By QUYEN DO
The Orange County Register
Monday, October 16, 2006
The afternoon sunlight streaks the mahogany chairs near a fireplace at Brodard Chateau. Diane Dang, the soft-spoken proprietor, is poised and confident as she greets guests and friends at her newest venture.
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"This restaurant can be placed in Beverly Hills, and it would fit right in," said a guest, surveying the contemporary two-story dining area decorated in earth tones in concert with feng shui principles to bring luck and happiness.
This is exactly what Dang has envisioned for Brodard Chateau. "Madame Brodard," as friends call her, was born into wealth and privilege in Vietnam and had never held a job until her family immigrated to the U.S.
But 10 years ago, when her husband was paralyzed by a stroke, she stepped from his shadow and navigated the family's failing French bakery into one of the most successful family-owned restaurants in Little Saigon.
Today, Dang wants to attract professionals and well-off clientele to the newly renovated $2 million, 8,000-square-foot Brodard Chateau in Little Saigon, the family's third restaurant in Orange County. Though ethnic restaurants often compromise ambiance and customer service for good food at reasonable prices, Dang and her two daughters, Chau Dang-Haller and Lisa Vo, say they want to bring "an elegant, full-service dining experience" to Little Saigon.
"This is my mom's dream," said Dang-Haller, the youngest daughter. In 1996, however, building an upscale restaurant was the furthest thing from Dang's mind. She was fighting for her family's financial survival after her husband's sudden stroke. She used ingenuity and courage – and the family's credit card – in a last-ditch effort to turn around their nearly bankrupt business.
Dang, whose family members are third-generation owners of a successful bakery chain called Hoa Binh in Nha Trang, Vietnam, enjoyed a privileged life in her home country, with chauffeurs and servants who tended to her needs. Her daily schedule included tennis lessons, entertaining guests with her husband, Thuong Dang, and supervising the household staff.
Her family immigrated to the U.S. in 1987, however, and in 1994, she began assisting her husband in running a small restaurant, Ngoc Huong, in the Asian Garden Mall.
Two years later, just after her husband opened Brodard Bakery, she was suddenly in charge because of his stroke.
"We were all shocked. We always believed that daddy was going to be there to take care of us," Dang-Haller said. When her father awoke after three days in a coma, the family was at his bedside to ask about recipes and business directions. He wrote down careful instructions, but the results were not the same without her father.
"We were like, 'OK, Dad, how much butter do we use? What heat should we put?' " Dang-Haller said. With rent and unpaid expenses quickly accruing, her mother decided to abandon the bakery business and turn it into a restaurant, offering dishes from family recipes she had enjoyed in her childhood. The idea worked, but the obscure location behind 99 Ranch Market, across from Asian Garden Mall, failed to bring enough business to cover operating expenses.
The turning point came when Little Saigon Radio was seeking food donations for a charity event. Dang seized the opportunity to attract new customers by letting them sample her food. With no money left, she used her credit card to buy the most expensive seafood, meats and ingredients to prepare free meals for 500 people.
"It was our last chance," Dang recalled. She and her daughters stayed up late preparing the food: lobsters and shrimp rolls and all the extravagant dishes that you'd see at a fancy wedding banquet. "It was a big challenge, but I didn't have time to think about it. The only thing on my mind was how to take care of my family."
Word-of-mouth quickly spread and customers began coming in. For the first time in six months, Brodard Bakery was making money. But more bad news soon arrived. Developers wanted to turn the area into homes for senior citizens, and the restaurant had to move. Since December 2000, it has resettled into a location tucked at the back entrance of the Mall of Fortune, at Westminster Avenue and Brookhurst Street. The family renamed the restaurant Brodard Nem Nuong, after her mother's trademark dish of grilled pork and vegetables wrapped in rice paper.
Dang-Haller knows they're taking a big risk with their family's savings earned from the other restaurants to build Chateau. But she has never seen her mother shrink from a challenge. Nor has Dang-Haller. In fact, on a whim five years ago, Dang-Haller put all of her $200,000 savings into a failing 1,200-square-foot Chinese restaurant in Corona Del Mar.
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She bought the 40-person diner because it looked "so adorable and manageable." But things soon fell apart. In the first six months, the cooling system broke, so her food was destroyed. The air conditioning didn't work, and the plumbing failed.
"I came home every day crying," said Dang-Haller, a licensed dietician. She was working at Loma Linda hospital, then at Bamboo Bistro from noon until midnight. "I wanted to give the restaurant away."
But her mother had taught her that adversity was no match for them. So she quit the hospital job to focus on her business.
"My mom always told us that you must have passion for your job. I chose the restaurant," she said. "It's in our blood. I love good food and creating healthy dishes from my background as a dietician."
To reflect the health-conscious clientele in the coastal town of Corona Del Mar, she created a light, fusion menu such as fresh ahi spring rolls, steamed Chilean sea bass in ginger and tiger prawns with mango salads. Like her mother 10 years before, she also gave free food and samples to entice new customers.In its first year, Bamboo Bistro earned $400,000 in gross revenue. By 2005, the income doubled, owing to increased popularity and a thriving catering business that happened by chance when a client asked if she could do a small private party. Today, Bamboo Bistro is one of the few Vietnamese restaurants in Orange County that offers a fullservice catering business.
"Vietnamese food has its own identity. I love to see how much people enjoy Vietnamese cuisine," she said. "That's the most rewarding part of my job."
Her brother Michael is also involved in food. He owns and runs three restaurants in Houston and Dallas, Texas.
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BACK AT THE CHATEAU
On a recent afternoon, Dang and her daughters appear comfortable in their roles directing employees and greeting guests. In its third month, Chateau has already attracted a steady lunch and dinner crowd, owing to its recognizable name in the community and curious guests who want to check out the latest Brodard addition. Many are watching to see how the Chateau, with 25 employees and operating costs of $100,000 a month, will fare. While it may carve a successful niche in fine dining, some business owners say the costly overhead would likely deter others from following suit.
"There's a lot of pressure to make this work and profitable to pay the bills," Dang-Haller said. Dang divides her time between Brodard Nem Nuong and the new restaurant, where her daughters are in charge. She hasn't taken a vacation in 10 years but says she doesn't mind.
Since the stroke, her husband has been in a full-time care facility. Dang visits him daily and updates him about their grandchildren and their restaurants. "My dad understands everything. He's a very smart businessman, so we always tell him what we're doing," Vo said. He communicates by writing on a note pad.
"He's really proud of us, especially my mom," Vo said. "My mom is delicate in appearance, but she's very strong-willed and determined."