Small Business Spotlight: Tony’s Bakery & the American Dream

Small Business Spotlight: Tony’s Bakery & the American Dream

Each day, Truong Le is up and out the door before most people have had their coffee.

As the owner of Tony’s Bakery & Deli, voted South Seattle’s Best Banh Mi Sandwich two years running (2015 and 2016), and father of two, Le is a busy man. And as a self-described workaholic, he loves it.

Le escaped Vietnam in 1987, in a 22-foot boat carrying 21 other people, after six years of trying. Communist forces had controlled South Vietnam for 15 years and life was hard.

“It was very dangerous in Vietnam,” said Le. “The government could arrest and even kill you just for listening to American radio. They hated the Americans and thought everyone was a spy. They seized people’s property and could arrest you at anytime with no proof. We were only allowed to study Russian, Chinese, or French.”

For many years after the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese people were forced to grow rice for Russia to pay them back for military assistance against the Americans. Food was sparse with just one small piece of meat per person per week after a long wait in line.

“In my youth we ate many yams and potatoes in place of rice,” said Le. “And we could not complain.”

Le had been an honor student through eighth grade, “before the Communists came,” he remembers. “The education system deteriorated afterwards. My whole family were not allowed to work or do any business because we had members working for the American and Vietnemese government. Our land and properties were seized and currency changed twice.”

Like 2 million others who fled between 1975 and 1995, Le was desperate for a better life. According to the United Nations, more than 1 million of his fellow refugees failed to survive the passage, facing danger from pirates, over-crowded boats, and storms.

“Many women and children were taken away and sold to brothels in Thailand and other countries,” he said. “And after the pirates took all the girls and women, they just shot the boat to sink it with all the men on it. It was heartbreaking.”

It took six years, but Le finally made it to a refugee camp in Malaysia, where he studied English and met his wife, Thuy. But there were 10,000 refugees and not enough English teachers to go around, so learners were limited to only an hour of instruction each week. According to Le, this simply wouldn’t do, so he asked permission to stand outside and listen, as he was eager to learn English as soon as possible.

Still, before meeting Thuy, Le was all alone with no family to accompany him on his long journey, and he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone in America, so he spent eight hours each day copying a borrowes English dictionary in a series of notebooks that he brought with him.

“I don’t want to waste my time for anything,” he said.

While in Malaysia, Le worked as a garbage collector to earn extra money for food and books.

“I killed big rats at night for 2.5 Malaysian dollars per one rat to buy books, dictionaries, pens and private tuition from the people who used to work for the US office in Vietnam as interpreters,” he said.

But he remained lonely and anxious and sometimes cried himself to sleep at night.

“I missed my family and had no idea if I would be accepted or rejected by a third country. What if something went wrong? Where would I go? What would I do?

But at the same time, Le is a man that likes a challenge, so he told himself, “that as long as I didn’t steal money from someone, and I was honest and hard-working, everything should be ok.”

He was right. When they made it to America, Le found a job as a bus boy and dishwasher at a South Seattle restaurant, where he worked long hours and continued his studies.

In addition to learning English, Le attended culinary school at Seattle Central Community College from 6am to noon, then went straight to his bakery job from 1 to 5 pm, then to his job at a local restaurant from 6 to 10pm. the next day, he’d get up and do it all over again, squeezing in as many English classes as possible.

My mom and dad always told me, “time waits for no one,” and “don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”

Le took advantage of every educational opportunity he could find in Seattle, including community college, Goodwill and others. He speaks fondly of the late Phil Holly, an English tutor at Seattle Central Community College who helped Le learn everything he needed to know to become self-sufficient in his new country—speaking English, riding the bus and pulling the stop chain at the right time, and much more.

“We became good friends,” Le says wistfully.

In 1998, a new owner took over and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Way restaurant became Tony’s Bakery & Deli—named after the new owner’s son. Truong and Thuy opened a bridal salon on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and a bakery on Beacon Hill in 1997 and continued working long hours, while raising their young children underfoot in the bakery.

Fast forward to 2016, 20 years after coming to America, and the Les bought the business where they’d toiled for many years. They are now the proud owners of Tony’s Bakery & Deli, where they love building community with good food, such as Banh Mi sandwiches made with fresh French bread rolls baked on-site every day, and cakes for special occasions, as well as Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese staples.

“Every community needs food for happy and sad occasions, and that’s what I provide,” says Le.

In addition to providing great food and excellent customer service, the Les also employee nearly 20 people—almost all family members.

“It’s hard to survive without family,” adds Le.

The Les sent both their children—Tony (20) and Lillian (18)—to private schools, in part to make it up to them for working so many hours during their childhood.

“I felt so bad that my children had to sleep on the floor in the bathroom of the bakery while we worked so many hours,” Le said.

Today, Tony is a student at UW Bothell, and Lillian is headed to Seattle University. The family lives in Tukwila.

Le considers himself and his family an example of the American Dream, and is grateful for all the help he’s received.

“What I and others have gone through… We can’t thank you enough—all American people and the US government—for their humanity and generosity towards those who need help.”

Tony’s Bakery & Deli is located at 6020 Martin Luther King Jr Way S, in Seattle’s Rainier Valley.

 

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