After a brief stint studying business administration at San Jacinto College, Pho 518 Vietnamese Noodle House founder and owner Charlie Huynh decided to pivot his career focus to the restaurant industry. “As a college dropout, I had to create my own opportunity. I had to do something with my life,” he says. “So when the opportunity of owning my own restaurant presented itself, I took it.”
Finding a foothold in the business was a natural for Huynh, whose passion for Vietnamese cuisine is a way to proudly embrace his roots. “Food is about culture. It is part of my identity. I want to show the world that our cuisine is as addictive and tasty as our people.”
Reflecting on his career path, the 34-year-old says, “It’s been challenging, yet also very rewarding. I started out as a waiter. I started working when I was very young. I always wanted to be independent. It makes me feel accomplished when I can spoil myself with the money I make on my own.”
Huynh admits that he didn’t really understand the restaurant industry at first, so he made mistakes that he wishes he hadn’t made. But those mistakes ended up helping him grow. “The first restaurant pretty much consumed my social life. I was only 24, and I had to come up with a system so the kitchen could run smoothly without me.”
But over time, he learned to balance his work life and his social life, which helped to keep him both sane and productive. The next thing he knew, he was on his third location.
Today, Huynh owns multiple restaurants in Pearland and Alvin, and he will be expanding his business to Puerto Vallarta this year. “It will be a new chapter of my life. I am both excited and nervous about this decision. No worries—all my restaurants will still be here!”
Huynh credits his partner, who works at the Montrose Center, with helping him learn a lot about Houston’s LGBTQ community and the many impressive programs that the Center has to offer. “Realizing how blessed I am compared to many members of the LGBTQI+ community in Houston, I decided to [start sharing] my blessings by donating time and money,” he says. “I want people who are scared to be themselves to have a support system like the Montrose Center, where they can go when their family is not there for them. I want to see LGBTQ youth growing up seeing that there’s nothing wrong with them, [and that there’s] a whole future full of opportunities and support ahead of them.”
Despite the pandemic taking a toll on Huynh’s businesses, he continues to give back. Following the three-month pandemic shutdown, Huynh had to cut back the hours that several of his employees worked. “It was the hardest decision I had ever made in my restaurant career. My spirit was crushed. I told myself that if I couldn’t provide the paycheck, I could at least make sure their family won’t go to bed hungry at night. So I opened up my kitchen and let my employees come in to feed themselves.”
Pho 518 provided free meals for frontline workers and medical staff, as well. “We understand that this isn’t their battle alone. [Even though] we weren’t trained to fight like they do, we should at least provide support. My mom is a seamstress, so I encouraged her to make masks and give them away to those who didn’t have them.”
The longer the pandemic dragged on, the more Huynh realized just how many people were being affected financially. “So we decided to occasionally provide free meals for our neighbors. I also bought about 50 or 60 Christmas gifts out of my own pocket in 2020 for families in need. Children should still have their magic.”
Earlier this year, Huynh’s status as an outstanding business owner landed him a $10,000 grant from the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Houston Chamber of Commerce, and Grubhub. He feels immensely grateful that his business has survived through these challenging times. “If it had not been for my customers’ support over the years, we wouldn’t be here today. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, and of course Grubhub for selecting us for this grant. We would also like to extend our thanks to the community for their continuing support. Your love and support makes everything we do worthwhile.”
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This article appears in the May 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.