Tee Tran Will Make You Want To Be A Better Person

The Monster Pho restaurant owner shares what many get wrong about refugees and how his background has fueled his passion to help others in need.
Illustration: HuffPost; Photo: Lori Eanes/Getty Images

It’s hard to keep track of all the ways Monster Pho owner Tee Tran has helped his community in Oakland, California. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his restaurant donated almost 20,000 meals through World Central Kitchen, gave free coffee to health care workers and free produce to anyone in need, offered customer discounts for donated goods, held a backpack drive and started a yearly event giving free pho to anyone wanting a hot meal — no questions asked. In this edition of Voices in Food, Tran shares in his own words how his life as a Vietnamese refugee — and more pointedly, how his mom — has inspired his passion for helping others, even when he was struggling himself.

I have lived in the U.S. since 1989, specifically Oakland. This country is where I grew up with my mom and two older brothers. It’s where I started my own family; my two little girls were born here. It’s where I made my American dream come true, opening up my very own restaurant, Monster Pho.

I am an American, but I am also Vietnamese. My family are refugees, people forced to leave their country in order to escape war, natural disaster or danger because of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or political belief. In 1987, when I was about 3 years old, my mom took my two brothers and me and we fled Vietnam on a boat heading to Thailand, sneaking out in the middle of the night. There were about 50 other people on the boat, other people like us who were trying to get a better life. We were on the water for about two weeks and it wasn’t easy. There wasn’t much food and we saw pirates and dead bodies in the water. But eventually, we made it to Thailand, where we stayed in a refugee camp.

After a couple of years, we got sponsorship to come to America in 1989. When my mom, two older brothers and I landed in Oakland, we didn’t have much. We didn’t have a bed, pillows, blankets or even electricity. But my mom worked hard to take care of us. She worked four jobs and still cooked us delicious meals. I remember her making thit kho, which is rice, eggs and braised pork. She also made bitter melon with ground meat, which she steamed up like a soup.

My brothers and I all worked to help my mom, too. When I was 7 or 8 years old, my mom gave me $20 and I bought candy bars and would resell them, giving her back the initial $20 and keeping the profit. For years, my brother had a newspaper route. We would all wake up at 3 a.m. to help him deliver the papers.

“Our customers support us even more because of how we’ve supported the community. And the more they support the restaurant, the more we can help others. It’s the most beautiful cycle.”

- Tee Tran

In my 20s, I worked for a car dealership. The car dealership industry has a bad rep, but I was always honest with customers, and for that reason, I did really well and worked my way up in the company, eventually becoming a finance manager at age 25. I was making good money, but in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to open up a restaurant and serve my mom’s delicious food.

I spent five years working at the car dealership while researching how to open a restaurant. I talked to about 100 people for advice on things like how to get a small-business loan. Then, I saw an empty building two blocks away from the car dealership. I knew it was perfect. At first, they wouldn’t rent it to me. But after it sat vacant for six months, I asked if I could show them my business plan. Shortly after, I signed the lease. I emptied my 401(k) and bank account, putting every dollar I had into opening the restaurant. What motivated me was seeing how hard my mom worked. I just wanted to make her proud.

Not everyone in the U.S. sees refugees as hardworking. Some people think refugees are coming here and stealing their jobs and causing a lot of crime. But if you actually take the time to understand and get to know refugees, you’ll see that they go to work and don’t want any trouble. There’s also a labor shortage; we are in need of good workers. I make it a point to hire people who don’t have work experience because it’s so hard to start out. Instead, I look for people who have a good personality that I think would be good with customers.

Because of the way I grew up, being a hard worker is ingrained in me. So is helping others in need. The pandemic, especially 2020 and 2021, were extremely tough times for the restaurant industry as a whole, my restaurant included. Even though we had a solid plan in place by offering to-go orders and discounts to DoorDash customers to drive business, we were still behind on our bills. But when a local nonprofit reached out asking me if we could donate some meals to homeless shelters, there was no question in my mind that we should do it. It was the same when an opportunity with World Central Kitchen came up, a nonprofit that donates thousands of meals a day to people in need.

Not everyone was on board with it. Some people called me crazy and said I needed to save as much money as possible because there was no knowing what the future had in store. But I wasn’t thinking logically at the time. I was letting my emotions take over and there were so many people in need. I asked my mom what she thought I should do. She told me, “We’re lucky. We have a roof over our heads and food to eat. You should help those who don’t.”

During COVID, I started leaving fresh produce in front of the restaurant for people in need, things like carrots, tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, limes and lemons. One day, one of our elderly neighbors came by and said he had stopped by the day before to pick up some tomatoes and onions but we were closed. That gave me an idea. There was a flower bed in front of the restaurant. I started planting blueberries, tomatoes, onions and other foods right there in the garden. That way, people could just pluck them right from the ground.

“Some people think refugees are coming here and stealing their jobs and causing a lot of crime. But if you actually take the time to understand and get to know refugees, you’ll see that they go to work and don’t want any trouble.”

- Tran

Something else we did during the pandemic was launch a program called Project Healthier. We gave customers 50% off their meal if they donated hand sanitizer, gloves or masks. Then, we donated the supplies to the hospital down the street from us. That inspired us to do something similar later with blankets and then with coats. We also started offering 25% off to kids and parents who donated a backpack so we could do a backpack drive.

Here’s what’s really cool: Our customers support us even more because of how we’ve supported the community. And the more they support the restaurant, the more we can help others. It’s the most beautiful cycle.

The Oakland community has been supportive of the restaurant from the beginning. Eighty percent of our customers are regulars. Even during COVID, when racism against Asians was rampant, I personally did not experience that firsthand. In fact, in the few times that a customer said something racist at the restaurant, other customers have kicked them out on our behalf.

To me, helping others is what community is all about. You see each others’ needs and meet them in the ways that you’re able to. I believe in a higher faith and that as long as you do the right thing, right will come back to you. I’ve experienced firsthand that giving truly is the richest way to live.

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