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Nicole Pham owns 80 percent of the Lemon Grass business. In 1979, when Pham was 17, she and 6 friends decided to leave their native Vietnam for America. "We decided to leave after the war ended and the Communists took over," she says. "To us, this was an adventure, but we had to do it secretly so we couldn't speak with our parents or family about it. If we got caught, we'd be killed." Only one week passed from the day the teens decided to escape before they found people who contributed money for their voyage and departed on a boat to Hong Kong.
Once in Hong Kong, the teens stayed in refugee camps for one year while awaiting American sponsors. Pham's sponsor lived in California, and at age 18 she arrived in Hollywood, where she stayed for 3 months. "I found out that we couldn't go to school and had to sew to earn money," she says. "That's not what I considered in finding freedom." With $225 from the government and advice from a family friend from Vietnam, Pham moved with another friend to the Olympia, Wash., area. After a short period, she moved in with a sponsor family who later agreed to become her foster family. During the next 10 years, Pham earned a high school diploma and a business degree from South Puget Sound Community College and Evergreen State College. After receiving her degree she worked at Pabst as a staff accountant. In 1996, she and several peers were laid off. Pham decided to open her first restaurant, a business she was confident she could run, given her passion and talent for cooking and her background in accounting.
For two years, Pham focused her attention on developing the menu and recipes. "The bank didn't give me a loan because I had no restaurant experience," she says. "Monarch Trading Inc., which sells restaurant equipment and supplies, loaned me money for the equipment and remodeling a facility." Pham opened the first Lemon Grass in 1998 and the second in 2010. Her success convinced the bank she could qualify for a loan for the third restaurant. She purchased the building housing a national casual chain's restaurant and invested $500,000 to renovate the space.
Pham prides herself on working in a relatively small space to produce the ambitious menu she's created. When this restaurant is older, she plans to remodel the kitchen and add in equipment she initially had to leave out to stick to her budget.
The restaurant's positioning rests on its freshly prepared cuisines, so Pham's pet peeve is when customers come into the restaurant and expect fast-food service times. "This really bugs me," she says. "The other day customers waited 20 minutes to get a fairly large order and walked out because they said it took too long to cook. This is fine dining and you must sit down, enjoy the environment, have a glass of wine, and wait for fresh food." Pham recognizes she must educate her customers who are accustomed to eating at local fast food restaurants.
Pham says that the support she has received from her American sponsors and foster family, Kent and Joanne Drinkard, and the support of her husband, Jim Porter, and eight-year-old son, Andrew, have inspired and encouraged her "each and every day." Over the past several years, Pham has sponsored her parents and three brothers to leave Vietnam and come to the states. He brother Dao is a 20 percent partner and works with her at all three restaurants, managing the business and customer service. Three of Pham's sisters and another brother still live in Vietnam.
Peggy Marvel is the interior designer at Bargreen Ellingson. Beginning her career at Bargreen Ellingson in 1986, she says she "immediately fell in love with the people and the process involved in developing great restaurant interiors." She enjoys listening to her clients, observing their needs, and surpassing their expectations by offering fresh designs. She enjoys producing meticulous kitchen equipment layouts and mechanical plans and producing unifying spaces. Having worked for a local architect, Marvel brings that perspective to project designs and fuses it with functionality.
Larry Stoops is the project manager/salesperson at Bargreen Ellingson. The person with the second-longest tenure at the company (second to owner and CEO Paul Ellingson), he started in 1974 as a driver and worked in that role for eight months before moving on to the warehouse for another eight months. He shifted to floor sales for about a year and then entered territory sales, calling on customers door-to-door. In 1995, he moved to the contract side of the business, focusing on building customers' dream facilities. Stoops' son David recently joined the Bargreen Ellingson family, and the Stoops are now just one of several families that work at the company.