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Seattle District Office Success Stories

Seattle District Office Success Stories

Lemon Grass Restaurants Bring Asian Cuisine to the Olympia/Lacey Area

“I never thought I would still be alive when we were on the ocean in that tiny boat. But I made it.”

1975. The Fall of Saigon forced an estimated 2.5 million people into “reeducation camps,” with almost 160,000 people dying in those camps. Of those who managed to escape the country, approximately 350,000 people died in small boats at sea.

But in 1980, Nicole Pham, now the owner of Lemon Grass Restaurants, with three locations in Olympia and Lacey, was one of the comparably few people who managed to successfully escape Vietnam to Hong Kong; forced to leave her entire family behind.

Pham has lived a life full of struggle and complications.

Escaping Vietnam at the age of 16 was her biggest feat. Coming to America and moving through three different sponsor families across the West coast before finally graduating college and beginning a career in accounting being one of the other top challenges in her life.

Pham’s first sponsors wanted her to work in a shop as a seamstress, but she wanted an education and a better life. She moved to Olympia (Wash.) with $25 in her pocket and lived with her second sponsor family. They moved away.

Her third and final sponsor family took her in for the next ten years; helped her finish high school, graduate college and start a career in accounting.

After working for some time at Pabst Brewing Company, Pham found a passion for cooking that ran over into her job there as an accountant.

“I always loved to cook, it’s my passion.” Pham said. “Even when I worked for Pabst, once a month I got the money together and I made lunch for everyone there.”

But in 1996, Pham was laid off from her job. She decided, rather than continue job hunting, she would start a restaurant.  

“When I first opened the restaurant it was very difficult to get the loan because I had no experience,” Pham said. “I had no money, I had no experience working at a restaurant, I had no management skills or anything.”

Pham eventually began inviting potential investors to her home to cook for them to prove her abilities. It paid off.

After 10 years of running Lemon Grass restaurants, in two different and very successful locations, Pham decided to open a much larger restaurant in Lacey, Wash. She used the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 7(a) and 504 loan programs to fund the purchase of the building, remodels and stocking the kitchen with equipment, totaling almost $1.5 million.

Pham attributes a lot of her success in the restaurant industry to her long time banker, Craig Chance with Columbia Bank.

“Craig Chance was the one that I really looked up to, he put the trust in me and he believed in me,” said Pham. “When I was feeling down and inexperienced in the beginning, he supported me.”

Pham said her biggest piece of advice to business owners, especially in the restaurant industry, is to forget you own the place.

“I don’t think of myself as a boss,” said Pham. “I think of my managers, as MY managers. You can’t run a restaurant without people, and you have to treat them well and respect them. Sometimes I have to cook, I have to wait tables, I have to clean the (grease) hood. I don’t point fingers and tell people what to do. I help them when they need it, and I trust them to make decisions.”

From escaping Saigon, graduating college, overcoming a layoff and repaying 18% interest on her initial business loans, Nicole Pham has not only overcome difficulties, but triumphed and thrived from adversity: showing the real meaning behind the saying “If I can do it, anyone can.”

For more information about Lemon Grass Restaurants, visit http://thelemongrassrestaurants.com/.


For more information about the SBA Loan Programs, visit www.sba.gov/LoanPrograms.