that I’m happy doing what I’m doing, so that’s the whole thing. It gives me the opportunity to do what I like to do. Be creative, and also where we are, with the restaurant, it gives me the opportunity to, for me to be at home with my son a lot.
B: How old is your son?
B: I take it you don’t miss the world of finance too much.
B: What drew you to cooking in the first place?
H: Just kind of grew up in the industry. So it worked out well.
B: And were you trained by family?
H: Yeah, just growing up in it. And then just part of the whole life in the industry. From watching my grandmother cook and all that.
B: How does this menu compare with the menus of other restaurants your family has owned.
H: Well, they had more of a Chinese restaurant and with Vietnamese and they also had a pho shop so it’s a little bit of a difference. We’re a Vietnamese French restaurant, so we went kind of for that flair, Vietnamese with a little stronger French influence. As far as that, I designed the menu for the way that we eat at home. We wanted, and how we like to go out to eat. We wanted more nutritious, scratch, local food. Know where things come from. We also wanted to make it affordable. In the sense that you can go here a lot, families can go here a lot. It’s an extension of my philosophies with food, and eating, and family.
B: It’s important to you that you buy from local sources?
H: Yeah, it’s important, as much as we can do being an ethnic restaurant. Like, I need cilantro, so in the winter I have to go buy, so certain parts of the season we are more, certain parts we’re not. But it also goes with the meat that we’re buying. They’re not factory feed lots.
B: Do you purchase produce from farmers’ markets?
H: Farmers’ markets, Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, Midwest Salad, and also distributors that have a great local list. Because it’s all about knowing where it comes from, but also effective distribution of these local foods, so it’s good that there are distributors out there who are catching on to this. And they come out with lists. Like there would be a produce list that they’d send and like this is all the local produce we have right now.
B: And you plan some of the menu around what’s on the list?
H: Yeah and kind of what’s in season.
B: I also know that you have local beers on tap.
H: Yeah, we are, I was a home brewer. I worked at a brewery for a while, waiting tables, a brewpub. And it just became part. When I first started doing the beer, it wasn’t, there were Minnesota breweries, but there wasn’t a whole lot. But we felt to start out, you know, all Minnesota beers, it’s like why not. We have enough to fill our lines with Minnesota beers. So let’s just do it. It goes to the whole concept of supporting a local economy.
B: Now you have more than enough to choose from.
H: Now I have more than enough, where we have to, where we’re adding twelve more lines in order to support more local breweries.
B: What are your earliest memories of University Avenue?
H: Just hanging up and down here. Running off to Crazy Louie’s, which was down half a block, which is where Model Cities building is, which was army surplus.
B: Kind of like Ax Man?
H: Kind of like Ax Man, but I thought it was a lot cooler. But I was little then, so everything probably seemed cool.
B: Was that around for a long time?
H: Yeah, as far as I. It was just this open space. And you’re like, oh cool, helmets. Just things like that, you know. We’d just go buy random things, especially if I’m helping my mom bus tables and I have some cash in hand, it’s like, “I’m going to Crazy Louie’s.”
B: What are some of the changes you’ve seen up and down the street?
H: Well, a lot of changes have happened more recently, you know, with the light rail but also slowly. When we first started there were prostitution problems and stuff. In the ‘80s. I mean, it’s still around but it was a little worse then, and the community, I remember them correcting that, just calling the police a lot more often. Now things are, they’re investing on the street. When the light rail went through I was happy that they didn’t do a cheap job of it. It’s like, oh it’s going through a poor neighborhood, it doesn’t matter. They’re actually using bricks, good materials, and building something to last, versus just getting it through.
B: How were you affected by the construction? It sounds like you anticipated it, you knew it was coming.
H: Yeah, it slowed down, there’s nothing more than that it slowed down, but we were at a corner so it was easy to get to, so it didn’t, but we had a lot of people come to help support us. We had a lot of people tell us, we used to come here a lot but we actually made a bigger effort to come more.
B: For how many months were you affected?
H: It was the summer. It was the whole summer. I also anticipated the light rail, but with the start of construction, a year prior, with a food truck to promote the restaurant during construction. So we would head out with the food truck. It kind of goes along with what I like to do. Me and my buddy, he has a metal, he has a design business). He’s actually done a lot of this cool stuff, cool stuff around the Cities. And he’s also my neighbor, so for summer we were working on restoring a ’67 Volkswagen bus and turning it into a food truck. And last year we headed out and we just made sure it came out and reminded people that we’re out. And that was part of the push, reminding people that we were out here.
B: What were some of the locations the food truck would park?
H: Mostly St. Paul. Downtown St. Paul.
B: Are you still doing that?
H: Now it’s just special events.
B: Do you do any kind of catering?
H: Not really. We do special events more than anything.
B: Like festivals?
H: Yeah like, next Sunday we’re doing Autumn Brewery Review. We’ve been doing that for years. Even before the food truck. Just now it’s easier with the food truck.
B: How many people do you employ?
H: 15? 20? I think it’s probably around 15, so, because it’s part-time, full-time, so it’s just a mixture.
B: Any family members?
H: Nope. It’s just me and when my wife comes in to help out. A lot of times it’s usually I’m here because we’re both not here a lot because usually if I’m here, like right now, she’s home with our son. We’re in a situation where she teaches and I’m able to do this. And our schedule’s flexible enough where he doesn’t go to any type of daycare. And that’s what we really wanted to do.
B: You’ve talked about your patrons coming from all around the area. What else would you say about your patrons? Who are your customers? How would you categorize them?
H: It seems like they’re great customers. It’s nice that they’re very loyal and they do pass on word of mouth, you know. Even a lot of people who haven’t been here, they’re like, “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to try your place, all of my friends talk about your place.” So that’s the kind of advertising, that’s the kind of stuff you can’t pay for. And that’s how we like it. I think they’re very like-minded in how they believe in certain ways of food culture and eating, so they tend to have the same beliefs or food values.
B: Do you do any kind of advertising besides word of mouth?
H: Not any more. We used to advertise on the Current, and we can’t afford to do that anymore. It kept going up. So we actually don’t do anything anymore. We used social media and then word of mouth and mentions in newspapers and magazines help out.
B: Yelp reviewers?
H: I don’t pay attention to that. I don’t, I guess I don’t pay too much attention to those things, because it’s always here or there, this person, what kind of viewpoint they base everything on. I used to read one of them, them a lot before, and here and there, and it’s like, well, that doesn’t even make any sense, with an angry person. Then there’s the happy person. Then there’s the person that says, but we don’t even serve that. Or you don’t really understand our concept. I was just like, so I don’t even pay attention to that stuff. I like doing what I like to do. If you don’t like it, there are plenty of choices along the Avenue. With social media I just use Facebook and Twitter. I don’t use those sites, the other sites where it’s these reviews and things like that….I don’t believe in those kinds of passive aggressive complaints that could be addressed at the table. If there was a problem, let’s address it. So that’s a problem with social media, where almost there’s the disconnect of human interaction anymore. Like where you could have said, hey there was a mess-up here, no, I’m going to build this grudge so I can go home and just, bleh. Instead of someone saying, “Hey, I’m sorry that you gotten a rotten meal, we’ll grab you another one.” Wow, who knew that you could actually talk to someone.
B: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your time here?
H: Pushing our concept. Not a big challenge. It caught on fairly well but expectation of the concept. They see a Vietnamese restaurant, they expect it to be the same as every other Vietnamese restaurant. Prices, service, food, and stuff, instead of just, like in the beginning, people were getting upset that they got their appetizer and they didn’t get their food until they were done with their appetizer. And they got cleared and reset. It’s like where’s my food. I’ll save it. You’re still eating your appetizer. So it’s like there are concepts of understanding of how certain owners run their business and people that even just dine everywhere but then they have the expectation at a Vietnamese restaurant. Even if you’re an Applebee’s eater, you know, your appetizer still comes before your meal. It’s just things like that and expectations about time and cooking time. You know, we’re scratch, so things take longer. We’re cooking this and we’re cooking this. It’s interesting you know that your server brings you your bill and takes care of your bill, versus walking up to any type of counter. Things like, expectations that we had to kind of crack. This is why our prices are the way they are. We’re a ma and pa shop essentially because it’s Hai run and everything but I do staff a lot of employees and we do pay our employees well. We take care of them. Where labor is not our profit margin. Where, you know how kind of mom and pop shop work is that they’re labors of profit and there’s a price for that. Where we want to make sure, we buy from vendors that take care of their employees, so we do make conscious efforts at that. And I always think, what’s the price difference? OK, that’s fine for me. I think that’s a good way to take good care of people. If you buy, if you do certain things, you make purchases from places that provide health care, that’s what we do. Then you know, it gets passed on some other way. Someone bears that burden just because you didn’t. Someone provided that labor at a lower, so. I think that’s more important in the end and we don’t charge a low price, we don’t charge a high price, we charge a fair price. And that’s why people ask us for coupons. Like, do you have coupons? No, not really. I feel like we charge a fair price and our margins are the way they are. We don’t price to discount. It’s a little more sustainable design, I feel.
B: Maybe you need to educate customers on your menu that, “This is our philosophy.”
H: We used to do that a little bit more but our clientele has reached the basics, so a lot of times we just say this is what we’re doing and why, and very simple, so that works well. And then we get to a point where we don’t want to be too preachy, we don’t want to be preachy, but we want to give credit to where credit’s due. And hopefully when people see A Thousand Hills at the market, they’ll buy it and they’ll understand. So it’s understanding that stuff. It benefits the people that we work with also.
B: The biggest rewards of owning this restaurant would be?
H: I’m doing something I love. That’s why I left the finance industry. Because it was putting me in a dark place I didn’t want to be in. I get to be creative, I get to be able to hang out with a lot of people I want to be with, and I get to spend time with my family. Even like building a bar, it’s what I wanted to do. I constructed it in my garage, my basement, and my friend’s studio. I still can do creative parts where it’s not just cooking.
B: What do you expect the impact of the light rail will be once it’s up and running?
H: I think it’s going to be a very positive effect. It’ll be good for business. It’ll make it easier for people. People will stop here for dinner and go to the downtowns. The revitalization of the area, investments into properties are happening more and more. Even a lot of these places where people held off until the light rail was in. That’s starting with the old auto places, the dealerships and stuff, so I think it’s going to be great.
B: Do you see downsides for some of the businesses?
H: Could be. It’s just how your business is designed. I don’t want to say that one business is better, one business is bad, one business is good. But if you design a business for a better reason for people to want to go to you, versus sheer convenience, that becomes an issue, and that’s kind of what happened with light rail. Some businesses may have been at the brink of that and it pushed them over. Some businesses might not have thought about it prior. I mean, we saved up for it, as much as we can.
B: Do you own the building or does your family own the building?
H: My dad owned the building and I ended up purchasing it from him, so I’m here to stay and it’s nice because I have site control to do what I need to do, to expand.
B: Have you thought about opening up another Ngon, maybe across the river?
H: No. This is enough. This is enough for me.
B: Any changes besides the recent cleanup, renovations?
H: No, nothing more than this right now. We’ll eventually expand a little bit more upstairs.
B: Upstairs will be additional seating?
H: More like banquet space and hopefully we’ll add music. We’re leaving it open.
B: Are you hoping your young son will stay in the business?
H: It’s all up to him, what he wants to do. There’s no expectations.
B: What did your parents do in Vietnam?
H: I don’t know. They never really talked too much about that stuff.
B: Well, I really appreciate your taking the time. I’d like to take some photos of you and the restaurant.
This article is part of a Central Corridor small business oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.