By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Duc Tran’s parents owned a grocery store, so maybe it’s not a surprise that Tran also became a grocery store owner.
After coming to America from his native Vietnam, Tran worked hard, set up his own business, and established the Viet Wah grocery store chain. For his endless work for others and entrepreneurial spirit, Tran is being honored as one of this year’s Northwest Asian American Weekly Pioneers.
“It was very common for families to run their own businesses when I was growing up in Vietnam,” said Tran. His parents owned a store in a marketplace in Saigon, Vietnam.
Born in 1953, Tran came from a family of six brothers and three sisters.
“Their occupations vary greatly, from construction, to travel, to groceries, and some are entrepreneurs as well,” said Tran.
Tran immigrated to America from Vietnam in 1975. When he arrived, he worked various jobs, while taking classes to learn English. The classes helped, as he began working as a translator. He worked with other immigrants from Southeast Asia.
On the job, he noted the need for ethnic cuisine as the influx of immigrants grew. Food is something familiar in an unfamiliar country. Tran saw the opportunity for a food service company for this new immigrant population.
“For any business, you need the right opportunity to present itself. You can’t rely on will alone,” explained Tran. “I was working odd jobs and doing social work when I had the idea to start a small restaurant. That led to the idea to start a small 700-square-foot grocery store on Jackson Street in the International District. From there, we started a wholesale business as well, and the businesses have been growing since then.”
Viet Wah is now one of the largest Asian grocery retailers and distributors in the Northwest.
“Today, there are six companies under Viet-Wah Group. We have our three retail grocery stores, a wholesale distribution company, and Tea Palace Restaurant and Simply Fresh Bakery in Renton,” said Tran. Approximately 200 employees work for Tran’s six companies.
As chairman and CEO, Tran spends his day overseeing the operations of all of his businesses. He spends anywhere from eight to 12 hours a day attending meetings, answering e-mails, making phone calls, and traveling around town to his businesses.
“I have been called a workaholic before, but when you do something you enjoy, it doesn’t feel like work,” said Tran.
While his businesses have expanded, Tran acknowledges the obstacles in operating in the present economy.
“Businesses are never static, so our problems change every week, month, and year,” added Tran, “Right now, like most other businesses, we are just doing our best to deal with the tough economy. It’s a difficult task to find the right balance between what’s best for our customers, our employees, and the company itself.”
Despite the downturn in the economy, Tran’s companies have given back to the community. This year, the Tea Palace Restaurant partnered with the Red Cross in holding a fundraiser for victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. More than $14,000 was raised.
Tran cofounded the Indochinese Chinese Refugee Association, a group that helps, through social services and even job placement, displaced ethnic Chinese who immigrated to the United States from countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos.
Tran was one of the first few entrepreneurs who sponsored the Tet Festival in Seattle in its beginning. In fact, he is known as a person who quietly gives to small projects, one who does not seek publicity.
“I think it is great to see someone like Duc who really demonstrates unconditional giving,” said Thach Nguyen, a local business owner who nominated Tran for the Pioneers award. “He has been giving for a long time since I knew of him, and today, still doing it when the grocery business is very tough and even making less profit. To balance profit and non-profit in good times is one thing, but doing it during tough times is another. He is aa example of a social entrepreneur.”
At this point, Tran is not opening any new businesses; he is focusing his resources on the Viet Wah companies.
However, Tran does have advice for those seeking to start out in their own venture.
“I would say don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t give up at the first signs of hardship,” Tran explained. “Businesses take a lot of work to run, but if you are doing something you are passionate about, then it will be worth it.” (end)
To buy tickets to the Pioneers Awards banquet, visit pioneers.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.
Jason Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.