Serving

Longtime restaurateur and neophyte politician Daniel Nguyen ’01 has a lot on his plate.

Restaurateur and Lake Oswego, Ore., city councilor Daniel Nguyen ’01 never expected he’d make a career of owning restaurants. He more or less grew up in one, yes, but his dreams were never of the perfect pho but instead of storming the management world, jetting all over the country to see clients.

We meet at a coffee shop next to Lake Oswego’s city hall, where construction cranes mark an active expansion project. There is no shortage of tax base in this leafy, lakeside suburb just south of Portland, where homes in the seven-figure price range are common, and eight-figure waterfront mansions are not unknown. What is in short supply are persons of color—in city government and in the community. Nguyen is the first person of color to be elected into the city’s government.

Nguyen is friendly, soft-spoken, happy to spend time talking about his family and their journey to the United States. He has four siblings, the elder three born in Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s, during the Vietnam War. His father, an officer in the South Vietnamese army, saw the writing on the wall and fled the country with his family in April 1975, just a week and a half before the fall of Saigon. 

By that summer, the family had traded the Mekong for the Columbia and had come to rest in Camas, Wash. They began the process of adjusting and assimilating.

“Take American names, lose the accents, blend in, and become as bland as possible—that was the plan,” the 41-year-old Nguyen says. “We knew we were different.”

Nguyen’s father worked at the local paper mill; his mother, at Pendleton Woolen Mills and in a food-packing plant. She didn’t like either job, and with five kids at home she decided something had to change. The one thing Mama Lan really knew how to do was cook, so around 1982 she opened a 20-seat restaurant in Camas called The Orient. It became Nguyen’s second home. When he was a kid, even the school bus drivers knew to drop him off there.

After a few years, The Orient’s unpaid labor force—Nguyen’s older siblings—began to leave for college, and it became hard to make the restaurant pay. His mother closed it and instead focused on food booths at the summertime fairs and festivals around the Northwest. Thirteen-year-old Daniel was placed in charge of securing and managing bookings.

“Here I am in middle school, phoning chambers of commerce and promoters to book space, trying hard to sound older and more professional,” Nguyen remembers. “I quickly realized that ‘Hi, I’m calling for my mom ...’ didn’t cut it. I bought an old typewriter, set up a little office, and organized my workflow—and I wound up doing that into college.”

Still, Nguyen never thought he’d end up owning a restaurant. He studied international business at Puget Sound, and remembers being amazed that professors like Suzanne Barnett and Nick Kontogeorgopoulos devoted their careers to Asian history—until he went to college, he was barely aware that there was such a thing as Asian history, beyond folklore from his mom and dad.

He spent a semester in Hong Kong—“That was the first time I saw a sea of black-haired people, the first time I was ever in the majority”—and visited Vietnam.

He also readied himself for a life in the corporate jet set.

“I was on my way to big things,” Nguyen says, laughing. “In my senior year, I got a job with one of the Big Five accounting firms, Andersen Consulting; got the leather portfolio with my name on it. I had it made. So, what did I do? I asked if I could start in October instead of June so I could work the summer fairs and festivals with my mom.”

BUSINESS AND BAHN MI  We asked Nguyen what makes a restaurant truly special, his advice for new entrepreneurs, and more. WATCH THE VIDEO.

That, sadly, was the summer of 2001. While Nguyen helped his mother in the food booth, the dot-com bubble burst, and then the twin towers fell. Andersen deferred the job offer, then asked if Nguyen could work in Minneapolis instead of Seattle, then eventually rescinded the offer altogether. Nguyen got to keep the signing bonus and a deferral bonus, but “I never worked a day for them.”

Finding himself unemployed, he went back to what he knew: “I knew how to prepare and sell food.” With Nguyen’s encouragement, his parents sold their house and moved to Seattle. “It was always my mom’s desire to open a bigger restaurant that served truly Vietnamese food,” he says, “and I said, if we’re gonna serve Vietnamese food, it needs to be in a bigger city.” In 2003, Bambuza—named for the bamboo of Vietnam—was born. It was one of only two white-linen, upscale Vietnamese restaurants in the city.

Cool, Nguyen thought, I’ll do this until the economy recovers, then I’ll get a real job. Today, Councilor Nguyen and his wife, Katherine—whom he’s known since he was 12—have four Bambuza locations around Portland and one at Sea-Tac Airport, and will launch a new sandwich concept, 9th & Pike, in Seattle in the summer. Ingredients for their current success include hard times, many reinventions, and a couple of unrealized exit strategies.

By late 2007, Daniel and Katherine had an infant daughter and moved to Portland, where they had family to help with child care, and made plans to open a Bambuza in what was then the city’s hottest new neighborhood, the South Waterfront. They launched in the spring of 2008—right before the economic crash that would decimate the over-leveraged new neighborhood and severely curtail their business. Nguyen remembers watching the ominous headlines scroll across the restaurant’s TV.

“Everything came to a screeching halt,” he recalls. “How do we survive?” The solution they found was on the forefront of restaurant design a decade ago.

“We got rid of linens, simplified the menu, made it much more accessible,” Nguyen says. “We put up menu boards and became a counter-service restaurant. We went from the fancy, designed-to-the-nines restaurant in Seattle to a place we bought tables and chairs for from Craigslist. It saved us.”

It was never easy, but they were making a go of it, even expanding to new locations in the Portland area. Then in 2010 they got news that changed everything: Katherine was pregnant with their second child, and the prenatal diagnosis was that the baby girl might be born with severe developmental issues.

“We decided that we could work ourselves to the bone and have success, but the health of our family means so much more,” Nguyen says. They decided to pare down, selling off all locations except South Waterfront, in order to focus on their daughter.

“Then,” says Nguyen, “a miracle happened.”

Against the odds, the Nguyens’ daughter was born 100% healthy. Even so, Daniel reduced his workload to focus on his young family. “‘This restaurant business is killing us,’ we thought,” Nguyen says with a knowing smile. The couple decided to think about life beyond the restaurant world. “We decided to pursue my dream of returning to the corporate world. I’d get my M.B.A., then my wife would get hers, then I’d go on to law school. That was the plan.”

You can probably hear the gods laughing. They got as far as the two M.B.A.s, but by then, with two young kids at home and still one restaurant to run, more school was out of the question. Nguyen applied for several corporate jobs but got interviews for only one of them. “I was told I was overqualified and wouldn’t stay,” he remembers ruefully.

“Now I had an M.B.A., and I was, evidently, unemployable.” So he and his wife turned their M.B.A. training to Bambuza. They reexamined their business, did a rebranding, and became, in Nguyen’s words, “more community focused, more thoughtful about sourcing and sustainability.”

My core values are community, integrity, and stewardship. It's how I run my business, and it's how I perform my public service, as well."

– Daniel Nguyen ’01

A breakthrough came when they had an opportunity to submit a proposal to the Port of Portland to open a location at the airport. It proved to be a life-changing turn. Not only is the location very successful, it got Nguyen involved in the world of public policy. He started showing up at port commission meetings, and the group began listening to his thoughts on policy and growth.

“I found that my voice actually changed the thinking of several of the commissioners,” Nguyen says, “and changed the way they did things, from how they awarded contracts to small businesses to how they bring in more minority-owned firms.” Soon the Nguyens were part of trade visits to Vietnam with Oregon’s governor. Then people were suggesting he run for office. At first, he laughed it off. “I don’t have a political pedigree,” he told them. “That’s why you have potential,” they told him. The encouragement prompted him to run for the Lake Oswego City Council. He was elected in November 2018.

Today, he says he’s still “learning the ropes” on the council. But he tries to bring a perspective on how government can work for young families like his, in a city dominated by retirees; he also wants to make Lake Oswego attractive for investment and job creation. And, mindful that people of color are not well represented in city leadership, he makes diversity, equity, and inclusion among his top priorities. 

Meanwhile, Bambuza—Nguyen’s business—donates to several nonprofits, from a Portland-area family shelter to WaterAfrica. The restaurants also donate a portion of sales to neighboring schools. And once a month, their chefs cook dinner for people who are homeless.

“My core values are community, integrity, and stewardship,” Nguyen says. “It’s how I run my business, and it’s how I perform my public service as well.”

 

By Adam Edwards
Photos by Sy Bean
Published Feb. 13, 2020