Early in 2018, Yenvy, Khoa, and Quynh Pham moved their family business, Pho Bac, into a bigger, brighter, freshly remodeled building just across the parking lot, where you can sit beneath a neon sign that reads “Phocific Northwest” and augment that bowl of warming soup with some crispy wings with tamarind sauce, or a shot of bourbon infused with pho aromatics served with a broth chaser.
The next question: What to do with their parents’ original location? Theresa Cat Vu and her husband, Augustine Nien Pham, launched Seattle’s first pho shop, in an unassuming red structure that would later take on its current boat shape, in the early 1980s. Back then, this neighborhood of industrial and wholesale businesses wasn’t yet known as Little Saigon.
Tearing it down for more parking wasn’t an option, says Yenvy. “It’s a very iconic building, kind of the first visible evidence of our community, of Vietnamese culture in Seattle.”
From Tsukushinbo to Tsue Chong fortune cookie and noodle company to Thanh Son tofu, Chinatown–International District has perhaps the highest concentration of multigenerational businesses in the city, their proprietors seek to balance modernizing and preserving what their elders worked so hard to build.
The reimagined Pho Bac Súp Shop may look like a transplant from Capitol Hill’s sleek nightlife environs, illuminated with hip light fixtures and neon, soundtracked by jubilant hip-hop, but the neighborhood remains intentionally in its DNA, says Yenvy. Like the choice to employ an exclusively Vietnamese staff. “Maybe we’re shifting the paradigm completely,” with this new place, she says. “But I keep that alive.”
That’s why Pho Bac’s former home, known to many simply as “the boat,” is getting a gut rehab. The finished product will be another concept aimed at the demographics of 2019 Seattle, but always through the lens of the Pham family background. Maybe a diner of sorts, says Yenvy, an intimate alternative to Pho Bac Súp Shop across the parking lot. “Something very nurturing, a place to go when you want your Viet mom to make you something.”
This fall, another neighborhood landmark will get a makeover thanks to a new generation of family leadership. In 2017, Denise Moriguchi took over as CEO of Uwajimaya, the company her grandfather Fujimatsu Moriguchi founded in 1928. Now she and members of her ascendant third generation—five cousins, plus three spouses work for the company—will remodel their flagship store in the C–ID.
Specifics are still in flux, says Moriguchi, but whatever shape the new Uwajimaya takes will reflect its change in leadership as much as Seattle’s changing shopping habits. Subtle tweaks like more grab-and-go food and dedicated spaces for ingredient demos can help Uwajimaya evolve, she says, but even small modifications carry emotional weight: “My family spent 90 years creating the current Uwajimaya.”
Moriguchi’s aunt Tomoko, her predecessor as CEO, compares the transition to raising a child to uphold all your values, then entrusting it to another parent. Thus remodeling the 19-year-old building requires extensive internal conversations about Uwajimaya’s identity.
“In a family business, maybe we make some decisions a bit differently,” Moriguchi says. “I want to make sure the fourth generation, the fifth generation can lead this company.”