By: Daniel Tossounian
At this point in our series, we will cast our gaze at more traditional iterations of the kinds of small businesses one will encounter while navigating the rustic streets of old Chinatown. Upon taking a short walk from the incredibly unique Wing Ice cream shop which I had visited in the previous episode, I turned onto Maunakea St and happened upon an attractively colored and arranged marquee advertising Vietnamese cuisine. The name of the restaurant gracing the marquee was Pho Que Huong (Pho meaning soup).
Having lived in Southern California most of my life, where there is a huge Vietnamese expat community, I was completely familiar with this type of food and still harbor many fond memories enjoying my weekly bowl of pho…pronounced Fa-ah. I felt the inexorable urge to explore the establishment and see whether my olfactory senses had good enough muscle memory to usher in some pleasant reminiscing. I made a sharp turn and passed through its inviting doors.
However, it would be remiss if I recounted the next phase of this adventure without first saying a word about the restaurant scene in Honolulu. While Hawaii’s capital is not yet quite on a par with cities like New York, Paris, London or say Los Angles, in terms of depth, variety and sheer number of dining establishments, Honolulu is nevertheless emerging as a world class contender in terms of options for eating out.
Waikiki and the downtown have the well-known big-name eateries such as Ruth Chris, Tony Roma’s, IHOP and scores of other easily recognizable brands. However, this is merely the top of the iceberg as literally hundreds and hundreds of medium too small to the veritable ‘hole in the wall’ places can be found where foods ranging from mainland China, The Philippines, Japan, European to the Middle East and even to locally grown cuisine are readily available to the hungry foodie sojourner. And for those with a less eccentric palate… more mainstream offerings like hamburgers, steaks, fries and-or a side of coleslaw washed down with a cola are easily attainable.
One must not fail to mention that the famous Loco Moco -which is roughly the Hawaiian version of a burger and fries (just substitute rice) is a nice hardy meal which more than hits the spot…and should be tired at least once in one’s lifetime. Hawaii after, all is said and done, offers a satisfying buffet of choices for lovers of good food…however you define it.
Pho Que’ Hu’o’ng
1160 Maunakea St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Upon entering Pho Que Huong, the savory smells, attractive yet simple decor and relaxed atmosphere made me yearn for my good ole California pho days. I sat down with Johnson Pham, son of the owners and discussed their recent experiences of the last year and how their business is faring after having gone through the last 15 or so months of lock downs and restricting due to the Covid crisis.
Me: Tell me a little about your business.
Yes, we are a small family-owned local business. What do you serve, what is your product?
We serve Vietnamese authentic dishes, from all over Vietnam…we draw a lot of the inspiration from the south, where my parents are both from. It’s also from middle and northern regions as well but it’s mostly from Saigon style.
Me: You know I am familiar with Vietnamese restaurants, in fact I really enjoyed them. In fact, I had a habit of eating Pho at least once a week so I could get some real nutrition because it is simply so fresh. In fact, right now as we speak, I can smell the aromas.
Me: How can you say businesses has been, first what brought your family to Hawaii?
Well the short version is they (my family) both came here during the Vietnam war. They were both refugees.
Me: So, it was affected by that historical event?
Me: It is the same in So Cal. We have whole cities comprised of Vietnam expats who resettled…and brought their cultural with them like the food.
Me: How long has your family been in the restaurant business?
Ahh we’ve actually just made our third year. They (my parents) both had other businesses before, but the restaurant business is still relatively new.
My mom did have a business before, and my dad worked at construction.
Me: So, your mother did not have previous restaurant experience?
No she had a seamstress business. But my mom always had a passion for cooking, and it really showed through all of her home cooked meals at home. She just channeled that energy into this business.
Me: Well, how has business been these last three years? Would you say it has been, ok?
Yeah well, we’ve actually been doing very well. Like most businesses you won’t start seeing a profit until the two-year mark, but we’ve been experiencing really high profits. A lot of people will come from all over just to experience our restaurant.
There’s really no shortage of customers, we always have full houses. It’s really been a good experience so far. We really have nothing but high hopes for the future.
Me: So, it is fair to say that before the Covid catastrophe you were going full steam, as they say?
Me: Well, of course Covid did hit. How did it affect your business?
Like every other business, it was downhill for quite a while.
Me: Other small businesses reported drop offs of 50 to 75 percent revenue has that happened to you?
It definitely has.
Me: What brought you through this, because as we are sitting here, I see a thriving business all around us. What could you say brought your family through it?
Yeah well honestly it was just a hope and a prayer. We’re really religious too, she (my mom) really likes to keep that in mind. But also, just the fact that the whole local community really got together to show their support. Right when doors started opening up …it was like a normalization process. Everyone was still there like it was pre-pandemic levels.
Me: You have reached pre pandemic levels?
Me: So, it looks like people. Customers are making up for lost time.
Yeah, people are just dying to leave their houses.
Me: Are your customers locals or visitors?
Mostly visitors about 60/40 visitors to locals
Me: Really? Wow
Yes, it’s because we have a large variety, we pretty much have a dish for everyone.
Me: Well, just sitting here makes me want to get my ‘Pho on’
Me: Ok so you would say you have made it through the storm that was Covid?
Yeah, we’re through the storm and are trying to up-grade our image to go forward.
Me: Wow, well that is a happy ending so why not finish it here.
I think the lesson taken away here is that customers will in the end show loyalty and support for their neighbor-hood business establishments, if those business establishments can provide enough pluck and perseverance and show that they are truly in the game. Que Hong seems to have more than met this challenge and we wish them well going forward. Their success is a boon to their loyal customers, as well as to Honolulu’s downtown food scene.