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COVER STORYAug. 25, 2006

Exit From Eden

Whose American dream will Lo-Ann Lai follow: her parents’ or her own?

By Tim Carman

Cut and Run: Lo-Ann finally cut all ties from the family business about five years ago.(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The Jean Luc salon is a converted, electric-lime-green town house in Georgetown where the staff asks if you want a mimosa or a cappuccino with your color treatment. Lo-Ann Lai fits right in here. Her sleek, low-cut black dress and perfectly pedicured toes, which are tucked into dress sandals adorned with peach-colored bows, help create the impression that the salon is more a club or fine-dining restaurant than a place that smells of dyes and floral shampoo.

This Saturday afternoon, Lai is fussing over one of her regulars. She clips around on the polished hardwood floors, performing a pair of complicated chemical procedures to Dawn Amore’s short, architectural hair. The computer programmer with a taste for the offbeat has put her hair in Lai’s hands for more than a year now, ever since Amore came back from Italy with an asymmetrical coif that generated a few unnerving Liza Minnelli comparisons. Lai fixed that anachronistic cut, and now Amore “won’t go anywhere else.” It seems that in a conservative city—so conservative that hairdressers fret that if they give you a funky ’do, Amore says, “you’ll get mad and won’t come back”—Lo-Ann Lai isn’t afraid to take chances.

Amore has no idea how accurate her salon-chair assessment is. The loyal customer is completely unaware of one of the biggest risks that Lai has ever taken—until today, when my presence makes Amore wonder what the story is here. The uncomfortable situation forces Lai to make an uncomfortable confession: “My family owns a Vietnamese restaurant,” she says. “It’s in Virginia.”

“What’s it called?” Amore asks.

“The Four Sisters,” says Lai, not using the restaurant’s original Vietnamese name, Huong Que.

Lo-Ann Lai is one of the Four Sisters. She’s the 33-year-old daughter of Kim Lai and Thanh Tran, an immigrant couple who in 1991 launched Huong Que in an unwanted corner of the Eden Center. A short move and many raves later, the restaurant has become the most honored Vietnamese eatery in the D.C. area.

Once she gets briefed on the history of Huong Que, Amore asks the inevitable question. “You don’t have anything to do with the restaurant?” she asks. “You don’t work there or anything?”

“That’s actually why he’s here,” Lai responds, nodding toward me. “He’s writing about why I’m not wanting to follow in my family’s footsteps.”

That’s a question Lai first had to answer nearly 15 years ago, when her parents wanted to know the same thing. After all, Kim and Thanh had already seen their oldest child, Ly, waste a lot of time (and a lot of their money) earning a hairstylist’s license, only to end up in the family business. Why, they wondered, would Lo-Ann’s experience be any different?

“They said, ‘No, you should do the food industry. In the food industry, you make so much more money,’ ” Lai remembers. “I said, ‘Yes, I understand that. It’s not what I love.’ I said, ‘You know that. You’re my parents. You know I don’t love that. You can see that I’m not one of these kids that want to run a restaurant.’ ”

It’s a Family Affair: From left, Le Lai, Thuan, Kim, Hoa, Thanh, Ly, and Lieu at Huong Que(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Named after a popular shopping mall in the former Saigon, the Eden Center was the invention of a group of Vietnamese-Americans who, in 1984, leased the vacant Grand Union supermarket in Falls Church, divided it into 15 retail spaces, and subleased each to entrepreneurs from their own immigrant community. By 1996, the Florida-based property owner had assumed management of the site and began expanding and renovating the center, adding an elaborate gateway arch, a replica of a clock tower from Ho Chi Minh City, and more than 32,000 square feet of retail space.

None of these improvements seems to have made much difference. The Eden Center still feels like a Third World away from the Jean Luc salon. Storefronts, more than 100 of them split between the exterior and interior spaces in the center, are crammed right next to one another, their personalities defined mostly by their hand-painted windows or the size and shade of their neon signs. The most notable feature of the Eden Center is its sprawling parking lot, with spaces for 1,200 vehicles, which still isn’t large enough for the massive weekend crowds.

For many in the first and second waves of Vietnamese immigration to the D.C. area, the Eden Center has been the focal point, the place where they can shop, get a haircut, and unwind at one of the dozens of cafes and coffee shops there. It is also the place where a number of families, after spending years toiling and saving in the underbelly of the American food-service industry, started their own restaurants. Kim Lai, Thanh Tran, and their six children were one such family.

Like many Vietnamese immigrants in the early ’80s, Kim and Thanh came to the United States with little money, few marketable skills, no grasp of the English language, and children to feed—in their case four daughters, Ly, Le Lai, Lo-Ann, and Lieu, and two sons, Hoa and Thuan. The couple, who owned a motorcycle-parts shop back in Vietnam, was forced to take menial positions at McDonald’s, Holiday Inn, and the like just to support the kids. Each parent worked two jobs, and they made time for the children whenever they could.

“Literally, I never saw my parents as a kid,” says oldest son Hoa, now executive chef at Huong Que. “My sister’s the one who raised us. Not that I’m saying my parents weren’t there all the time.”

Kim Lai and Thanh Tran raised their children in a hospitality world.(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Within a few years, however, Lo-Ann, Hoa, and the rest of their siblings found themselves spending more time with their folks, though not exactly under ideal conditions: After school, the kids would help restock the hot-dog trucks that Kim and Thanh had purchased to peddle fast food to tourists and office workers. But it was the income those trucks generated that led to the ultimate family-bonding experience in 1991: the opening of Huong Que in a small, almost cursed corner of the Eden Center. Six other businesses had already come and gone in that location. “Nobody wanted to pay money to get that place,” remembers Le Lai, second oldest of the four sisters. (She goes by her full name to avoid confusion with her sister Ly, whose name sounds the same to American ears.) “They keep thinking it was a bad-luck place.”

But fortune smiled on the family in that bad-luck place. Word of mouth quickly spread about Thanh—untrained as a professional chef, but obsessed with understanding the nuances of Vietnamese food—whose cooking reminded many Vietnamese of home. Lines started forming outside the door, and the Lai family was offered an opportunity in 1997 to move to a larger, more hospitable location in the front of the plaza, where Huong Que would soon become the star attraction of the Eden Center.

The Washington Post’s Phyllis Richman gave the restaurant her blessing in December 1997. “It’s not a single dish that makes Huong Que stand out from the crowd,” the critic wrote. “Instead, it’s the bountiful choices.” The huzzahs haven’t stopped since. The restaurant, which assumed the nickname “Four Sisters” not long after Richman’s review in an attempt to give its growing non-Vietnamese clientele an easier name to pronounce (it’s “Hong Cue”), now routinely lands on the Post’s and the Washingtonian’s lists for best places to eat. It is, without question, the most recognizable Vietnamese restaurant in the Eden Center.

Fifteen years after they founded Huong Que, Kim, 57, and Thanh, 56, continue to spend most of their waking hours working at the restaurant or the nearby deli, Song Que, which they opened four years ago to serve banh mi and bubble drinks. Kim still handles the finances at Huong Que, while Thanh makes most of the sandwiches and desserts at Song Que. As they inch toward their retirement years, the couple has had to grapple with a common issue in the Eden Center: Do they encourage their children to assume a role in the business or do they let the kids follow the American dream, wherever it takes them, even if it’s far away from the family?

It’s a question that plagues every family-owned business, but it’s a particularly acute one to the aging Vietnamese restaurant community, which values family togetherness but also struggles to find young managers, waiters, and cooks who show any interest in enduring the long days, the weekend hours, and the hot kitchens of the hospitality business.

“Right now, all the Vietnamese chefs are from the family, not from the school or not from somewhere in Vietnam. Mother teaches daughter,” says Hung Cheng, the 56-year-old owner of Viet Royale who opened his restaurant in the Eden Center almost 17 years ago. “The young men, right now they do not like cooking in the kitchen or working hard.”

How each restaurant family handles the question of business longevity depends on how they view the business itself. At Huong Viet, the oldest restaurant in Eden Center, owner Hai Huynh and wife/chef Huong Son fully expect their six daughters to take over one day—you can spot them working the stoves already. But Cheng at Viet Royale and Johnson Nguyen and Kim Tran, who used to run the Hau Giang Restaurant, take just the opposite view. Their businesses have always been means to a better end. The parents actively discouraged their children from entering the kitchen, sometimes even pushing them in other directions. Nguyen, for instance, urged one of his daughters, Jennyfer Nguyen, to become a doctor.

Thuan, right, left the corporate world to work at Song Que, where Ly is training him to become manager.(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Sometimes the kids listen. Sometimes they don’t. Cheng’s sons, he says, like to joke that they “don’t like the restaurant; they don’t work for the restaurant; they don’t eat here.” Jennyfer, by contrast, decided to follow her parents into the business. “School is not a thing for me,” says the 23-year-old cook and owner of Tay Do, one of the newest eateries in the complex. “This is a job where you work for your own, and you’re not afraid of being fired the next day or anything. I mean, I hold my own financial future and stuff.”

The decision to enter the business is complicated for the children of Vietnamese immigrant restaurateurs, who usually started with nothing, worked virtually nonstop for years, and not only built a business to generate cash for the family but also created a social fixture in their community. As Jennyfer indicates, economics and control play a factor in a child’s decision. Siblings can immediately earn a decent living, with a promise of even more, without the hassle of college and the huge loans that often go with it. “I just never really thought about that I could make [cooking] into a career,” says Hoa, the chef at Huong Que. “I think I started doing so when I starting seeing the money coming in, and I was thinking, you know, I like this now.”

But family also exerts considerable influence on a child’s decision—and not just the influence of parent on son or daughter. A child must think about his or her own future family and how a career in restaurants will affect a spouse and children. Do any of Kim and Thanh’s sons and daughters really want to raise a family in which, like their parents, they won’t be around to see their children grow?

At a table in the back of Huong Que during a slow period of the afternoon, Thanh Tran sits quietly to the side, patiently allowing her daughter Le Lai to answer most of the questions. Thanh’s husband, Kim, has been invited to join the interview, but he prefers to keep his distance. Though quiet, Thanh is personable. She smiles when you look at her. Her hair is short and stylish, her blouse a red-and-white floral print, and her jewelry tastefully jade. Thanh doesn’t speak English well, perhaps a legacy of a rule in the Lai household during the children’s formative years: Everyone speaks Vietnamese only. Le Lai serves as translator when the question of parental influence pops up: Do Thanh and Kim want their children to enter the family business, or do they encourage them to follow their own passions?

“OK, there’s a first phase and a second phase,” Le Lai translates for her mother. “The first phase was, we didn’t have a lot of money. The goal was to open a restaurant and make money. But now that we make money, her dream is: Whoever wants to follow in her footsteps are welcome to, and whoever wants to do whatever, she will support as much as she could by giving them money for school or whatever they want.”

That might have been the official parental message, but Lo-Ann has her own translation of it. “If they had a magic wand, they would want all of us to be in the restaurant business,” she says. “It’s not just what a career is. I think they want us to be in the same place. They want to see faces everyday....The Asian culture is very tight. They want to keep their kids all in one place.”

The executive chef at Huong Que is not one of the sisters but eldest son Hoa Lai.(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Whether in magazines or on the Food Network, chefs love to babble about their passion for the kitchen. The children of Vietnamese restaurateurs rarely use the word “passion” to describe their commitment to the hospitality industry. They tend to view restaurants more as a responsibility or as an economic engine. Their passions often lie elsewhere. But these children are fortunate in that, unlike their parents, they have been afforded a luxury: the ability to pursue their true interests. Because they are educated in America and can speak the dominant language, the children can dare to look beyond the food-service industry where so many Vietnamese immigrants got their start—and where they tend to stay.

So while Lo-Ann may be the only one of the four sisters to break from the family business, she’s not the only one with ambitions outside the restaurant industry. Lo-Ann’s oldest sister, 36-year-old Ly, the one who raised the children while their parents worked all those crazy hours, also went to beauty school. So did the youngest sister, 31-year-old Lieu. Le Lai—34-year-old “Sister No. 2” in the family’s shorthand—has worked as a freelance flower arranger. Lo-Ann’s youngest brother, 29-year-old Thuan, is the only member of the Lai family to attend college; he graduated from George Mason with a degree in business-management information systems.

And yet: With the exception of Lo-Ann and Lieu, each of Kim and Thanh’s children, including 30-year-old Hoa, works full-time in one of the family businesses. Lieu splits her hours between another Georgetown salon and Huong Que—sometimes, like her parents before her, working two jobs in the same day. In deciding where to work, every one of the Lai children, with the possible exception of Hoa, has had to deal with the same internal question: Does their passion for another vocation trump their responsibility to, and affection for, their parents and the business they created?

“Right now, I’m like stuck right in the middle, between a hard place and a rock,” says Lieu, Sister No. 4, who says she has a genuine interest in restaurants. “This is something for the family, and I can’t just step away. But the hair business, I mean, I like it so much, and it’s part of me, too. I don’t know if I can just step away from the business—from the restaurant—and go into full-time hairstyling. But I like it so much, where I can’t drop that and be here all the time. I’m a little torn right now between the two.”

If you ask Lieu what she’d do if there weren’t a family restaurant to consider, she expresses no hesitation. “Oh, yeah, I’d definitely do hair,” says Lieu. “Hair is my passion.” She and Lo-Ann continue to talk about opening their own salon together.

For Ly, Sister No. 1, the decision to ditch a career as a hairdresser was apparently easy. Ly earned her hairstyling license right around the time her parents were venturing into the hot-dog business. “I like to do what my parents are doing, so I go with them,” says Ly, who now manages the Song Que deli. “I guess I’m older and a little bit more Vietnamese in thinking—thinking like you were born over there, and you were raised over there, so everything has to be close to the family....What is a better job to have than to have your family with you all the time?”

Le Lai says doing freelance floral arranging, “didn’t even feel like I was working.”(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Ly’s future does not lie with Song Que, however. She plans to join the family at Huong Que’s new location at the corner of Lee Highway and Gallows Road in Falls Church, which is scheduled to open late next year. The plan is to move Huong Que in its entirety to the new spot, a combination residential/retail space, but the family hasn’t decided yet whether to sell its lease at the Eden Center or transform the current location into something different. One thing seems certain, though: Each child who comes along will become part owner in the new operation. At present, each sibling who works at Huong Que only draws a salary.

But Ly may have another option. She’s married to Chen “Sly” Liao, executive chef for the Ark Restaurants Corp.’s D.C. operation, which includes Sequoia and America, and there is talk among the family that Ly and Sly may open their own restaurant. If so, it would mark the first time a Lai family member would venture into a restaurant not of their parents’ making. “We’re thinking about it,” Ly says, “but we’re not doing it yet.”

To fill her position at Song Que, Ly is training Thuan to become manager. The youngest brother’s path to the deli wound through an Arlington office of Verizon, where he worked for eight months after graduating from Mason. Thuan learned quickly that he wasn’t cut out for the corporate world. One day, when a huge server crashed, Thuan fixed it during a lunch break while his officemates were noshing.

“I actually fixed it by myself. I felt great,” he remembers. “So they came back, and then the supervisor asked the manager who did the work, and he said he did. He took my credit. I overheard him.”

It wasn’t much later, Thuan says, that he gave two weeks’ notice. The spotlight-stealing incident wasn’t his sole motivation for leaving. He was also tired of being holed up in a cubicle, staring at a computer for eight hours a day. “It wasn’t me,” he says. “I’m more of a social person. I love to talk to people, interact. After a while, I just got really tired. I mean, I was more stressed out working at Verizon than helping my parents out.”

And so Thuan has returned to the family business, though maybe not for good. “I’m still trying to figure out what I want, but I’m happy helping my parents out,” he says. “I feel sometimes I should do something more. I always ask myself, ‘I have everything. Why do I want more?’ I don’t understand why I want more.”

If anything, Le Lai has contented herself with wanting less. If you press her, she’ll admit that arranging flowers is her passion and that one of her dreams is doing “something with flowers.” Her massive arrangements are constantly on display at Huong Que, where, Le Lai says, “people who love flowers come in and say, ‘Oh, I wonder what she’s doing this week.’ ”

About four years ago, the head designer with Jack H. Lucky Floral Design was eating at Huong Que and asked after the arrangements. He wanted to know whom Huong Que hired to do its flowers. When Le Lai informed him that she did all the arrangements, he wasted no time in making a pitch.

That offer turned into a prime opportunity for Le Lai, who began to freelance for Lucky on a number of major galas and parties. “I was enjoying myself,” Le Lai says. “I didn’t even feel like I was working. I felt like I was doing something fun but got paid at the same time.”

The party didn’t last, though. Taking care of two young children and managing a busy restaurant has forced Le Lai to sacrifice her freelance gig. She now has to be satisfied with her weekly fresh-cut ritual for Huong Que. It’s not easy. “If I ever don’t do a restaurant, I would probably do flowers,” she says. “But I’m happy with the restaurant because I get to see my family and so many regular customers now.”

Of all the siblings, only Hoa seems like a natural fit for the restaurant business, even if he didn’t know it at first. More than 10 years ago, as Hoa was trying to figure out his place in the world, his mother made him an offer: The chef would teach her son how to cook. “I’m like, ‘OK, you know, I’ll give it a try,’ ” Hoa says. “That’s how I got into it.”

If that doesn’t sound exactly like a calling, it’s because it wasn’t. It was more of an emergency measure to help out a struggling kitchen. “At that time, we were just trying to make it day by day,” Hoa says. “There wasn’t anything more of a future plan....I was just jumping in because we were lacking staff.”

But mother might have noticed things that her son didn’t at the time: his lack of interest in school, his need for cash to go clubbing, and, most important, his natural ability in the kitchen. Thanh surely noticed that of all her children—three of whom rarely step foot into the kitchen to this day—Hoa had the makings of a chef.

What may have been obligation at first has now turned into the kind of opportunity that seldom comes along in the restaurant business: the opportunity to become a shareholder. Like his siblings, Hoa stands to become part owner in the new Huong Que when it opens. His parents, Hoa notes, are “just trying to open up the gateway for us, so when they retire, we can move on with a career with the restaurant. That torch is going to be passed on.”

Just not to Lo-Ann, who always had other plans.

The next to fall? Lieu Lai talks about opening a salon with Lo-Ann.(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Sitting in the bright courtyard at Jean Luc shortly after a summer rain, Lo-Ann is explaining why she spells her first name differently than her family does. “See, that’s not even original. It’s L-O-A-N, but I’m tired of people calling me, ‘Loan,’ like loaning me some money,” she says. “Just call me Lo-Ann. It sounds a little prettier.”

The name change is a minor rebellion, but it smacks of the much larger one that occurred years ago, when Lo-Ann decided she wanted to pursue hairdressing. Her interest in hair can be traced back to childhood, when Lo-Ann’s fascination with locks led her siblings to dub her the “fashion queen of the family.” During high school, she took a cosmetology class and worked a few hours a week in a salon. When she graduated, Lo-Ann told her parents she wanted to turn hairstyling into a career.

“They go, ‘What do you mean this is what you want to do?’ I say, ‘I want to do hair.’ They go, ‘Nope,’ ” Lo-Ann remembers. “My dad was mostly opposed versus my mom. Of course, my mom didn’t think it was a good idea, but my dad was very strong on [me] not doing it. I say, ‘Dad, this is what I really want to do.’ They say, ‘We don’t think you’re going to make it.’ ”

Part of her parents’ fears were cultural. In Vietnam, cutting hair is not a career, it’s more like “working in a gas station,” Lo-Ann says. You sit around a lot waiting for someone to pay you a few dollars for a cut. To her parents, working in a salon was not a worthy pursuit; they had not left their business behind, fled the Communists, and started life anew in the United States just so one of their daughters could brandish a blow-dryer.

Lo-Ann had to convince her parents that not all beauty shops were like those in the Eden Center, which are little more than white-tile floors, mirrors, barber chairs, and stylists waiting around for customers. She had to convince them that there were places in the hairstyling world like Jean Luc in Georgetown.

“I say, ‘Just give me a shot, and I’ll prove to you that I can do it and I love what I do,’ ” Lo-Ann remembers. “I say, ‘If you want me to go into the restaurant business, I could do it because you want me to do it. But know that I do not want to do it. This is not my thing.’ ”

So they worked out a deal. Lo-Ann would work in the restaurant, and her parents would help pay her tuition to beauty school. “It was hard for my parents at first, and it was hard for me because I didn’t have that support from them—you know, moral support,” Lo-Ann says. “Just knowing that my parents don’t like what I do was a little rough.”

“I think part of me knows what it takes to run a business,” Lo-Ann says, “and I feel guilty for not being there 100 percent for them.”(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Even after graduating from beauty school in the early ’90s, Lo-Ann continued to split her time between hair and the restaurant. It wasn’t until about five years ago, around the birth of her first child, that Lo-Ann finally broke completely free from the family and started working full-time as a hairdresser. She felt guilty. She knew her absence at Huong Que would have ripple effects, particularly when the restaurant was short of staff or when Lo-Ann’s parents wanted to take a trip to Vietnam. “I think part of me knows what it takes to run a business,” she says, “and I feel guilty for not being there 100 percent for them.”

Whatever their initial feelings were, Lo-Ann’s parents and family have come to accept her decision. Family members even wander into Jean Luc for a wash and cut. Except her father. “He wants me to shave him and do after-shave,” Lo-Ann says. “I don’t do stuff like that. That’s strictly barber. I’m a hairdresser.”

Lo-Ann doesn’t charge her family for styling their hair—“You think they would pay me?” she asks—but there is a price to Sister No. 3’s freedom from the restaurant business. And Sister No. 2 seems to be the one paying it. As the front-of-the-house manager, Le Lai shoulders a lot of responsibility at Huong Que. She handles employee schedules, payroll, and hiring and firing. On occasion, she even waits tables. She does it, she says, because she loves the restaurant business and enjoys the interaction with the public. But she also harbors a sense of the opportunities lost, and not just with floral arranging.

“Three of my sisters are hairstylists, and I was going to go into hairstyle, really, but I guess that’s not for me,” Le Lai says. “Then the restaurant opened, and then it got so busy, so then I helped my parents....So I didn’t even think about going to college.”

Le Lai’s situation is complicated by the fact that, like Lo-Ann, she is married with two young kids. The Lai family knows that the restaurant business does not jibe with a personal life. So they help wherever and whenever they can. Thanh regularly cooks for Le Lai’s family. Lieu leads a double life, flitting between the salon and the restaurant, just so Le Lai can decrease her workload. Thuan takes the late Sunday shift so Le Lai can be with her kids.

Le Lai appears to have made peace with her situation. She knows that if Lieu and Lo-Ann start their salon, if Ly and her husband launch their own restaurant, and if Thuan finds what he’s looking for, only she and Hoa will be left to maintain the family business. “To my opinion, it’s such a waste to close down if we all go different directions,” Le Lai says. “Hoa and I are pretty happy doing the restaurant, so I think we’re going to continue.” CP