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Phnom Penh: a second home, on it's third launch

Shut down just as they prepared for their third launch: the family-owned restaurant is ready to get back to serving their larger Seattle family.

Neighborhood: International District



Diane’s parents were born and raised in Cambodia but immigrated to Seattle in 1980, after fleeing from the Khmer Rouge genocide. In 1987 they opened Phnom Penh, which started off in the Chinatown International District - a tiny, 30-seat restaurant with only seven items on the menu. But that was only open for 10 years, when the building collapsed because of heavy snow.


Luckily, the family found a spot around the corner and moved into a much larger, 120-seat space. They kept the same seven core noodle items but then expanded drastically.


In that space, Diane and her two sisters spent much of their childhood. They went to Garfield High, just up the street, so they would head there after school and dig into their homework, over dinner. When their parents were ready to retire, the sisters thought: this is where we grew up at, we can't let it go. Over the next decade, they were able to continue growing and evolving the restaurant to reach an even larger community but were again faced with challenges that forced the space to close…until they brought it back for a third time…this March.


You grew up in this business and saw how hard it is. Why was it important to you to keep it going?

When you have an establishment that's been there for so long, it's a generational business. You meet and connect with so many people and on so many different levels for years and years. It becomes a ritual and tradition to these people who have become like our family and friends.


When I am working there, it feels like my home with guests constantly coming in and out - you never know who's going to come and visit you. It really is that connection and bond.


And we have a great product. I mean, the food, is pretty amazing. I mean, if we close. Where else would they go to get this food? Where else would their kids go to hang out with their friends and have birthday parties? We did everything at the restaurant: Sweet 16’s, graduation parties. Some customers even came to our restaurant for their prom. That restaurant meant a lot to us but it meant a lot to other folks, too.



You and your sisters took over in 2013 – how did that transition go, how is it to work as a family?

We have clear cut boundaries. Dawn has such a great eye for everything, the way colors, mix and match, the way materials come together. And she has great experience in operations and the food end of things. Whereas Darlene, my younger sister, she's all hard-core operations and finance. And then I'm in the background with emails and marketing.


After we took over the business in 2013, we managed it for several years but around 2017, it was getting really difficult to make ends meet. There were operational challenges in the space that began to take over because we didn't have a centralized kitchen. We were running from the entrance all the way back to the kitchen and it just didn't flow the way we wanted it to. And then in 2017, Dawn’s son was hit by a car and he suffered severe traumatic brain injuries and she couldn't work anymore. It just really took a toll on our hearts.


So we closed in the end of May of 2018. But of course, we knew we had such a great product, a great following. We didn’t want to lose that. We knew we would come back, when the timing was right.


And then it was, last year. But, we had never built out a space before. So, we were digging into the design, permitting, construction. All the way up until March we were working on building up this brand new space.


March was going to be our grand re-opening. It’s everything we've worked for and our customers are following along with us on this journey of reopening, and then, of course, COVID hits. We had our soft opening for a week and then closed down.


As you were in that design and build phase, what were you most excited to bring back for the community?

With the old place, it was everything we inherited from our parents – it was their look and feel. My dad built it when he was new to the States and learning a new language and culture. He was doing everything by hand and marketing the way he knew best.

We wanted to update and upgrade the experience. We wanted to use technology and create a space that we would want to hang out at. But we wanted to stay true to the amazing food that we have. We were going for comfort and familiar, but with new beautiful lights and fixtures, to create a feeling of this being a second home.


You didn’t’ get your Grand Opening, but you have opened for curbside. How's that been going?

It's better than nothing. We're happy to be open and we're happy to see our customers again. But definitely not the experience we had all envisioned. It's like, hey, guys, you followed us on this journey for almost two years and we're finally open, but I can't offer you a seat and I can't talk to you for more than two minutes, six feet apart. Not the experience we were hoping for, but we're still happy to be here and to actually have customers have the food again and be comforted in that way.

What resources have you been digging into to. Have you been leveraging a government resources or mostly just talking to your friends?

We're so fortunate to be part of the Chinatown International District community. They're the ones helping us filter all of the government and City resources – they’ve been critical and really supportive in helping us to understand what resources are available, because there's a ton out there and it becomes overwhelming. The Chinatown Business Improvement Area and the Preservation Development Authorities, they've been the ones the outreach to help us. And they also translate in Vietnamese and Chinese to help ensure we all understand what's going on.


Have you received any government support?

We incurred so much debt with the build-out. And, we’ve applied for grants and gotten some but, for many of them, you have to have been in business for at least a year. So, we applied for PPP and are waiting to hear.


You’re in a new space and in you’re in a brand-new building, how has it been working with your landlord?

We are very fortunate to have a very supportive landlord. This is a brand-new building and we are the anchor tenant so they want to make sure that we actually can stay in that space for as long as we can.


The support of our landlord, I think is what is really allowing us to keep going.


What do you wish the government understood about your business right now?

There is so much to address. We react daily based upon what is going on in the community and how people are feeling, from the protests and racism to COVID. Then we have the landlord, rent, all these bills, and all the work we manage in being small business owners. And, not everyone is getting paid. We pay our staff first, which means we don’t get every paycheck as owners.


I’m so glad there are people out there working to help us, trying to advocate for us. Last week I was talking to the Schultz Family Foundation – they just wanted to hear from business owners, restaurant owners, to see how we are you doing and what they can do to help. They can help and speak on our behalf and talk to Congress and explain that the PPP timeframe and the requirements don’t really work for us. I mean, even if we get the loan, will we even use it? I'm not sure based on the parameters.


Having someone who is in that position really advocate for small business owners allows us to focus on our work. How do we get more customers in the door? How do we finish our web site? How do we maybe pivot and start marketing our own hot sauce?

Ultimately, we want more flexibility on the PPP loan to support all of that.



Have you had other ideas like that in terms of what you might do in a prolonged shutdown?

We are trying to get more savvy in the digital space. We are starting to think about loyalty programs. We just launched our website and thankfully we picked a POS system that has on-line ordering. And even gift cards.


We’ve also been working with Intentionalist. When Laura reached out to us, we weren't even selling gift certificates and we didn't have a way to do it. But, right when she put us on her site, orders started coming through it. That was an immediate, impactful thing that she did and the setup took like two hours. It was so easy to get that up and running and it was really exciting: people from all over were ordering the cards for their Seattle friends.


Your business has been through so much over the past few decades. And, here you were, on the brink of opening for a third time, when you needed to close. What is getting you through?

We're still so excited. I'm still hopeful we're going to have that grand reopening. I want a big dragon dancing around and the ribbon cutting, the works. That'll happen one day. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and, for us, it's finally having a full house of customers.


Pre-COVID, customers would come in and we would know them - we'd know their name and their kids, and they would sit down, have their meals and then Dawn would hold the baby for like 10 minutes so that the parents could eat. That’s our space. It’s a second home, where you can come in and actually enjoy a meal. The thought of actually getting back to that, that’s what helping us push through.


For us, this is our third iteration. You go through these cycles and you've worked really hard and then this happens or something else devastating happens. But you pick back up and get through it and it’s even better. I think that’s just the cycle of life: you learn and you grow. And as we go along, we have our band of supporters keep growing with us. So, it will get better. Because there's no other option. We just need to do what we do best.



Hey, Seattle, here's how you can help:

1. Place an online order

2. Order delivery via DoorDash, Postmates, or Uber Eats

3. Support other businesses listed on Intentionalist


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Big Lil Seattle launched to share the stories on how Seattle’s small businesses and small non-profits are REALLY fairing in this COVID era: how they’re impacted, pivoting, and planning for next steps. Perhaps, most importantly, we also identify clear steps on how we can all help. 

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