Duc Tran stands in front of one of his businesses, Tea Palace Restaurant, in Renton. Photo credit: Nick Wong.

If you’ve ever shopped for Hoison sauce, Bok Choy, sticky rice or any other Asian food product, then you’ve probably heard of Viet-Wah, the Asian specialty grocery store with locations all over Washington State. However, little is known about the brains behind the business and how one of Seattle’s largest chain food retailers came to be. This is Duc Tran’s American Story.

Sponsored by the First United Methodist Church in Burien, Duc Tran first arrived to the United States in 1976 as a refugee from Vietnam. While working two jobs in the social services, Tran also attended ESL courses at Highline Community College to aid in his employment as a translator for the refugee program of the same church that sponsored his own arrival. Stationed at the SeaTac International Airport, Tran would help refugees transfer from one part of the country to another, which at times resulted in anywhere from fifty to one hundred migrants with overnight layovers. What that also meant was fifty to one hundred hungry mouths to feed.

“Northwest Airlines has these coupons that the refugees could give to a restaurant for food,” Tran explains. “But a lot of the restaurants refuse to serve them because they’re Hmong people, Laotian people, many are very poor, some without shoes. Some of the restaurants were scared of some of the customers.”

Xenophobic stereotyping is an all too often occurrence in the United States, yet paradoxically, this prejudiced fear of newcomers was what opened the door of opportunity.

“We came up with the idea of food delivered to [the refugees’] rooms, so we started a catering service. We didn’t know we needed a license to serve food so we started in a garage,” recalls Tran. After understanding the licensing regulations of the city, he eventually opened Chinatown’s first Chinese and Vietnamese eatery named Hon’s Restaurant. According to Tran, the whole purpose of obtaining a license was to continue catering to the refugees.

With that small corner side restaurant emerged many more business opportunities, and like a true entrepreneur, Tran capitalized on a market demand that he recognized and fulfilled. Building a stable network from the relationships he developed during his interpreter work at the airport, a 700-sq ft grocery store eventually surfaced onto Seattle’s Jackson Avenue, and addressed the once difficult task of finding a good source of ethnic groceries. Today the business has only expanded. Tran currently owns three Viet-Wah Supermarkets, the Tea Palace Restaurant, in Renton and the VW Asian food exporting company, a hefty feat for someone with humble beginnings.

“When I first got off the airplane, I had one jean jacket and one extra pair of jean pants. That’s all I had,” Tran recalls. “Before I came to this country, I was told there was opportunity. That’s the way the story was told in the refugee camp.”

The tale of the “American Dream” has been told throughout all my years of schooling; first in my years of a public school curriculum as the glimmering cornerstone that defined this country, then deconstructed in my upper-level college courses at UW. Hearing about Duc Tran literally pulling himself up by his own innovation, drive and hard work, I really didn’t know what to think anymore. Instead, I asked the successful entrepreneur what he thought about “America” and what led to his own success.

“The most important thing is freedom,” states the former Vietnamese refugee. “I left a communist country and here you’re free to speak, to say anything, go anywhere you want. I believe that anybody, not just me, can have success. We see a lot of people with success out here, so just go out and grab it.”

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