Business has always been in Son Vo's blood. His mother ran a restaurant in their native Vietnam and runs a nail salon today. His sister runs an eyelash salon.
But Vo lacked the ability to sit still in a classroom to learn business by the book. He tried taking business courses after a few years in the U.S. Army.
“I'm not good with books, to tell you the truth,” Vo said. “It helps to know your weaknesses.”
Vo decided he'd simply go for it and opened his own restaurant.
Along with a few business partners, he opened the restaurant Kaizan Sushi Bar & Grill in Sturbridge in 2007. He later opened Pho Sure in Shrewsbury in 2014 – but not without doing some homework first.
Vo trained with a chef friend to learn sushi and practiced all the time at home. He knew making a good pho dish – a Vietnamese noodle soup – in his kitchen was one thing, but scaling it up and being able to make it taste just as good each day at a restaurant was another. After testing his cooking at an Asian market – with plenty of trial and error – he knew he had the right plan.
It took a few months to get just right, but Vo is glad for the time when it seemed like he couldn't quite figure out how to make good pho in bigger quantities.
“If I opened [without the trial period], I'd be out of business right away,” Vo said.
The first year at Pho Sure was still tough, requiring practically an around-the-clock dedication.
“You eat, sleep and think about what you're going to do the next day for your business,” said Vo, a father of three young boys.
The hard work has paid off. Both restaurants have been a success and a third restaurant, called Chashu Ramen+Izakaya, is planned for Franklin Street in Downtown Worcester.
“In the restaurant industry, an owner who is always around tends to have a more successful business,” said AiVi Nguyen, a partner at Worcester law firm Bowditch & Dewey, who nominated Vo for Small Business Leader of the Year. “Son's dedication to his craft means you can always find him working.”
Customers can find Vo's passion about his food to have other benefits, too, Nguyen said.
“If you ever get Son talking about the food – at Kaizen, Pho Sure or the new Asian tapas spot going in downtown – you will learn more than you ever thought you could know about the ingredients, the cooking methods, and why he does it differently than everyone else,” she said. “It's refreshing to have someone so passionately talk about Asian cuisine and have that person actually be Asian.”
Catering to an Asian clientele can be difficult, Vo said, because many are very particular and passionate about dishes they'd eat back home. But he's proud to introduce pho and other Asian meals to a much broader audience.
Pho Sure serves everyone and anyone, he said. “You see everything.”
Vo's family moved from Vietnam when he was 13, and he attended South High Community School. He entered the U.S. Army unsure of where life would take him after graduation, and he tried a brief career in sales. He credits his time in the Army, where he was stationed near Seattle, as giving him discipline that would benefit his career.
“I don't settle for the minimum. I go until I stop,” Vo said, sitting at a table in Pho Sure while his staff moved around continuously behind him. “I knew if I could make it in the Army, I could do it here.”
Vo's sister, Nikki Vo, has joined him as manager at Pho Sure. She sees her brother's hard work, dedication and pride up close every day.
“If you're going to do it, do it well,” Nikki said. “We cook exactly the way we want to eat. We don't cut corners.”
Nikki Vo teases her brother's high energy and willingness to take on another restaurant.
“I think he actually likes the stress,” she said.
The upcoming Worcester restaurant is not finalized, but Vo's been slowly training a team to help open the restaurant, which he sees as a middle-to-upscale eatery able to find success in a neighborhood with a new range of dining options opening in the past year.
It's the biggest project he's been involved in, Vo said, a reason why he's been taking his time with the planned opening.
“The stakes are a little higher,” he said.