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My Brother's Crawfish: A Small Business Story of Strength, Resiliency and Community

Date

Wed, May 26, 2021 04:08 PM

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Introduction

In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, Greenbrier IT Staff and Diversity and Inclusion Strategy Committee (DISC) member, Joe Nguyen, shared a story of his brother, Khang, and his restaurant, My Brother’s Crawfish. 

My Brother’s Crawfish is based in Portland, Oregon and offers classic Cajun cuisine. This restaurant not only provides delicious food with a great atmosphere, but it tells a story of strength, resilience and the importance of a strong support system.

The restaurant opened in March 2008 and required all hands on deck to get it off the ground. Joe’s second job was washing dishes at Khang’s new restaurant. Other friends and family members waited tables, hosted and even bartended during the early years. Today, My Brother’s Crawfish is a huge success and has lines out the door, even during the time of COVID-19 take-out menus (meaning Joe is no longer on dish duty!). Learn more about the Nguyen’s journey below:

What is it like being a first-generation business owner?

Being a first-generation Vietnamese restaurant owner has been a learning and rewarding experience for me. It's definitely a different mentality running a restaurant than my parents' generation. Both generations put in blood, sweat and tears running any business, but my generation has a different business model to attract both audiences. 

Why did you decide to open a Cajun food restaurant?

I did the 8 to 5, Monday through Friday thing for many years. I was bored, wanted to try something different, and wanted a challenge so the restaurant business was an option. I always grew up with good food because of my mom's cooking but didn't want to open a Vietnamese restaurant since Portland has so many options already. I thought about all the good times when my family lived in Houston. My older brother, Khanh, boiled seafood and whipped up creole food. It was fun and everyone always enjoyed it. Friends would always request more creole days. I moved in with my brother Joe, saved some money and decided to go the creole route since we lacked Cajun seafood boils in Portland. I decided to name the restaurant My Brother’s Crawfish since it was my brother’s crawfish recipes.

What were those early years like (lots of friends/family volunteering, Joe doing dishes)? How did this support system get the business off the ground?

The early years at MBC was quite an experience. I remember grand opening so clearly. I'll be quick and brief or this part will go forever! We were overwhelmed with customers out the door, long waits and so many to-go orders! I would have a different execution style if I knew it was going to be extremely busy. It was definitely a “lesson learned” experience. I was fortunate with an exceptional support system with family and friends. I had friends waiting, bussing, hosting, bartending and my three brothers all working in the back kitchen. Joe washing dishes – But that’s what brothers are for. He also washed dishes at Spaghetti Factory in high school, so he knew how to operate the dishwasher! I'm thankful for the family and friends who helped work at MBC during our first years, the friends who came out to eat and support us during the journey and of course, all the customers. 

Can you tell us a bit about how the patrons of the restaurant have supported during this time?

COVID-19 and Asian hate crimes have been our most challenging experiences. We had the COVID restaurant shut down, then Portland added new regulations; we followed the City of Portland orders and invested in new supplies, then they shut down indoor dining again. We have limited capacity in our restaurant; we had to lay off staff and we had an increase in Asian hate crimes (multiple broken windows). Our local patrons and friends have supported us during this difficult time and other local businesses volunteered their time to fix our broken windows. Portland has great people and we appreciated it so much! 

What is the story behind the mural? 

We had a lot of issues in 2020 in Portland and I was no exception. I initially put boards up because I was tired and fed up with the broken windows. I put so many boards up, then I figured it would be a good idea to put a mural expressing people's thoughts. I collaborated with a few local artists in Portland: Alex Chiu, Hanam Mun, Yen Hoang and Soumalay Douangmalay. The mural is intended to celebrate and lift up the Asian American community here in Portland and send a message of strength and resilience.

Artist Statements

Alex Chiu

"I painted the portrait of a local Vietnamese community member, Thy Tran wearing a traditional Vietnamese outfit. Thy is a Portland native and co-founder of Ascending Flow, a foster youth advocacy organization based in SE Portland. The intention for my contribution was to celebrate the owner’s Vietnamese roots and honor an important community member, Thy. I am very proud to be a part of this mural. I think it is a bold statement of strength and resilience for the Asian American community in Portland."

Soumalay Douangmalay

"It was difficult choosing what to illustrate and the style of artwork that would have an impactful message on viewers visually. Embracing myself as an Asian- American I then decided on the Asian-American Phoenix and its powerful symbolic message of rebirth, rising from its own ashes after its death, and overcoming obstacles. During the COVID pandemic, this death and darkness, in the form of violence, is plaguing our Asian community and other cities. The Phoenix mural is a representation of rebirth, giving all of us a chance to think, rise above all the deaths, violence, hatred for all race, and sexualities that’s being displayed. It reminds us that there is light at the end of the tunnel. To choose love, not hate, and collectively as individuals and a community to lead by example to others that kindness is still out there."

Yen Hoang

"For my part of this mural, I chose to contribute a bright four-flower bouquet:

The Georgia state flower to honor the victims of the shooting in Atlanta; a pink lotus, the national flower of Vietnam and symbol of me and the owner of the restaurant’s heritage; a bluebonnet, the flower of my home state of Texas (it just so happens Khang is from Texas too!); and Portland’s iconic red rose. The visual effect of neon reflects my own upbringing in the nail salon my parents own and operate back in Texas. In my mind, neon signs are such an iconic symbol of small businesses. Also, it looks really cool! 

I wanted to highlight the current and multifaceted Asian American experiences through these flowers. I am so proud and thankful to have been a part of this collaboration between local Asian-American artists. In response to an act of Anti-Asian violence and hate, Khang chose to speak through creativity. In spite of everything, this project has shown me just how resilient my Asian-American community is."

Hanam Mun

"I chose the dragon as my subject because of its very much Asian imagery, going along with the join or die snake, which is a representation of various groups that have been United as one. Asians (as well as basically every other heritage) came to America searching for the promise of freedom and equality and have yet to make a claim to anything near the “American dream.” I mean to say that we are indeed American."