The culinary answer to happiness

The immigrants edge
By Deanne Ston

November 30,

On April 30, 1975, the day the government of South Vietnam fell, Helene An and her three young daughters escaped to Manila on one hour's notice. There she was reunited with her husband, Danny An, a colonel in the Vietnamese Air Force. A month later the family flew to San Francisco. Helene was a descendant of the Tran family, once Vietnamese royalty, and Danny belonged to a prosperous family of industrialists and bankers. But they arrived in America empty-handed.

Their only anchor was Danny's mother, Diana An. Four years earlier, Diana had visited San Francisco on a round-the-world trip. On a whim, she bought a neighborhood Italian deli where she had stopped for lunch. Her impulsive $44,000 purchase, originally an act of independence from her husband, ultimately rescued the family. The little deli kept them afloat in the early years and became the foundation on which they built the AnTran Business Corporation, a parent company that now includes three flourishing restaurants, an exclusive distributorship in the U.S. of Vietnamese beers and soft drinks, a newly launched tableware collection and food product line, and a three-story flagship restaurant and showroom scheduled to open in downtown San Francisco at the end of this year

To be sure, few wealth-building strategies begin with delis. The real bedrock of the Ans’ success was their family fabric. Helene An says that from the time they were small, she taught her daughters the strength in unity by holding up a single chopstick to show how easy it was to break in two. But when wrapped as a bunch, several chopsticks were not easily broken

The lesson was not lost on daughters Hannah, Elizabeth and Monique, who come across today as Americanized versions of their soft-spoken mother—lively, expressive, relaxed and poised. From their earliest struggles, the An family has operated as a highly coordinated team in which each family member's expertise is integral to the family's success. With this approach, even the trauma of settling in a strange new country was transformed from a liability into an asset: It taught the Ans to be flexible and to concentrate on finding solutions rather than dwelling on problems. And having lost everything once, they weren't afraid to risk losing again. In effect, the Ans prospered by embracing American business know-how while retaining the values of traditional Vietnamese family life.

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