Creating A Culinary Dynasty
From a modest 20-seat eatery,
the An family has built an
$18 million-a-year restaurant business
When Helene An and her daughters fled Saigon to the United States in 1975, they left behind a life of privilege.
An’s father-in-law, John An, was a major industrialist with a hand in banking, construction and the import-export trade, and owner of various mansions and estates. Her own family, the Trans, were descendants of Vietnam’s onetime royal family.
Helene An and her mother-in-law, Diana An, frequently hosted banquets and presided over a large staff that included French, Vietnamese and Chinese chefs.
But when the Communists took over South Vietnam, most of the family’s wealth was lost except for memories, some wonderful recipes and a modest piece of property in San Francisco.
Although the An clan hasn’t recreated the fortune it once had, it has come a long way back.
A dozen Ans from three generations and their AnTran Business Corp. now annually generate about $18 million in revenues from their three Vietnamese-French restaurants. Their first restaurant, Thanh Long, opened in San Francisco in 1975, followed by Crustacean in San Francisco in 1991 and a second, swank Crustacean in Beverly Hills in 1997.
Next up is an elegant new $7 million restaurant that the family is building on Sutter Street near Union Square in San Francisco. In addition, it is raising $5 million to open a supper club called Prana in Las Vegas.
Like many other immigrants from Asia, the Ans went into the restaurant business because they knew a few things about cuisine and because success hinges as much on hard work as hard cash. Despite all the competition and risks—restaurants fail more frequently than other small businesses—the Ans have done well thanks to their ability to mix tradition and technology much as they combine Eastern and Western tastes in the kitchen.
Nothing illustrates this point better than the separate, secret kitchens at each of the An restaurants. In windowless cubicles locked to other employees, only family members are allowed entry to prepare special sauces and proprietary dishes such as whole roasted Dungeness crab, tiger prawns and garlic noodles.
By contrast, the family employs state-of-the-art computer software that third-generation restaurateur Hannah An designed to expedite orders and improve efficiency.
“I love cutting-edge technology,” Hannah An said. “But we’re not going to throw away our heritage.”
Thanks to that combination of tradition and technology, each of the An family’s tiny kitchens can serve up to 700 dinners a night. The three restaurants generate close to $1,250 revenue per square foot per year and more than 15 percent profit margins, which is more than double the industry average.
Hannah An’s SmartTouch computer system takes care of logistical chores by essentially time-stamping each order and indicating on touch computer screens its status and which table is next in line for each dish. That allows the cooks to concentrate only on what they need to prepare, not to which waiters or tables the dishes are destined.
The An family’s odyssey to San Francisco began in 1971, several years before the fall of Saigon. On a round-the-world trip with a cousin, Hannah An’s grandmother Diana stopped in San Francisco, where she visited an Italian deli at Judah Street and 46th Avenue to buy fixings for a picnic at nearby Ocean Beach.
After talking with the owner, Diana An bought the deli for $44,000 on a whim. The unplanned purchased was designed to express some independence from her husband.
But four years later, Diana An’s chance purchase turned into a financial life preserver for her entire family.
The Ans’ status in South Vietnam and the fact that Hannah’s father was a colonel in the air force helped the family immigrate to San Francisco. So did the fact that the family matriarch already owned a business here.
However, the start wasn’t especially auspicious. The deli was converted into a 20-seat neighborhood restaurant that was supposed to be called Thang Long, or ascending dragon. But a printer’s error made it Thanh Long (green dragon), a symbol of prosperity and longevity—a name the Ans stuck with even though prosperity seemed far, far away.
Hannah An recalls living first in a cramped one-bedroom apartment across the street from Thanh Long with her grandparents, parents and sisters. She remembers learning English before bilingual education came into fashion at A.P. Giannini Middle School, named for another immigrant who made good, and preparing dumplings at the restaurant after school.
After graduating from Lowell High School, Hannah An took a break from the restaurant to earn a degree in electrical engineering at the University of California at Davis. In 1987, she took a job at Bell Northern Research in Mountain View but commuted from San Francisco, where she resumed work at Thanh Long as hostess-cook-manager and also managed to take MBA courses at Golden Gate University.
By 1991, Hannah An’s mother Helene, then 50, grew tired of running the restaurant even though it was making money. The family considered selling the restaurant, which had mushroomed to about 140 seats from 20 as the Ans took over more of the building. But Hannah and her sisters decided to expand the operation.
The family opened Crustacean at Polk and California streets, a still reasonably priced neighborhood in 1991, and built up business by giving away free meals and telling fans to tell their friends.
The next year, Hannah An quit her engineering career to focus full time on the restaurants. In 1995, sister Elizabeth opened a lavish Crustacean in Beverly Hills.
Because the key to restaurant success in Los Angeles relates to celebrity and being with the in-crowd as much as the quality of food, Elizabeth An got involved with hosting charitable events and giving more than $150,000 away each year to win attention and acceptance.
Hannah An said the division of labor and location has been perfect. She contrasts Elizabeth’s public relations and marketing “right brain” savvy to her own “analytical, nuts-and-bolts left-brain” skills.
Today, the three restaurants are sizzling, serving an average of about 300 crabs per day per location—plus other dishes. (The crabs are available year-round and, depending on the season, are pulled from the Pacific from California to Alaska.)
Hannah An, whose husband, Danny Vu, is one of the seafood suppliers, said the family’s restaurants blend both mom-and-pop and corporate management styles: “We fall in between; we are family run but we also follow a detailed corporate structure.”
That includes having a business plan and adopting technology.
Plenty of point-of-sale terminals are available for the restaurant trade from vendors such as Micros, PosiTouch, Aloha and Squirrel. But Hannah An said these systems generates lots of paper and do not adequately coordinate all aspects of restaurant management.
These range from front-of-the-restaurant operations, such as letting the maitre d’ know the meal status at each table and the preferences of diners gleaned from their previous visits, to connecting order information to back-of-the-house functions such as inventory management and bookkeeping programs.
“There is plenty of software for restaurateurs,” Hannah An said. “But most of the elements are not integrated together.” She has hired six programmers to improve the beta version of her “SmartTouch” software. Eventually, she hopes to license the software to other restaurants and turn SmartTouch into a profitable stand-alone enterprise.
Meanwhile, the An family’s restaurant growth plans show no signs of slowing. About 18 months ago, the Ans paid $2.5 million for an art gallery building on Sutter Street between Powell and Mason and are investing another $7 million to turn it into an exotic and elegant 30,000-square-foot restaurant to showcase the family’s French colonial cuisine. Hannah An expects the still unnamed restaurant to open next year.
Late this year, the family also plans to open a 16,000-square-foot supper club featuring Asian-Mediterranean cuisine, but not crab, in Las Vegas.