In the 1980s, several Asian American families combined talent, perseverance, and hard work to establish the many unique businesses that are now prominent in the International District. As this generation begins to retire, their children are stepping up to the plate, choosing to prioritize the preservation of their family businesses over the countless options available to them as a result of growing up in the U.S.
Dawn Cropp emigrated from Cambodia in 1980 with her parents and two sisters. Her father established Phnom Penh, a Cambodian noodle house, seven years later. Cropp said her father, Sam Ung, established the business from scratch, working as many as 15 hours every day to provide for his family.
In 2008, her father decided it was time to sell the business. But much to their parent’s surprise, Cropp and her sister decided to take over. She said she couldn’t see “letting the business go.”
“They worked so hard to build what they have so to see it go seems like such a waste. We wanted to continue the legacy,” said Cropp.
The sisters had grown up working in the restaurant and knew just how demanding the restaurant business could be. They were studying nursing before deciding to take over the restaurant.
“Growing up, [our parents] wanted us to get our education and go on and find different careers because the restaurant business is such a grueling job. It’s not a nine-to-five and there is so much stress involved,” said Cropp.
Nonetheless, Cropp said she finds it a rewarding job, especially for all the regular customers that have been coming since she was seven years old.
“People come for the food but a lot of customers come to see us as well.”
As a result of the younger generation extending the legacy of their parents, tradition has been preserved. However, this generation has also brought different skill sets to the table. Cropp, for instance, has updated a few things beginning with a website for the business, remodeling the buidling, and getting in touch with different programs such as Groupon and LivingSocial.
“The food is the same but we’ve brought fresh ideas, updating things with technology,” said Cropp.
For other second-generation business owners, preserving their parent’s business is often rooted in deep-seated traditions, extending many generations back. Vivian Luc said her grandfather was an herbalist in Vietnam and China. When her uncles and father immigrated to the U.S., they decided to continue their father’s tradition and establish an herb and grocery store called New An Dong Market (along with Lucky An Dong). The tradition did not end there.
Luc also studied herbs and agriculture at Bastyr University so she could also help out at the grocery store. She said her father wanted her and her brother to preserve the store and they were willing. For customers, it was also important that the people behind the counter were familiar faces.
“They trust us when dealing with herbs. Sometimes [customers] just stop by and talk. Especially the older generation; they don’t have anywhere to go so they come and say ‘hi’ and have a cup of tea,” said Luc.
According to Stinson Associates and The Economist, only about 30 percent of family businesses survive the transfer to the second-generation in the U.S. For Asian Americans in the ID, the rate is significantly higher, reflecting strong family values and honoring of tradition.
For instance, Lynn Chang has been overseeing her father’s business, Kau Kau BBQ Market and Restaurant since 2003. She, like Cropp, said it was difficult to see the business leave the family. Her father had built the restaurant which, she says, was the first to specialize in Asian barbeque in the Seattle area in 1972.
Chang’s husband had worked for Boeing for several years as an engineer, but now also manages the restaurant. The couple is now considering the possibility of opening another branch.
Similar to Cropp and Luc, Chang talks about seeing the regular customers as a rewarding part of her experience in the business.
“Today a customer came in and was telling me he came as a little kid. We have quite a few customers who grew up with this place,” she said. “We now have a third generation coming back.”
As for their kids one day taking over the business, they remain skeptical but hopeful.
“We hope they will but I don’t see that happening. They’re more into computers,” said New An Dong’s Luc. “I don’t think their generation will be into this business.”
Kau Kau’s Chang said, “As a parent, I think if they find another profession that’s fine. I’m not going to say they have to take over.”
“We say ‘no’ to our kids taking over,” said Phnom Penh’s Cropp, laughing. “But it’s funny because it was the same thing with my parents. We thought we would never come back.”
Phnom Penh Noodle House:
660 S. King St., Seattle
Kau Kau BBQ Market and Restaurant:
656 South King St., Seattle
New An Dong Market:
601 S King St., Ste. 205, Seattle