Restaurateur impressing Salt Lake with good food, hard work
Like a keen sailor on the changing sea, Mai Nguyen knows the ebb and flow of the restaurant business.
Over the past two decades, she and her family have owned several Utah eateries, seeking new concepts to entice diners, but unafraid to change direction if a business no longer proves profitable.
"We fail many, many times," Nguyen said of her family that now operates four Salt Lake Valley restaurants. "It's part of success for me."
It is that fearless, internal strength that recently earned Nguyen the Woman Business Owner of the Year award given by the Salt Lake City chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).
The family's flagship restaurant is Sapa Sushi Bar and Grill, opened in 2009 in Salt Lake City and named for a once-flourishing market town in their native Vietnam. It has become a beloved dining spot as much for the signature rolls, noodle soup (pho) and cocktails as for its antique Vietnamese tea houses. Nguyen and her husband, Son Dang, worked for months, navigating government and cultural red tape so they could ship the dark wood buildings to Utah, where they were reassembled to create one of the city's most unusual patios.
On most days, Nguyen, 42, can be found at Sapa, overseeing the day-to-day details of the business, talking to customers and even getting behind the counter to make sushi.
The family's three other restaurants are within walking distance of each other in the 2000 South and 3500 West area of West Valley City: Bucket O' Crawfish has a Southern, crawfish-boil menu that requires guests to eat with their hands; Fat Fish is known for its affordable sushi and pho; and Noodle and Chopstick has accessible pan-Asian cuisine, including vermicelli bowls and banh mi sandwiches.
In 2013, the four restaurants employed more than 100 people and had $3 million in sales.
Nguyen said when she travels, she likes to eat and explore other restaurant concepts.
"If I see something that fits Salt Lake, I want to try it out," she said. "It can be hit or miss, but that is part of the restaurant business. I'm not afraid of failing. I take it as a lesson and move on and make it better the next time."
The NAWBO award is the second honor Nguyen has received in 2014. She also was named the 2014 Outstanding Asian Business Owner by the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce.
"Having more than one restaurant concept shows her business and entrepreneurial skills," said Shilpi Culmer, the chamber's president-elect. "She's brought new things to Salt Lake City and her food stands out."
"I'm most impressed by her tenacity to not give up and just figure things out when she needed to," added Janice Boes, president of the local NAWBO, who nominated Nguyen for the group's annual award.
Before ever meeting Nguyen, Boes said she was a fan of Sapa and dined there often. Her children and Nguyen's children also went to the same elementary school, and by chance Boes became friends with Nguyen's sisters. "I learned how hardworking and kind the entire family is, how they care about others and that Mai, especially, wants to give back to the community."
"Shy but very intelligent" is how Boes described Nguyen. "She is a true inspiration."
Nguyen was 9 when her parents and six younger siblings immigrated to Northern California, where her parents worked menial jobs to pay the bills. A few years after arriving, Nguyen's father was killed in an armed robbery, a story she has been hesitant to tell.
"I was the oldest, so a lot of responsibility fell on my shoulders," said Nguyen, who was 14 at the time. Her youngest sibling was 2. "Life was tough. But I don't complain because it has made me a lot stronger."
In 1992, Nguyen said, her family moved to Utah to be near relatives and because "someone told my mom it was a good place to raise kids."
Once in Salt Lake City, Nguyen's mother, with the help of her California relatives, opened a noodle house. Nguyen worked in the restaurant after school and helped raise her siblings, all of whom went on to graduate from college, earning degrees in everything from business to engineering.
The family started Salt Lake City's Pho Ha and Dragon Palace restaurants, but when profits weren't as high as they wanted, the businesses were sold.
The family then began investing in properties in Salt Lake City as well as in California and Portland, Ore. Nguyen would flip restaurants, finding underperforming businesses that she could remodel, update and sell. The travel, she said, was not easy when her three sons now 21, 14 and 8 were young.
"After the economy crashed we went back into the Utah restaurant business," said Nguyen. They opened Pho Green Papaya in 2007, but closed it last year to rebrand and create Noodle and Chopstick. Switching concepts left many customers confused, as Pho Green Papaya served authentic food and always received positive reviews.
"We wanted to open for lunch, but Pho Green Papaya's menu was too complicated and took too much time to prepare," she said.
Today, Nguyen is working on another 1-acre development across the street from Sapa, a sort of food alley with restaurants, bars, bakeries that is similar to ones she has seen in Oakland, Calif., and Seattle.
"Salt Lake City is ready for one of these," she said.
She also has 30,000 square feet of space near her West Valley properties where she hopes to create more retail space to attract minority business owners. Nguyen said she hopes to provide financing for those who may not traditionally qualify for business loans.
"When I set out to start my own business, my main goal was to provide for my family," she said. "I feel very fortunate I am at a place in my life that I am able to focus on not only my family, but my community."
Utah restaurant dynasty
Mai Nguyen, her husband, Son Dang, as well as her siblings and extended family operate four restaurants in the Salt Lake Valley.
Bucket O' Crawfish • 1980 W. 3500 South, West Valley City; 801-419-0900.
Fat Fish • 1980 W. 3500 South, West Valley City; 801-887-7272.
Noodle and Chopstick • 2000 W. 3500 South, West Valley City; 801-886-1548.
Sapa Sushi Bar and Grill • 722 S. State St., Salt Lake City; 801-363-7272