Daniel Nguyen Interview: March 12, 2021
Interviewers: Dustin Kelley and Mei Bailey
Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley. I am a librarian at Lewis & Clark College's Watzek Library and today I am joined by Mei Bailey, a junior SOAN major, and we have the privilege of speaking with Daniel Nguyen via Zoom. Today's date is March 12th, 2021, and Daniel Nguyen is a councilor for the city of Lake Oswego, the first person of color to ever be elected. He and his wife Katherine also own and operate Bambuza Vietnam Kitchen. Daniel, thank you so much for joining us today.
Daniel Nguyen: Well good morning! Thank you, Dustin, and thank you, Mei, for making space. I am just honored and delighted to be here—I have heard so much about this program and am just looking forward to our conversation today.
DK: Awesome. Can you begin by stating your name and introducing yourself a little bit? You can talk a little bit about Bambuza and the Lake Oswego City Council, and do not feel like you need to get into all the details, we will definitely come back to both later.
DN: Right. As far as the business part, the Bambuza part, are we going to talk about that a little bit… I do not want to talk about it too much in the beginning, but are we going to talk about it later in the conversation, or…?
DN: OK, so I will keep it brief then. So, my name is Daniel Nguyen. I feel like I wear several different hats, but as I often call it, my day job is… my wife and I own a small group of restaurants called Bambuza. We specialize in Vietnamese cuisine, and it started as a family business with my parents many years ago. We all grew up in the restaurant industry. And I thought that I would be growing up and out of that as I finished college. But, lo and behold, things change and I am doing it and I am really thoroughly enjoying it. The other hat that I wear also is that I serve as City Councilor for the city of Lake Oswego. I was elected in 2018. I started my term in 2019, so I am beginning my third year in my four year term. And this past year I do not think anybody could have predicted that for me I would be serving as a councilor on Zoom. And we have actually, beginning this week, it has been a year since we have actually had an in-person meeting at City Hall and I remember at that very last meeting, not all of us came. One of the councilors that was a little bit older, she did not show up and she had cited concerns about the pandemic—whereas the rest of the council wanted to have a council meeting during this period. I was hesitant at first and I was still hesitant but I came because I felt like I needed to make a statement that, “Colleagues, this is not safe, we should be setting the example to the people that live here and to our community that we should be taking this pandemic very seriously.” And that was met with some question, but it was only I think a day or two later that finally the city declared a state of emergency and we proceeded down the path of eliminating all public interactions, and that included council meetings. But what it did do also too was it … because we were in a state of emergency, we were meeting initially twice a week to get updates on the pandemic and things. And then meanwhile, my business at the same time too, we were also reeling from the impacts. We were ordered to essentially shut down and do takeout only, and being at the airports too—we are at SEATAC airport and Portland Airport—we saw a huge impact on passenger traffic and we eventually closed down completely at airports for two and a half months. So I think in this first meeting, our group getting together and talking about this, a lot to reflect on. But it is kind of ironic that we are meeting in the week of the one year anniversary of … we will call it the pandemic lockdown.
DK: Yeah, certainly some irony and you definitely have been affected so much during this pandemic in so many different ways, with your business and position with the city council, and I am sure with your family as well.
DN: Yeah, kids have been home and that is definitely on all fronts. We have been pushed and pulled but I think we have grown from it. I look at it that way.
DK: Well, why don't we continue our line of questions and start with the very beginning. Let us start with some questions about your childhood. I am curious if you can tell us a little bit about your family and what is some of your family's story of leaving Vietnam and building something new in America?
DN: Well in my family, I am one of five children. I am second youngest. I was the first one in my family to be born here in the United States. When my parents left Vietnam, they left with my three older siblings. At the time, my oldest brother was six and my second oldest brother was four and my sister was about eighteen months, and so they were all very young. My parents were relatively young at the time as well too, so they left Vietnam in April of 1975. It was only recently that I learned some more details of when they actually got on the boat to leave Vietnam. And I discovered recently that my family, as well as my uncle's family—my aunt and uncle, my aunt is my dad's sister and of course her husband is my uncle through their marriage—but in any case he was really the leader that led a group of approximately ninety individuals out of Vietnam and this was approximately around the 22nd of April. That is when my parents and my three older siblings boarded this relief ship. It was a ship that was charged with the task of helping refugees inside the country of Vietnam during the month of April as cities like Da Nang and other cities in central Vietnam started to fall and people were evacuating from central Vietnam and they were all migrating south, so the order by the Vietnamese government at the time was for those who had been displaced, those who wanted to evacuate, they were instructed to move south and a lot of them went on small boats and went out to the island of Phú Quốc which is just off the coast of southern Vietnam, still within Vietnam waters. But a lot of small ships would leave and make their way toward the island. And the ship that my parents were on, it was called the Viet Long—Viet as in Vietnam, Long as in L-O-N-G, Long means long, which is “dragon.” But in any case, that ship was tasked with kind of intercepting some of these smaller boats that were not prepared. They left, they were evacuated, they did not have medical supplies, they did not have food, they did not have necessities. So, the job of the people on the ship that my dad was on was to intercept and help those individuals that were fleeing. But I think that it was evident from what I understand from my dad and from my uncles and those on the ship, they knew that it was inevitable that South Vietnam would fall. While the ship was making its rounds between the 22nd all the way up to the 30th—the 30th was when Saigon fell—and that was essentially the end of the Vietnam War. But up until that time, there were many people who saw that it was coming to an end, and my uncle, along with some others on the boat, were able to take a smaller boat, because this boat that they were on, we were able to fit about a hundred people on it in addition to supplies and things, so it was not a small boat. So in the interim as they were making these deliveries and making these interceptions, my uncle was able to take a small raft and sail out into international waters and was able to intercept a navy munitions ship. And he was able to ask for their permission to be able to be rescued. So he kind of made some prior arrangements so that eventually when South Vietnam did fall on the 30th they—instead of going back to port—they just continued out in international waters, and then rescued by the United States Navy munitions ship.
All in all my dad said that from the time they left the Viet Long, which is the boat that they were on, and boarded that munitions ship, they would change boats at least another three times I believe, before they finally arrived in Guam. And Guam was where there was a large refugee processing center. But as each boat transfer happened, my dad said that they found more and more people on these boats—the first boat was less than a hundred people that they were on, the next boat had several thousand, and then eventually they were assimilated onto a much larger—I am not sure if it was an aircraft carrier or not, but it was a ship that housed, he said it was almost ten thousand refugees—from there, they took all the refugees to Guam. And then from there … I still need to learn some more details about what happened but it is ironic because my dad, if you ask him to file important paperwork at home, you can never find it. But he did manage to keep all of the paperwork, even down to our final airplane tickets that they would eventually board to leave the refugee camp and come to the United States, even kept all those boarding passes, so I have that in a file. So he was able to keep all those records. I do not know where I was going with that, I lost my train of thought.
DK: So you ended up… your parents ended up in Guam with your older siblings and then you were continuing on to the United States.
DN: Yes, and so there in Guam we found out as they were processing the refugees and all that, the families, they would ask, "Do you have any preference where you would like to go? Do you know anybody in the United States?" And at the time, a lot of them wanted to go to California because especially in my dad's generation, there were a lot of Vietnamese soldiers and airmen that were involved in the military that had trained in the United States and a lot of them trained in California. And so a lot of them said, "We want to go to California." My dad did not know anybody, he did not study in the United States or did not train in the United States, but my uncle for some reason—which I still need to discover, he passed away back in 1990—I need to find out why of all places Portland, Oregon, why Oregon? And so from what I understand from bits and pieces is that somehow there was some connection here with Portland and somehow there was a connection with George Fox University. And so I think during that time—and I think the connection that I'm making was that George Fox University was a Quaker institution. So from there, when we were processing the refugee families to be relocated in the United States, the United States government was asking for sponsors and a lot of the sponsors were churches.
So it turned out that my family and my uncle's family and several other families were sponsored by the Quaker Church, and so depending on where the churches were, that is kind of where we ended up settling. So even though we knew that we wanted … my uncle decided for us that we were going to be in the Oregon, Pacific Northwest area. We did not have any idea where Washington was, where Portland was, but it just happened to be that there was a Quaker church in Camas, Washington, which is the church that had sponsored our family, and we settled there. My uncle's family was sponsored by a Quaker church in Southeast Portland. It is by Reed College, I think it is called Linwood—I am sorry—it is still there. Gosh, I do not know what it is called anymore, but that was a church that actually became kind of the center of our community during the mid seventies and into the eighties, but that church became kind of the place where the Vietnamese church congregated, and that was where my uncle was the pastor for some time and eventually—that is another thing, my uncle was a minister, and so part of the relief efforts was through an organization that he was in charge of. It was a Christian relief organization. But in any case, he founded that church and that became kind of the hub of the Vietnamese American community, certainly with the Christian community here in Portland. So we ended up in Camas, my uncle's family was in Portland, and every weekend that was when we all got together and we would be in community with each other.
DK: So what was your childhood in Camas like? Was there a lot of other Vietnamese families around?
DN: [laughing] No, there was not actually. At the time, Camas was quite small. I do not know exact numbers, but what I understand, even now, it is not that large. The Camas that it is today is not the Camas that I grew up in. We were, at the time, we were always kind of the armpit of the Portland area, right? It was like, "Oh, we can smell Camas in the air now," or the aroma, we always get those jokes, that you live in Camas and you smell like the paper mill. But at the time the paper mill was where everybody worked. My dad worked there, he eventually worked there for almost twenty years, my mom worked in the Pendleton wool mills in Washougal, which is the community right next door. But growing up in Camas, we were one of two families that lived there. There were some other Vietnamese refugees but I know that there was a family—they came by themselves, it was the children by themselves. Either they were orphans or displaced, they did not come with their parents, so there were at least a couple, maybe three families that lived in Vietnam at the time. But then there were also several families that lived in Vancouver and we were able to connect with those families, and to this day my parents—and we consider them family, aunts and uncles and such—but they were able to connect with each other by going to English classes. They had English classes and different types of courses to help refugees kind of assimilate at Clark College in Vancouver. So that was also another way for the Vietnamese community to get together and to be able to kind of support one another. Found out that five is the lucky number—I know so many Vietnamese families that have five children, I do not know why that was the case but they all have five kids, even my wife's family. There are just five kids in that family too. But this is the era before minivans, and so we all piled into whatever Ford—my parents had a Ford, it was a Ford Granada. It had three seats in the front and three seats in the back but we managed to squeeze everybody in there and we did not have seatbelts, and I am not sure if I ever sat in a car seat before [laughing]. So that was the era we grew up in.
But I guess growing up in Camas though, it was a time when even the whole term of "Vietnamese American" or even the term "Asian American" was not part of my vocabulary. We were just called the "Orientals." My parents had a restaurant in downtown Camas and it was called Lan's the Orient serving “Oriental” food, therefore we were the Oriental family, right? And so that was—up until college, really I think it was only when I got into college that that university in particular had an Asian Studies program and I thought, Wow, there is an actual academic field that studies Oriental history, or history from China and Japan and there is PhDs that do that, and I thought wow, because up until this time I always thought it was folklore, oral stories and things like that. That was when it really opened my eyes to there is such a thing as an Asian Studies program, there is a common experience I guess, and I guess I diverge a little bit but in university that was when I was around a more diverse community because growing up in Camas it was all White and the only African Americans I even grew up with—one of them I grew up with, one of them was my best friend, his name was Damien, Damien Spearman. But he was the only Black person I knew, him and his brother, Romeo. But in terms of diversity, in terms of any other culture, it was just our family and an occasional Korean immigrant that was adopted by an American family. But yeah, we kind of learn to quickly just assimilate and quickly adopt American names and really try and take on this American persona because I think we learned if we did not—because we had been the butt of many jokes, and at the time we did not know it was prejudice, we did not know it was racism, we just kind of played along with it and for us it was more of a survival thing whereas you are the newbie, you are outnumbered, so we just kept our heads down and went with the flow at that time.
DK: So you mentioned that a part of the assimilation process was taking Anglo-sounding names. Is Daniel your given name?
DN: Daniel is my given name. I was born and my uncle—my uncle comes up a lot in our family history—his name is Nguyen Van Do. The last name is always first, his first name is Do. But my uncle was always such a large part of us growing up, because my dad was the youngest brother in his family and he always looked to my aunt and uncle for guidance, and one of the things that my uncle said is that, "You gotta give them American names." And so he came up with the name Daniel for me, and when my younger brother was born, they named him David. But I think that with him, he had studied overseas, he had studied in Wales, and at the time his English was quite good, and because of that he was able to lead not only my family but a group of nearly a hundred people to resettle here. But I think those are the kind of things where—he taught us that you have to kind of assimilate, you have to kind of become as American as possible, because if you do not, you are going to be disadvantaged. But ironically, none of his kids took Anglo names until they got into college, I believe. They all kept their Vietnamese names and his kids, my cousins, were a little bit older than our family. And I think about this too, when my older brothers—their first names are Luân, Lương, and my sister was Phương, so very common Vietnamese names. But on all of their school registration papers, that was their legal name. My parents never went through the process of changing, giving them American names. But they eventually adopted their own, like my sister, even though her name is Phương, she adopted Denise. So all the school teachers and all her classmates just knew her as Denise. And my oldest brother was Louis, for example. So even though … I think we learned when it came for roll call, and they would come across a name that they were hesitating, "Oh! That is Denise, I am here!" before they would continue to botch our names. And I think my older siblings probably had it the worst. They were picked on, they were bullied in school, and because of that, that is why, if you look at my older brothers, my oldest brother and my second oldest and myself, my younger brother, just looking at stature, they were wrestlers, and they decided that they were not going to get picked on anymore, so they got into bodybuilding. And even to this day they are much more athletic and they are much more built. My second oldest brother eventually had joined the United States Army and he had served in Desert Storm and had been in the army so he was already a pretty built guy at recruitment but he got even more built in the army. So I think about that too, talk about trying to assimilate and try to be able to defend yourself, they did it also by bulking up and joining the wrestling team and being active in sports and things. And my second oldest brother was really good at soccer.
So they learned that, academically wise, there was no pressure. We were expected to excel because that was something that was not even an option. All the stuff about bullying, all that stuff about … that was important, but there was no question about getting good grades, even though my parents, they did not have higher degrees or anything, it was expected, and I think that you will find that is a common experience among a lot of the refugees. Even though my parents could not do the math, we were expected to do it and do it by ourselves, without help from parents. And even when we were involved in school activities—we were for example, I was involved in band from fifth grade all the way through high school. And you know, I kind of look at my own kids right now, you know, typical parents where you are really excited about going to recitals and different concerts and things like that, but I learned after a couple years, my mom would try to oblige and she would try to go to these concerts, but she just felt so out of place because she did not know where to go. Because you know we would go up and join our classes and get ready for band and the parents were expected to find a seat in the auditorium but she did not know what to expect, she did not know when to applaud, when to stand and et cetera. So after a while I think we all discovered that we would do these extracurricular activities on our own and we never expected our parents to be in the audience because it is something that … we did not want to make them uncomfortable. And actually my freshman year in college, it was Parents Weekend and that was the weekend when all the kids would come to campus with their parents and their parents would help them get settled into the dorm rooms and it was just something that my parents, they did not have that experience, they did not know what to do and we did not, again, we did not want to subject them to that either because at this point we had kind of done things on our own. And so that is a little bit about growing up, I skipped there around a little bit.
DK: So how did your parents balance their goals to assimilate with also wanting to instill Vietnamese culture and traditions and values into you and your siblings?
DN: Well certainly, beginning at home my parents always made it a point that they wanted to make sure we always speak Vietnamese to them, when we are talking with them, when we are at home with them, we always spoke to them in Vietnamese. But as siblings, we always spoke to each other in English, and so I think they recognized early on that English will never be a problem. The greater challenge is to try to maintain the Vietnamese language and Vietnamese culture. And they did that by really requiring all of us to speak to them in Vietnamese, and we just kind of accepted it, but it was only later that I kind of appreciated it more because I know that other parents of that same generation as my parents, they encouraged their kids to speak to them in English so that they themselves could become better at English. And so I think the result was that the kids were able to maintain at least a level of fluency in just basic conversation, and in retrospect I really thank my parents for that. So, that was what we did at home.
But then also, I already mentioned a little earlier, the church was a big part of our growing up. It was what we did on weekends, pretty much all of Saturdays and all of Sundays and any breaks that we had during summer break or spring break. It was always spending time with the cousins that lived in Southeast Portland, the cousins that their dad was the pastor, right. There was a strong youth program that they had, so being pastor's kids, they were all expected to be part of the church, and so my older siblings and to a lesser extent because myself and my younger brother were a little bit too young, but in any case we were always around them and around the church and so we grew up in a Vietnamese American—again, the term Vietnamese American to me is a very recent phenomenon. Sometimes you will find me hesitating a little bit because I often will say that I am Vietnamese and stop at that, but only it was in the past decade or so that I have been more conscious about being Vietnamese American because somebody asked me, "So you say you are Vietnamese, but are you a Vietnamese national? Have you ever lived in Vietnam?" And I said, "No, I have never lived there, I have only visited." But my home country is America, so that is why. And I catch myself and I catch others too of my generation to remind them, “You are not Vietnamese, you are Vietnamese ethnically and heritage, but you are an American.” So I digress there. But …. I lost my train of thought.
DK: I want to ask a follow-up question. I know you mentioned your uncle being a pastor a couple times now, but if you mentioned the name I might have missed it. What was the name of his congregation?
DN: So as far as the church goes, the church that he founded eventually split up into several other smaller churches and all the people that were involved with that church went on to become ministers as well and moved to other parts of the country to start other churches too. But it was—I think it was at the time the Vietnamese Baptist Church, or it was the Vietnamese Alliance Church. I guess one thing about Christianity and Vietnam is that here in the United States, although we will adopt Baptist or the Lutherans or the Evangelicals and things like that, theologically I think Vietnamese Christianity is much more influenced by the Christian Missionary Alliance and that was kind of the missionary church that came to Vietnam and brought a particular flavor of Christianity to Vietnam. So, although in title we may be part of the Southern Baptist convention, I find it kind of ironic because a lot of the things that they do in the Vietnamese church are kind of different from what the greater denomination does.
And so I think what I learned was that it is just more of a matter of convenience. Because if you wanted to—oftentimes, the churches in order for them to be able to participate and borrow the facilities and rent the facilities, they had to join that denomination. So if you wanted to use a church that was owned by an American congregation that was affiliated with the Southern Baptists, you had to become part of the Southern Baptist convention, if you wanted to use the Lutheran facilities you had to become Lutheran and such. And so my uncle, his name was Nguyen Van Do—spelled "Nguyen," same last name, "Van Do," Van being V-A-N and D-O. But that was the church that he had founded and it also kind of became—churches in a lot of ways become the catchall for especially immigrant communities, that is where they go for beyond spiritual and community, they also look to the churches as social services. I know my uncle was involved a lot with helping refugees getting housing and getting job placement and helping them get their kids in schools and such. I think going back to some of the names, it was the Vietnamese Alliance Church, there was the Vietnamese Baptist Church, and before he passed away, he decided to start a congregation in Beaverton. And it was the Vietnamese Evangelical Covenant Church in Beaverton and at one point we also borrowed facilities from the West Hills Covenant Church. But over the years, depending on where we were located, I think we adopted the names of the churches of the facilities we were using.
DK: I know several participants in our project have talked about their church experiences also, including Vietnamese school, Vietnamese language programs. Was that a part of your church experience as well?
DN: [laughing] Well when I was growing up, we did not have an organized Vietnamese school, period. Right now, I look at the schools that are in the community. I know of at least two if not three programs that are organized by different nonprofits that have got community volunteers and people that teach the children on the weekends, before COVID. I know that they had Vietnamese language classes at the PCC campus over in Cascade and it was by a nonprofit with the goal of teaching written and spoken Vietnamese. We did not have any of that when we were growing up. And so the Vietnamese that I learned, I think I credit a lot of it to just following along on the hymnals that we were singing at the time, also the worship songs and looking up on the overhead projector and just kind of listening to those words because what it allowed me to do, and I think about this more, is that it allowed me to kind of slow down the words and associate the written words on the screen with what was being sung. And so that is kind of how I learned some of the pronunciation because I would often speak it at home, but ask me to spell it? And even to this day my older siblings, they did not take an interest in learning written Vietnamese and learning the language as much as I did. Again, I was kind of the nerd of the family. In addition to learning Vietnamese, I also—there was at one point this idea at our church, "Well why don't we start our own Vietnamese classes?" before church started. And of course I was the first one to sign up and I was the one in there answering all the questions and my friends were like, "Shut up!" [laughs] "This is not for you!" Again, I think we only had it for—it was probably just a few months. But it really kind of laid some of the groundwork, just about spelling and pronunciation.
At the time, it was not something that was available and it really was not—I think it was just starting to be taught at the college level. I know that when my oldest brother came back from UW [University of Washington], he was like, "Yeah, they have Vietnamese classes here! I think I could take that!" And then he signed up for the first course and he said, "Nope, I cannot do it." Because they are expected to at least have an elementary level of reading, which he did not have. And so he quit that quickly thereafter. But yeah, on the other hand, in addition to learning Vietnamese, I was also the nerd in the family so I joined the Chinese school in downtown Portland. I do not know how long you have lived in Portland, but down in Chinatown next to House of Louie there was a Chinese school that has been there since I think the late 1800s, but it was organized by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. So, they had a Chinese school there that taught Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese, and I had signed up for that school, gosh, I think beginning in sixth grade. So every Saturday morning my mom would drive from Camas to take me to this Chinese school.
So, I guess learning language was something that I had took upon myself and learned—as an aside too, on my mother's side, she is half Chinese as well. So she grew up in a community where there was a lot of overseas Chinese—my grandfather was born in China and then left China when he was twelve as part of the great diaspora, and he had settled in Vietnam. But in any case, I was always fascinated with my grandfather being Vietnamese but also Chinese because he had himself—my grandfather's family, they came in about '78 or '79—they were among the wave of the "boat people," people who left Vietnam and just got out on the open seas and were rescued by ships that were passing by, whether it was fishing boats or the navy or whatever. But they left Vietnam and they ended up in a refugee camp, I believe in Thailand, and then from there my uncle—again, my uncle comes up all the time. But my uncle was able to find a way for them to be sponsored to come to Oregon. They eventually actually were sponsored by a church in Vancouver and then quickly once they got to Vancouver, my parents got them to move to Camas. At the same time, it was my grandfather as well as my two uncles and an aunt who came over in the late ‘70s too—that is another part of my family too, where they had a very different experience than my parents—theirs is a little bit more perilous. Actually a lot more perilous than my parents' journey.
Mei Bailey: OK, so shifting gears a little bit, I am curious to know where you attended college and what you studied? And what are some of the important lessons you learned in your time in college, in the classroom or otherwise?
DN: Well, I was the one that did not follow my older siblings' footsteps. They all went to University of Washington in Seattle. And that was what I thought I was going to do because that is what my older siblings did. But I ended up going to University of Puget Sound, a small liberal arts college in Tacoma. And at the time, when I was a senior in high school, I was applying to UW and to other schools and really—I applied at Pacific Lutheran University, I applied at University of Puget Sound—and it was really because some of the other kids that I was hanging out with in high school. They were the Knowledge Bowl kids, they were the total nerds. Again, I might have mentioned too that I was never that athletic, I was never involved in sports, but what I was involved in was Knowledge Bowl. As other kids got on the bus to go to football games and things like that, we got on a bus to go to Stevenson or to go to other schools to participate in Knowledge Bowl. But these other kids in Knowledge Bowl, they were applying to not only the big universities but they were applying to Whitman, they were applying to Western Washington University, they were applying to Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran and I thought, Gosh, you are applying to more than one school! And I kind of applied because they were saying, "Hey, you should apply," and I did. But it never really crossed my mind that I would not go to a big school like my older siblings, but when we were doing the campus tours and when I got my acceptance letter, we were doing campus tours and things, and I kind of later on thought, Gosh, it would be nice to go to smaller school. To be able to have that one-on-one interaction. But then again nobody else in my family went to a small school like that and so I was always worried, am I doing the right thing? But when I got to Puget Sound—initially when I got the acceptance letter I was fully intent on going to Pacific Lutheran University. Because at the time I decided I wanted to study business. This was also a divergence because even through my senior year in high school, much like many immigrant parents, they all expected us to go into medical or to become engineers and such. But I think it was my senior year, because I had pursued a health track, all my classes and all of my science courses were all kind of geared towards pursuing a health major in college. But it was during my senior project in high school, because I chose to do something on pharmacology, and I decided that it was the most boring thing that I could imagine. And I said I could not see myself doing this.
Meanwhile during this whole time, even when I was in high school, I was already doing business. My parents have this little food stand that all the kids would work at, and this was after my parents had sold the restaurant. When my older siblings went off to college, my parents sold that little restaurant in downtown Camas. So I found myself helping mom trying to supplement our family income by doing fairs and festivals at different events up along the I-5 corridor. And so all through high school I was the only kid in high school that actually had a cell phone. So think back in 1994, '95, '96, cell phones were not a common thing. It was only drug dealers, right? [laughs] Drug dealers have cell phones. But I had my Motorola flip phone, and I was at lunch or right before lunch—because sometimes depending in high school you would have an early lunch, so sometimes lunch would be at 11:00 or 11:30—but that allowed me to be able to pick up the phone and call different event organizers and chambers of commerce. I would call them and talk to them about, "Hey, you know I would like to be able to bring our food booth to your event." So I was helping book events for my mom's business. When I was in high school, I found out I was really good at it, because we were able to grow that business from something we did only as a market. Because my parents had that restaurant in Camas, it was really small and they had a street festival—it was called Camas Days—and it was always in front of the restaurant, and it was in downtown, and we called it downtown Camas but it was all of what, two blocks? But we only did that twice a year, that and Washougal Days. Actually it was called the Washougal Frontier Days. But that was only something that was never really the main source of income, but when we sold the restaurant, my older siblings went to college, my mom said, "You know, we need to do something else to be able to supplement family income," because my dad at the time was really the only one working full time at the mill, so I found myself in high school, on the cell phone, building the family business, which would later become our main source of income.
So this became our full-time job, and a lot of that was because I was calling on the phone and making these … trying to basically sell us as a company that could come and do these events and so I remember, I think I was a sophomore or junior in high school, and I was calling and conversing with Fort Lewis—it was a military installation south of Tacoma. And I was able to convince them to allow us to come onto the base and actually sell Asian food, sell chicken skewers and noodles and things. And I was really proud of that, because at the time when we actually came to this event, there was a lot of planning ahead of time, because they actually sent military people down to our facility, which we did not actually have one, and they came down to inspect our facilities to make sure we were legit. But in any case, I was able to make arrangements to rent a commercial kitchen for the day so that when they came down they would be able to see that there was a commercial kitchen here and then was able to negotiate a civilian contract with the organizers of these events. And then when we got to this event, they saw my dad, they had assumed, "Oh, Daniel, it's so nice to meet you," finally meeting in person. And he said, "No, I am not Daniel, he is in the back, he is in the back seat." So I jump out in my shorts and it is like, "Oh, nice to meet you." I think that was kind of when I learned that business is what I like to do. And it took me a couple years in high school to figure out that was something I did to tell my parents.
So getting back to where I am at with college, when I started at UPS [University of Puget Sound], I had already at that point decided I am going to study business. And at the time when I was growing up, very few people in my generation actually studied business because it was considered as one of those—it was a non-technical field because it is not a degree that … you are not a licensed engineer, you are not a licensed physician or anything like that. I guess one of those things where just because you graduate does not mean you are guaranteed employment, and that was something that I think a lot of, in my generation, people did not really study. But in any case, fast forward, so being at UPS I studied International Business, I knew that I wanted to go overseas some way, somehow, even though the farthest I had ever traveled was to Canada. But it was in my junior year that I was able to study abroad in Hong Kong. And again, going to Hong Kong was kind of part of my childhood fascination with Chinese culture and such, because I started Chinese school in sixth grade and I continued learning Mandarin Chinese all through college at UPS, and as part of International Business program, we were expected to go overseas and study abroad for at least a semester. So I did that, I got into Hong Kong, and while I was in Hong Kong I also applied for a research grant through the university to continue research. Back during that time, this was just immediately after the Asian financial crisis. We never hear about the Asian financial crisis anymore, but this was when there was a lot of investment in Southeast Asia in the emerging economies of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan. And so my thesis was basically to look at the economic development policies of the different—at the time they were called the Asian Tigers—different economies took on different approaches to grow their economies.
But when I was in Hong Kong, I won that grant to do economic research, and at the time it was to study development in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. It was during one weekend when I was in Hong Kong, I thought, Gosh, while I am here, why don't I go to Vietnam? Because at that point, I had been traveling every weekend, because Hong Kong was a great launchpad to go to other countries in Asia for the weekend. Because I had gone to the Philippines for a weekend, and I had gone to China for the weekend. So plenty of my classmates were going to different countries on the weekend because it was really easy to do. So I thought, Why don't I go to Vietnam for the weekend? Because at that point, none of my family except for my mom had ever been back—either in my case, been to, or been back—to Vietnam. And so I went. It was in the spring of 2000 that I went back and I was there only for three or four days. But that was a chance when I was able to meet one of our cousins in Ho Chi Minh City for the first time and kind of see this country where everybody is speaking this language that I had always thought was this obscure language, but all of the sudden—it was kind of emotional because this was where my parents lived but this was also where many many generations before them had also lived and died. And then when I got back from that trip, I had decided, you know—my term was going to be ending in the spring and I would have to go back to the states, so I had emailed back to my professor who was advising my project, and I asked him, "Can I change my topic? I would like to be able to change it to look at policies in Thailand and Vietnam." And so I was able to do that, and that allowed me to go back to Vietnam for almost a full four weeks.
After I finished my semester in Hong Kong I came back and spent about a month in Vietnam, and that was when I got the full chance to meet the entire family. I was even able to meet my grandfather, who was ethnically Chinese, I was able to meet my grandfather's brother, living in South Vietnam, I was able to see him there and I was able to see all my aunts and uncles on my mom's side, all my aunts and uncles—the living ones—on my dad's side, and all the cousins. I even visited the gravesites of my ancestors and it was a really kind of an experience that grounded me and said, "Look, for some reason, you landed in the United States with your family. And it was not anything because of what you did personally, but you are there.” And so I guess beginning then, I kind of take it upon myself to be the bridge, because it was only within a couple years later that all the sudden all my aunts and uncles on both sides of the family, they just started dying because they were old, but I was so grateful that I was able to walk in some of those same places that my dad grew up in, I was able to visit a house that my dad grew up in when he was a small boy because the house was still in the family, and I was able to visit some of the places where my mom's side of the family, where they grew up.
And so it was really … going back to the university, I think that if I had gone to UW, if I had gone to a large institution like that, I am not sure that I would have been able to have those kinds of experiences, that really kind of shaped my experiences today. And if anything, I think because of that, I think I have become more immersed in my heritage and in my history, and learning about that. I am also glad that out of the five kids that at least I am able to do that and I was able to bring my older sister back: back in 2017, she joined me on a trip to Vietnam that was the first time that she had ever been back. She had left when she was eighteen months old. And so I am glad that I was able to accompany her and kind of give her a sense of our heritage and our history for the first time, and I think she—she even told me that, if she was going to Vietnam, she would want to go with me to kind of help her navigate Vietnam.
MB: Yeah, thank you for sharing that.
DN: I know it was a long answer to university, but …
MB: No, it is great. So, how did you decide to pivot back to the restaurant industry, and what made it such a great fit for you?
DN: Well, it was not a decision that I had done … intentionally is not the right word. But it did happen because when I graduated, I graduated in the spring of 2001. And at the time, studying international business, and as we were coming into our senior year, this was when a lot of recruiting from big companies would come on campus and they would set up tables and encourage us to do interviews and screenings and things like that. So in the fall of my senior year, I was recruited by Anderson Consulting—it was called Anderson Consulting at the time. It was a consulting arm of Arthur Anderson, which was one of the big five consulting firms at the time. Later they would change their name to Accenture. But I had thought, gosh, I had applied with them and gotten through all the interviews, and right before Christmas they had invited me to their Seattle office and had interviews, and after several more meetings and interviews, they offered me a job before Christmas, and I thought, Gosh, I got it made. I got a FedEx package in the mail with a nice leather binder and an offer letter and it was a good size .... and I thought, Dang, this is pretty good, I have not even graduated yet and I have a job offer lined up. Because at that point, I said, I love travel, I want to be traveling every week, I want to be able to go to client engagements and things like that, and consulting was that. It was part of the jet set because some of my other classmates had joined Accenture, and said, "We are flying every week. Our home base is Seattle, but we are flying out to client engagements every week." And it really appealed to me that I would be on a plane, flying, criss-crossing the country, and then they even said, "If you do not want to come home during the weekend, we will even send somebody out to be with you. You could send your family out to be with you if you wanted," and I thought that was really appealing.
So I think that really was my dream job. And so I managed to secure that, thinking that OK, now I have time to be able to take the summer off and to be able to kind of relax. I say "relax" but really in all honesty, it was to help mom and dad, because at this time, they were still doing festivals, and that was still their main source of income. So I said, let us help mom and dad with this last festival season, and then in October I will join the corporate world, because when I go back to work full time, I thought, I am not going to be able to help mom and dad very much anymore after that. So I was scheduled to start in October, but in the meantime … the festival season ends right around Labor Day, and I got this idea with one of my college friends, "Hey, why don't we go down to Arizona?" Because he was from Arizona, and he said, as the season changes here in Arizona to nicer weather in the fall and winter, "Hey, maybe we can do festivals in Tucson or Scottsdale and such." And I did not realize at the time, but my best friend's dad was a restaurateur. He [had an] Ivy League education, he was a Princeton grad, his mom went to Wellesley, so really Ivy League types of people, and I thought, What are they doing in the restaurant business?
But I always thought, that is cool, but I've already got my job offer lined up. But it was only a week after I got to Arizona that 9/11 happened, and so I remember waking up that morning, my dad called me and said, "We are under attack! We are under attack! Turn the TV on!" and I watched the news coverage and I watched that second plane hit the towers, and I thought, what is happening? And it turned out that … so when we moved down to Arizona, our first festival was at Fort Huachuca which is a military base in Arizona, and so immediately they went into lockdown and said, “Nope, no one is coming onto the base, we are in war right now." And so our first event was canceled, and then fast forward—certainly with 9/11, it changed a lot of things. And how it affected me was that Accenture at the time said the economy is uncertain, actually they had started to see the whole dot com bubble start unraveling. And so the consultancy that I was involved in was high tech electronics manufacturing, so they had called, really I think it was in October or November after 9/11 happened, and they had said, “Although we were going to start you in October, we need to delay your start date.” And they kept delaying it and then eventually said, “We can start you but there is no longer a demand for you to be in Seattle anymore, so we are going to send you to Minneapolis.” And I had said, "That does not sound appealing to me, especially if that is my home base, I do not want to be there.” And also it helped to that I was kind of watching the different online forums, that this was happening across the nation to a lot of new recruits and I learned that, "Do not cave in, if you want to be where you are at, stick to that, if not, then they will rescind their offer and then they will offer you either a rescission bonus"—and this was after I had already gotten an additional deferral bonus, and then they would offer a rescission bonus and then have us sign it and say, "Look, all the money you have gotten so far, keep it."
So I took the offer—they eventually rescinded their offer—I took the offer, and that time my mom said, "Now that you are unemployed, why don't you come back to Vancouver and let us open a restaurant in Seattle." Because that was my mom's lifelong dream, was to have a Vietnamese restaurant and I thought the joke was you know, I finished business school, right? I could help them—it was always something to help mom and dad, it was never my own … it was never my intent that it would be my restaurant. So that was the intent, come back, help mom and dad for a couple years, and then when the economy turned around, get a real job. But really, it was ever since. I mean a restaurant is not the business where you just start it up and then walk away. It is all consuming, you cannot just turn it off when you get home, you get calls and things happen and such, but also to be honest too, when we first opened up, it was really rocky. We were experiencing a lot of learning curves, even though mom wanted to do the restaurant, simply there were a lot of things we did not know how to do. We did not know how to run a bar, we did not know how to have employees beyond just my brothers and sisters, right? And so there were things that we were struggling with learning—how do we do this, in a very high profile space in downtown Seattle? But I could not just walk away from it. So I had to stick with it. And at the time too, I had convinced several family members to invest a lot of money into this venture. And I could not just walk away from it. We have to at least make our money back and pay them back, because they had sacrificed so much, they had taken out loans against their homes, I cannot just say, "Sorry guys, I failed." So I had to stick with it. But I think that was something that, what was supposed to be kind of a short term thing, I really stuck with it, up until now.
There was a period right when my first daughter was born that we thought, We need to do something, we cannot—because at that point, it was my wife and I and my mom and dad, all working in this restaurant. We had employees of course, but we were all in one place, and we said … gosh, well a couple factors—our first daughter was born, we needed help, to help take care of her while we were working, and my wife's parents were in Portland, they were able to help out. My wife, Katherine, has a large family in Portland, so they were able to help out, so we thought, what if we were able to open up another restaurant in Portland and move there, I could go back and forth between Seattle and Portland, and that is what I did in the early stages. But that is where we opened up a restaurant in Portland, I ended up moving here, and then eventually we found that Portland was actually a better market for us, we were able to get up to speed much faster, build up a strong clientele here, much faster than we were in Seattle. And eventually, we sold off the Seattle restaurant and then my parents also moved back to the area, they moved back to Vancouver. So that was a period when we thought, OK, let us move operations to Portland, really because it was family, we were all driven by Katherine's family because we wanted to be close to her family and have somebody help take care of our daughter.
But then also, there was another period where I thought I was going to exit the restaurant business, and this was when we had our second child. It was a difficult pregnancy, and we thought, Gosh, we are working so hard—at the time, we had opened up two additional restaurants here in Oregon, and when my wife was pregnant with our second child we found out that she was going to have a difficult pregnancy. There was a great concern that she would be born with some birth defects and things and that really kind of sent shockwaves through our world because we were young, got all this energy, our business was growing here, but it really made us take pause and say, "We cannot be running a hundred miles an hour like this. We cannot”—because even though we were down in Portland and with family … my oldest daughter, there were times when we would not see her for two days in a row because we were working at the restaurant so much that we would just not pick her up from grandma's house because we would just wake up next morning and leave early in the morning anyways. But it was a chance—that was when we said we got to do something different, we cannot be running like this, because now we have a second child coming into the world, and at that point, we did not know if she was going to be a special needs child, so we thought, We need to stop, we have to do something different. So it really caused us to turn to divest and sell off all but one of our restaurants and at that point we decided we need to get back into what I was planning to do, was to get into the corporate world and get back into the corporate world so that I would have a normal job where I could be able to balance taking care of my family and also my kids—take care of my job and my kids at the same time. So both of us decided the way to do that was to go back to school. So both of us started our MBAs and that was, again, part of our calculation that we were going to get out of the restaurant business and then go into the corporate world.
And it was only there that people were telling us, "You are crazy. You own your own business, you dictate your destiny," and they were saying, "We are all in here getting our MBAs so we can start our own businesses, you are going backwards." And so I did not really pay attention to much of that, I continued, I applied at a bunch of places, and actually I applied where I really wanted to work, at Daimler in Portland—but they never hired me, after several interviews, they said, "You know what, you got skills but you will never succeed here because you will quit. You will get bored and you will quit." And it was there that I guess I resigned myself, and said “I guess I am going to be a restaurateur after all.” But at that point, I was finding that I was not in the day-to-day as much anymore, and so I guess during that time also, about the same time that the Port of Portland, they had put out RPs and were looking for local restaurants to set up shop inside the airport, and at that point it was an RP, it was a public process, and I am not used to doing RPs, because you lease restaurants, that is not how things work on the street. But I looked into it, I went to a lot of their meetings, and thought "Hey, maybe it is worth a shot, maybe I will write the narrative and put in the performance and things,'' and in retrospect, I think that the MBA that both of us did really prepared us to be able to compete and actually open up a restaurant in the airport, because if we did not have that background, I am not sure that I could have been successful in putting together a bid and actually winning it. And that is when both of us again said, "You know what,” when we did win it, “maybe this is what we are meant to do." And so far, we are still continuing along that path and we have expanded to other airports too.
MB: Great. So you said that Bambuza also has a location at the Portland Airport and at SeaTac. How did establishing that restaurant help you to lean into politics?
DN: I guess up until this point, as an entrepreneur, as a restauranteur, you try to acquire space, you try to leave space based upon your reputation, your clientele, and how the landlord feels about you and if you can pay the rent, but part of the process of putting together the RP—there were questions on there about, you know, "What do you do for the community?" "How do you take care of your employees?" "Tell us about your financials, do you have the capacity to build at an airport?" And I quickly learned that it was really after we were notified that we were the successful bidder, we realized that this is not a normal tenant-landlord relationship. You have got a quasi-governmental body that is your landlord, and it is very public. Because when we did the lease signing, it was not at some office tower somewhere, it was at a commission meeting. It was a public meeting with cameras, and there was an audience there, and we actually came up and we got up in front of the commission and at the time I had never really testified in front of a public body like that before but it felt really scary because there was a microphone and we would get called upon and there was all these Robert's Rules of Order and motions passed and all these different things that would go on and on, and it was like, "Where are we? We are just opening up a restaurant, why do we have to go through this?" But that was kind of my first glimpse that these decisions are not just made by what is in the best financial interest for the landlord. There are other stakeholders there too that influence the decisions that are made. And so we signed our lease at the Port of Portland's headquarters office, and it was during a commission meeting that they made the announcement and things.
And during this whole process, we found that we are dealing with this government agency that has got its hands in so many things. There are different worker groups there, there are different business groups, both large and small, and so we found ourselves just kind of immersed in this small city, really, because we were the new kids on the block. We were unlike any other concessionaires that came before us—we call them concessionaires, the restaurant or retail people that own businesses at the airport. We were certainly the smallest at the time, but we learned that a lot of the decisions that impact our contracts were made at that commission meeting, so we found ourselves attending these meetings and learning about some decisions that would impact how we would operate at the airport, and so I started to kind of see a connection that if we want to influence these decisions, we want to be part of the conversation, we have to show up, we have to sign up for public testimony.
And it was one of these things, it was a topic on the agenda that related to small business … well, it related to business in general, but I felt that there was a perspective from small businesses that was not being voiced because the commissioners, they are all volunteers, this is not their full time job, and so they make the decision on what is presented to them and to the best of their knowledge. But there was a lack of representation, a lack of voice, from small business interests, people like ourselves, that just all we know is how to make food, and we sell food to the passenger and the customer, but it came to a point where this voice was really lacking in part of the conversation. So both my wife and I, we came up, we testified about, "Hey, your decision you are about to make would effectively make opportunities for people like us impossible. You set up a very high barrier to entry. On the one hand, you say you want to be able to create opportunities for more people, yet with the decision you are making, you could inadvertently cause it to do the opposite.” And so when we testified, we just did it and we were more concerned about how we sounded and if we said the right words, I guess we were less concerned about how it was received. But it was only later that some of the port staff and some of the decision makers were just saying, "Thank you for sharing your perspective, it really changed the conversation," because it was one-sided conversation before, it was like us versus them, but they recognized, now we have a different group of stakeholders in part of the conversation. And so I guess we were kind of shocked about it. Gosh, we are just tenants, we pay you rent and we do business here, but our decisions, our voices, actually matter? Does it really influence decisions you make? Is that really the case? And so we found ourselves getting more and more immersed in different events and different things where they were eager to hear from a different perspective, and so that is kind of how we started to think about … there is this business, and I guess at the time, I do not want to call it politics, but “politics” in air quotes. That there is this overlap, because there is this overlap that on the business side we have got people's jobs at stake here, we have got people that rely on us, and if we do not speak up, it could impact their jobs, and so we have started to kind of see this connection between the things we do in our everyday work with some of the decisions that are made in other areas and beyond our control, right, so that is kind of how I started getting involved and both my wife and I started—we learned that we also liked it, and it broke up the monotony of the grind of being in restaurants and the grind of doing the day-to-day things. So yeah, that is kind of how we started getting into politics that way.
MB: So when you decided to run for city council member, what kind of issues did you campaign on, and what was the campaign process like?
DN: Gosh, I guess the issues that I campaigned on were stewardship, it was integrity, it was community, and I think my goal was to be able to—because I did not grow up in a political family, I did not really have anybody that I knew really close that was actively involved in politics and such. But I was encouraged by people who said, "We need a perspective like you provided at the port on how business affects people's every day jobs." And then they were saying, "Well, if you can run a business, if you can take in all the inputs and all the responsibilities running a business, some of those skills are transferable to when you are at the decision-making table in a leadership role, in council for example." And so I really tried to think about what are things in my experience as a non-politician, as a small business owner, that I could transfer, that I could help to inform decisions that the council would make that would benefit the community and so I always thought about, we have limited resources, certainly when we were starting our business, money was an issue. We had to be careful with it, if we had any it was very fleeting, because as much as it came in, it went out the door to pay rent, to pay payroll, but how do you keep that cycle going, and how do you make the decision and how do you prioritize how we spend our money?
And so those are things that I often would refer back to while I was on the campaign trail and saying, “You know I may not be a polished politician, but what I can tell you is that it is tough to run a business and I know what it feels like because I am running one right now. And I know what it feels like to have to worry about my paycheck and I know what it feels like to not have health insurance,” and things like that. And so those are things that I campaigned on. And I also campaigned on just a sense of community, because when I set out to run for council in Lake Oswego, it was never in my mind, it was not part of my calculus that I would be running because I wanted to be the first person of color ever to run, and I only discovered that after I got into the race. And I thought surely, that in the long history of Lake Oswego, surely there has been somebody who identifies as non-White, right? And I guess I looked back, and there is probably a good mix of both men and women, but what they had in common was that they were all White, and they all tended to be of upper-middle-class backgrounds. Because as a councilor, you are not paid. But the workload is like another full-time job. I would not say quite full-time, but again it is more responsibilities—you are required to attend meetings that may last three, four, five hours at a time, you are expected to volunteer and be able to be part of other organizations and be a liaison to different groups and things. But I guess I saw that and I did not realize it. Those are the kind of things where it could be a barrier to people, especially people of color like myself, where I work, I have got a full time job, I have got kids, I have lots of responsibilities. I am not retired and I cannot afford to do this hobby, but I also recognize, too, that a voice that was missing on decision making, because when we are making decisions that affect our everyday lives, it helps to have some perspective on what it is to be an everyday person that is dealing with some of the everyday challenges of balancing family and school and business and jobs and things.
And then also later, I guess also during the campaign too, I discovered that I was actually the first Vietnamese American to be elected to any office here in Oregon. Because I had heard of others that were Vietnamese Americans but I guess it was pointed out that they were never elected, that they had to be appointed to fill a vacant seat and they never ran for election, they never ran for election, you could not vote for somebody that had a Vietnamese name. So when I saw my name on the voters pamphlet, somebody pointed out, "If you get elected, you would be the first Vietnamese American ever elected in Oregon state history," and so I thought wow, that is quite … I did not understand the gravity at the time but then quickly after I was elected, I guess I kind of gravitated towards that, not so much as an ego thing, but more as other Vietnamese Americans like myself can do this too. I often say, “Heck, I sell noodles all day, that is my job. But if a guy that can sell noodles can do this work, so can you.” So if anything, just my simply being here, I am hoping that it inspires other Vietnamese Americans to think that they can do it too. It is not just reserved for people of means or people that are retired. Everyday people can also do it.
MB: Yeah, definitely. So I know Kate Brown, Oregon's governor, endorsed you. I am curious how your families became friends.
DN: Well it was by chance really, because as I had mentioned earlier, we kind of got our first taste of politics at the Port of Portland and so we kind of made a name for ourselves as this small but rambunctious couple at the Port of Portland because we were going through building and design and construction faster than anyone else has done it at the port. We were able to open up our restaurants just in time for spring break, for example, whereas everyone else was not able to do that. We were able to open up our food cart because one of the things that was a required part of the contract was that we had to operate a temporary food cart while we were under construction so that we would make sure that we still had food. And I think that the success of the food cart, I credit completely to my childhood and really even all through college of running food stands at the farmers market and things, because in those environments we do not have direct connection to power and electrical and things like that. In any case, we got a lot of attention because of our creativity and our ingenuity and we kind of made a name for ourselves at the port. And so they looked at us as kind of their small business partner and holding us as an example of how small businesses can participate here at the port. It is not just about airlines. Airlines are a very important part of the airport, as well as shipping lines, as well as railroads, as well as large Fortune 500 companies that send computer chips through the airport all over the world, right? Or ship soles for athletic shoes. So we were highlighted in their annual report as one of the small business partners, so we got a lot of attention from that.
So at that time, I guess we had some credibility with the port leadership. Katherine had heard about—and I heard about it too—that the port often goes to Asia on trade missions because Oregon has such a strong relationship with Japan and with China and with Vietnam, for example, that they actually have trade missions that go every few years just to keep the relationship going and help establish new business ties. But in the fall of 2015, there was a trip planned to go to Vietnam. Oregon was sending a delegation to Vietnam as part of a three country tour. You started in Japan, went to China, and then ended in Vietnam. But we always thought, That would be really awesome if we could join on a government trip or delegation to go to Vietnam, because it would be really cool, and we thought, What if we just tag along? Because we knew that the Port of Portland was a big part of that trip, so Katherine, my wife—she is never afraid to ask and make conversation—but it happened to be that the executive assistant to the airport director had stopped by for lunch and my wife was just asking about things, how things were going, because at the time the airport director was involved in a motorcycle accident and we were just asking you know, how he is feeling, if he is doing better and such, and the topic came up about him traveling, because he typically goes on these trips to Asia and so we talked to him about the trip. And Katherine brought up, “Well hey, if the Port is going to Vietnam, we would love to come along as observers and watch how things are going on, we will pay our own fare, we will watch and observe, we will not say anything, we will just be flies on the wall." And she had asked him if you are serious, I can ask Bill, and so she did and next day I get a call from the deputy airport director and he said, "Well, you guys would be a great representative! You guys are a small business and we welcome you to come along," and so a week later we find ourselves on a plane flying to Vietnam to rendezvous with the delegation that had left a week and a half earlier. And so their last stop was Vietnam, so we touched down in Hanoi and we had checked in at the hotel and at that time we are still thinking this is surreal because we had never been to Hanoi because you have to understand that for my entire family, both sides, none of us has ever been past central Vietnam. So to go into Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, was something that … it was really monumental for us.
We check in, I think it was probably close to midnight. It was really dark, and late at night, we check into the hotel, it was for sure the hotel that we were not expecting to have even imagined, but we checked in and as we were checking in, the governor and her husband walked in. And we had kind of seen her in pictures, we had never seen her in person. Actually, we saw her in person one time but it was in a large group. But so, we see each other in the lobby, and we exchange niceties, one of the port people introduced us, "Oh, this is Daniel and Katherine, they opened the new Vietnamese restaurant in the airport," and we shook hands and found out by coincidence that we have the same names, he was also Daniel and she was also a Katherine too, so automatically first off it helps that we have the same names. They are both Dan and Kate and we are Daniel and Katherine. And so we met there and, during the course of the trip, we found ourselves the de facto tour guide of Hanoi for the Oregon delegation even though we had never been there before, but Katherine was really good at giving the lay of the land and helping to facilitate wherever she could.
But our friendship kind of started there because we found ourselves, the governor and her husband, during our free time day, she ended up kind of tagging along with us to visit these different sites in Hanoi and in the car we got to talk and learn about families and things like that and so from there we just became friends that way. It was also during that trip too that the conversations were about, "Well, have you ever thought about doing other things beyond what you do already?" So there was small talk about, “Well, we could have you involved in this and that,” but that was kind of the beginning of it, and that is how we kind of became friends from then. We kept really close contact, just because they were fun people to be around. We have been to of all things, I think an Irish band—it was kind of like a Riverdance concert—together. They invited us to be their guest at this musical event down in the Hawthorne district at a small theater. But in any case, we got to know each other socially. And then so when I ran for council she was kind enough to endorse my campaign and she actually came to my swearing-in ceremony, which was a treat. I think that her being there really helped to kind of highlight the importance of having representation on council. So it means a lot. We really value that relationship.
MB: Yeah, that is incredible! So, what has it been like to lead a company during a pandemic and be part of a city council during the pandemic? Can you describe a typical day for you in 2020?
DN: Yeah. It is about this week, really, about a year ago that all these things were coming out about coronavirus and the restaurants were starting to shut down. We were seeing these large restaurants, much larger than ours, that shut down completely because they were not geared to do takeout. And then we were seeing these large lines at grocery stores, we were seeing grocery store shelves being emptied out. And I guess for me—and at the same time too, I had just come back the week before from SeaTac airport because we had just started construction on our second location at SeaTac airport and we were moving full steam ahead. We started demolition, we started the layout framing and we were starting to do core drills in the floor and things like that, but what I saw at SeaTac was really alarming. We were seeing drops in terms of sales, right? I mean sales correlate directly with passenger traffic and we were seeing drops of twenty percent, thirty percent, forty percent, just within a week. And so we were at a construction site at SeaTac and I saw this come through and I thought, there is something seriously wrong here. And because we are a small company, I think that we are kind of accustomed to … we have got to move quick because if we do not, we do not have cash to burn, we do not have a reserve that we can weather a storm like this. And so I even remember walking through the terminal and I just was able to see just this open space I have never seen before, because typically at any given time in Concourse C, you would never be able to see the walls, it was wall-to-wall people. But now you could see a straight shot from the end of the terminal all the way to what connects to the central terminal. But we saw that that was a big warning sign.
The next day I came back to Portland, and at Portland we were much further along with our construction because we were supposed to be open really in late spring in Portland in the new Concourse E. And so I came back and they were already finished with the core drills and we were getting ready to do rough-in plumbing. But then I just got this sinking feeling, "Well if this is what people are saying it is going to be, we could be shut down for months." And that meant that we would not have revenue. So I remembered—it was a Thursday—I had emailed my contractor in Seattle and also my contractor from Portland, and said, "Guys, I am going to issue the order to stop work. All construction work will stop." Because I'm feeling uneasy about this, I did not tell them at the time, but I do not have a huge cash reserve. “But you need to stop work, take your tools if you need to with you because it may be a while before you guys come back.” And I told them, and they were really alarmed. They had thought that something bad happened and I said, "Well, it is true. Something bad is happening, is going to happen." But again they were really perplexed, and they said, "You are overreacting." And remember saying, "Well I hope I am wrong. But it would be easy for you to remobilize, right? If I gave you guys a call and said I need you guys to come back in two weeks you guys could come back, right?" And they said, "Yeah, we could do that." But that was one of the decisions that I made, and I realize I was the first one to do it at Seattle Airport as well as Portland, and it was that next morning that I got calls from everybody else saying, "What did you do? Is everything OK?" from some people from the port. But then other people from other contractors were like, "So how did they react, were they mad at you, were they upset?" And I told them, "Well, I gotta do what is best for my company," and so all the contractors, all the other companies within a day or two, they all followed suit, and said they are going to stop work as well.
And so with that going on and watching the news, I kind of really panicked and I kind of went into this survival mode where it was like—it is going to be some time, if we are going to get government support it is going to be some time before we can get some help here. So we ended up boarding up our windows. I remember I took the truck and I picked up a load of plywood and I had my friend Mark come help me to screw in plywood to cover up the windows at our headquarters office. And I remember even putting padlocks on our roll up doors and parking the truck really close to the roll up door just in case somebody tried to break in. Because we had probably three months worth of inventory of product and things that we needed to protect because at that point we already had shut down completely. So again, getting in… I think about too where it is like, what kind of parallels were there with my parents when they left Vietnam, not knowing when support would come and so we had kind of had to fend for ourselves and so I remember doing that for our business, quickly shifting into survival mode. Unfortunately, we had to lay off a lot of our employees, we severely cut back on our management staff and we put in some really drastic financial measures to make sure that we could preserve a cash flow and be able to weather it. Because at that point, there was no such thing as PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] yet, there was nothing coming down the pipeline.
Meanwhile, I was also involved in City Council. City Council had declared—the City of Lake Oswego as well as every other city across the nation—had declared a state of emergency. And so, as part of our declaration, we started to have meetings twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, just to kind of update City Council on what is going on about how we function as a city, do we have enough resources, and things like that. And so, being part of those conversations kind of really also helped me to think about what is happening on the national level, on the state level, and also on the local level. And how that impacts business. And so during those conversations there were times when—this was this question—are we overreacting? Are we doing enough, right? What can we do to support our small businesses? And so the city had also, through some funds from the federal government, we were able to—and from the state as well—offer grants to help the small businesses with financial assistance and with the city being people's closest form of government, giving some support to people, helping people with prescriptions, the police were delivering people's medical prescriptions to their homes because senior citizens could not get out. And so, I think just being a business owner, it felt really scary because we knew at this point we could not rely on programs that were not even in existence yet. So we needed to do it to make sure we survived. Again, I know that it would be wrong for me to call it the war-time mentality but in a lot of ways it was, because you have to kind of guess what would you do to make sure that you survive this storm. So it was … at times it was scary. But now thinking back because, I think we reacted quickly. I think it allowed us to save our company. Not without having to close down two locations—before the pandemic we had five restaurants, and during the pandemic we closed down two. One of them had to close because our lease expired and maybe if COVID did not happen we probably would have renewed, but we closed down anyways because we did not know the certainty of it, so as a result our company is a smaller company. We are much leaner, but I think we are stronger for it.
[Can I put you on hold for a second? My wife just walked in … ]
DK: Daniel just let me know that we need to end things here for today. Daniel, thank you so much for speaking with us. Again, this has been Dustin Kelley and Mei Bailey speaking with Daniel Nguyen via Zoom on March 12, 2021.