Just a few months ago, Truong left his job as an engineer at Hewlett-Packard in Houston. Now, you can find him cooking up a storm in downtown Flagstaff at his restaurant, Street Side Saigon.
“I worked as a computer engineer at Hewlett-Packard in Houston, but after 10-plus years of that, I decided it just wasn’t really for me,” Truong explained. “I’d had enough of engineering and enough of living in Houston, so I decided to go West.”
He came to Flagstaff to visit his sister, and decided he really liked the city.
“When I got to Flagstaff I wasn’t really working because I had saved up enough money from years and years of working as an engineer, so I didn’t really feel like I had to rush into something right away,” Truong said. “I stayed in Flagstaff for a while and just decided that I really like this place a lot. I like to think of it as the polar opposite of Houston. It’s a small town, no one is in a rush to go anywhere and you don’t have to get on the highway every day.”
When he first arrived in Flagstaff, Truong started making cookies for his neighbors. He really enjoyed making something, sharing it, and then hearing feedback.
It wasn’t until his friend recommended he set an appointment with the Small Business Development Center that he had any plans to start a restaurant.
“I had an idea, but I didn’t have any kind of real plan,” Truong said. “It was when I met one of my now really good friends and she asked me, ‘Hoa, what’s your dream?’ and I said, ‘I kind of want to start a deli.’ So she told me about the Small Business Development Center. That’s when the ball started rolling. It went from just an idea to a plan. I think once I had an idea of what I had to do it became a lot easier.”
What evolved out of those business mentorship sessions was a casual Vietnamese restaurant.
“When I was coming up with a name, I wanted something that denoted South Vietnam, because that’s the region I was born and spent my early childhood in. And then ‘Street Side’ because I want it to be casual dining.”
Street Side Saigon is located on San Francisco Street in the south half of what used to be Café Ole’. After looking at a few other spaces, Truong fell in love with the building’s charm.
“I walked in and it was still Café Ole’ before it was sold, so it was very colorful and had lots of stuff all over the place,” Truong said. “It was very charming and I liked it. And then I saw the patio and I thought, ‘This could really work.’ I also thought the space was small enough so it was manageable.”
Shortly after his visit, the space was his and the process of opening a restaurant began – but not without a few hurdles along the way.
“At first, everything seemed like a major obstacle,” Truong said. “As I told my friend, every single day leading up to opening a restaurant I had to make at least 30 decisions. Some small, and a few that were really big. After a while it started becoming a little easier because it some ways I started to let go of my perfectionist attitude. Yes, some things need to be closer to perfect than others, but in the end, sometimes you just have to go with a decision. Then later, if you find out that decision wasn’t the best, at least now you have some information as to why it wasn’t good. So it got easier.”
For Truong, the transition from engineer to restaurant owner wasn’t easy. Managing people, food and a business were all things he had never done before.
“I think [the restaurant industry] is an entirely different world,” Truong said. “I really do wish that I could’ve used something from my schooling, but pretty much that degree is tossed out the door. But it allowed me to work for 10 years and it allowed me to save up some money so I could open this place, so it’s not worthless.”
Creating a unique yet logistically functional menu was also a learning experience for Truong. Nonetheless, he really enjoyed infusing his mother’s traditional cooking with his own style. “I wanted to serve some of my favorite dishes, but I also knew that the dishes have to somewhat overlap each other. You can’t have a dish that uses a certain eight ingredients and then not use any of those ingredients anywhere else. So I had to pick some other dishes that have some kind of overlap so there’s some movement through inventory.”
However, all of his challenges have been met with many successes. He frequently sees repeat customers, had a full house on his first First Friday Art Walk, and is beginning to expand his menu.
“I think overall, the biggest success is that for the most part, people who come here like the food,” Truong said. “I consider that to be a success. When I see people come back in for a second time, that’s what I call a success.”
He has already expanded his tea selection, and plans to add a Vietnamese Po’ Boy to the menu next. He is also experimenting with opening up early on Saturdays and Sundays for teas, coffees, and crepes.
“If someone wants to come in early, read their newspaper or have an early weekend date with a friend, I think we would be a really great place to do that,” Truong said. FBN
Visit Street Side Saigon for lunch or dinner at 121 S. San Francisco Street. Order out food by calling 928-226-1508. You can also Like the restaurant on Facebook.
By Maria DiCosola
Flagstaff Business News