With the shelter-in-place order extended, Bay Area restaurant owners are preparing for another month of takeout-only service. Although Tee Tran, the 34-year old owner of local Vietnamese restaurant Monster Pho, has only been bringing in about a fraction of his usual revenue, he views this crisis as an opportunity to repay the community and country where he found a home.
In 1989, when he was just a young child, Tran and his family escaped from Vietnam by boat and endured two years in refugee camps in Thailand before arriving in Oakland with 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 inspiration. Soon after their arrival in Oakland, she worked four jobs to keep the family afloat (dishwasher, babysitter, caregiver and seamstress). Taking a cue from his mother, Tran has been an entrepreneur since the age of eight, when he went door to door selling candy to his neighbors to contribute to his family’s meager income.
In his mid 20s, with no previous experience in the food business, he conceived a bold plan: open a Vietnamese restaurant to serve the traditional food his mother cooked (and hopefully provide her with future security). In 2014, the determined Tran beat the odds when he opened Monster Pho on Broadway in Oakland. Almost immediately, it attracted a devoted neighborhood following. People of all ages and backgrounds appreciated his cute monster logo and traditional Vietnamese cooking, including hearty bowls of pho, vermicelli noodle plates, crispy imperial rolls, Vietnamese crepes, banh mi sandwiches and green pandan waffles. In 2016, Tran was able to open a second location, Monster Pho 2, in Emeryville.
Even more impressive to Tran than his mother’s industriousness in supporting her family, has always been her unfailing generosity. He remembers her shock at seeing so many starving children at the refugee camp. No matter how little food she had for her own family, she always gave some of it away to feed the hungry children.
When the family arrived in Oakland and lived in an apartment complex with other Vietnamese refugees, Le shared whatever she cooked with her neighbors. Tran also learned from his mother that no matter the difficulties thrown in one’s path, one should treat others with respect and kindness.
“How I am today is because of my mom,” Tran told Nosh in a video chat. “Hearing stories is one thing, but I see what she does on a daily basis of helping people, especially old people.”
When the coronavirus hit, there was no question that Tran would use Monster Pho to help his neighbors and community. After deciding to temporarily close his Emeryville location and transitioning to takeout at the original Oakland restaurant, he immediately instituted a series of generous measures at the restaurant.
As many of his regular customers are doctors and nurses at Kaiser Oakland, he provides free Vietnamese coffee to health providers and first responders who pick up meals. (He’s even driven several times to the emergency room to deliver 30 extra coffees.)
And when his health care provider customers informed Tran about the dire shortage of masks and gloves, he created “Project Health Heroes” to help them. If a Monster Pho customer brings in any new PPE, they receive 50% off their entire order and Tran takes all the collected items to his contact at Kaiser ER.
In early April, Tran was approached by World Central Kitchen (WCK), the organization started by chef José Andrés that responds to worldwide disasters by mobilizing local restaurants to prepare meals for those in need. For its #ChefsForAmerica program, WCK helps small, independent businesses, like Monster Pho, by supplementing part of the cost of the meals that are donated. To begin, WCK asked Tran to make 200 meals a week. The organization was so pleased with the results, it quickly upped the request to 300; then 500. In the last three weeks, Tran and his staff have made 1000 meals, which WCK has distributed to homeless shelters, foster care kids and nonprofit agencies that help families dealing with hunger.
There are other, more personal ways that Tran supports his community, for example, providing some elderly customers with a box of produce to take home, so they don’t have to go out shopping. Respecting elders is almost a sacred duty in his family and culture.
“We have to respect our elders,” Tran says, “they’ve paved the way for us, they’ve seen a lot, they’ve been through a lot and they are here to tell us their stories. And if they are in a crisis and need our help, we should drop everything. If you don’t have the funds, then you have the strength, or other capabilities to help them. They deserve it.” He adds, “Buddhist philosophy says whether you have or don’t have, if you have done something to help someone, you’ve done something right.”
Part of helping others is keeping them safe. Back in February, Tran was already keeping an eye on the news. “I’m a Big NBA Warriors fan,” he says, “and I noticed when they started cleaning the seats, doing more sanitation. If the NBA is doing it, I thought, there must be a reason. I looked at my two restaurants and realized that we are jam packed almost every day, lunch and dinner. I decided it’s better to prepare, rather than wait until the last minute.” By the end of February, he came up with a plan, considering how switching to takeout orders would affect his employees, customers and vendors. “If I just closed,” says Tran, “everybody would lose their job. But I also wanted to make sure we are protecting the team and very important, my mom, because she comes by to cook every day.”
On March 12, the day the NBA suspended the season after the first player tested positive, Tran met with his staff and decided the best way help reduce the spread of the disease was to close down the Emeryville location and convert the Oakland restaurant for to-go service only.
Taking the early step to switch to takeout only, almost a week before Gov. Gavin Newsom mandated it, Tran ran into some very vocal resistance from customers who expected dine-in service. “The first day was really horrible. Because it was inconvenient for a lot of people and they felt I was over-reacting. I explained my concerns, the reasons why I want to plan ahead and be extra cautious, because it’s about protecting our family, our community. The first day was tough, the second was better and by the third day we were okay.”
Trying to plan ahead, Tran has already taken steps to anticipate an eventual reopening, but in a different configuration, with half the restaurant cordoned off for takeout orders and the other half in a modified, well-spaced seating arrangement, complete with plexiglass partitions between tables, hand-washing stations and plenty of sanitizer.
Tran gets emotional when he talks about what his family went through, “When we got to America,” he says, “we were living in the poorest areas and did not have much. But we were lucky enough that the community helped us for all these years.”
“Everyone talks about the American dream – come to America and do well and take care of your family, but that’s not it. You have really accomplished it, when you start to give back. What completes the American dream is being able to give back to your community.”
Monster Pho, 3905 Broadway (at 40th Street), Oakland. The restaurant is open noon-7 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday for curbside pickup and delivery via Doordash only; Monster Pho 2 in Emeryville is closed until further notice.