For most Bay Area small business owners, it would be a dream come true to have Steph and Ayesha Curry sing your praises on national TV, then cut you a $25,000 check, no strings attached.
That was precisely what happened to Tee Tran, who runs the popular Vietnamese restaurant Monster Pho, which has locations in Oakland and Emeryville: During a segment on the Tamron Hall Show that aired just before Christmas, the Currys surprised Tran with the big check — a thank you, they said, for the work Monster Pho has done feeding people in need during the pandemic, and a gift meant to help Tran keep his restaurants going during these perilous economic times.
And, as he tells Eater SF, Tran did feel deeply honored and appreciative of the gesture. But the money part of it also made him feel uncomfortable. His mother, Tina Le, who is Monster Pho’s lead cook, had always instilled in him a certain mindset, Tran says, that he should work hard and never expect anything to be given to him. Even as difficult as things have been during the coronavirus crisis, he says, “I’ve never wanted people to donate. I never expect any money or free gifts, no nothing. I never did. I never will.”
The more he thought about it, the more Tran felt like the only thing to do was give the money away — or, more specifically, to use the entire $25,000 to serve free pho to anyone who needed a hot meal. So, on the first day of the new year, he announced the new initiative on Instagram, with the hashtag #phoforthepeople: “Free pho. Anyone. Anytime. Any day. Any location. No questions asked.”
Even among the numerous inspiring philanthropic efforts that have been born out of this pandemic, Monster Pho’s “no questions asked” free pho offer stood out for its generosity — especially coming from a relatively small, struggling restaurant. According to Tran, word quickly spread, and by the third day of the promotion, people were lining up outside the restaurant. In those first three days alone, the restaurant’s two storefronts gave away about 1,200 bowls of pho. “It’s been a little bit overwhelming,” Tran says. On Monday. for instance, there was so much demand that the restaurant wound up running out of soup — which prompted at least one customer to leave a one-star Yelp review.
Tran says if he keeps giving away pho at the current rate, he’ll probably be able to keep the initiative going for about another week before the money from the Currys runs out, but even then, he hopes to keep the program going on a more limited basis — maybe just a few days a week during set times.
It’s not as though Monster Pho hasn’t faced its own share of challenges during the coronavirus crisis. As Tran recounted during the Tamron Hall Show segment, business at his restaurants dropped by as much as 75 percent at certain points in the pandemic. For the restaurant’s Emeryville location, he says he hasn’t been able to pay rent at all since the start of the pandemic.
Still, Tran says it didn’t feel right to use the unexpected windfall to pay his own bills. “I think [it would be wrong] for us to pocket [the money] while people are starving, or people need help, or seniors need help, or kids need help — because we were poor before, so we know how it’s like not having a meal,” Tran says.
“I have to figure out a way to help people,” he says. “That’s what I was put on this earth for.”
According to Tran, that’s always been the driving philosophy that he and his mother have taken with the restaurant: They’ve always brought food out to homeless people who take shelter in front of the restaurant. During the pandemic, they’ve given away free coffee to health care workers, and they set aside a third of the produce they buy, putting it in a little wagon in front of the restaurant for anyone who needs it to take. They’ve served tens of thousands of meals to people in need through World Central Kitchen and the Currys’ Eat, Learn, Play organization, which is how he came to know Steph and Ayesha in the first place. On the day before Thanksgiving, the restaurant hosted its first “pho for the people” free food event — a trial run for its current initiative, as it turned out.
Now, just as the weather in the East Bay has turned chilly, Tran is giving away hundreds of bowls of hot pho each day — mostly to hard-working, blue-collar people, Tran says. In the meantime, he’s already cooking up two more community-minded projects: The first is a free meal delivery service for elders who live within a five-mile radius of the restaurant. For that one, Tran says, he’s hoping people will send him the names and contact information for seniors who would appreciate an occasional hot meal. The restaurant is also planning to host a backpack drive for kids in Oakland who are getting ready to have to return to in-person schooling, so Tran will accept donations of backpacks and school supplies.
There’s just one thing he’s adamant about: He doesn’t want anyone to donate any money to the restaurant, even in the name of wanting to support his community work. If people want to support him, Tran says, they can just come to Monster Pho and order some takeout.
In the end, he’s confident that that kind of regular business will be enough to keep the restaurant alive: “Whatever it costs me now, I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Update, January 8, 8:39 a.m.: