Making the career transition from an architect to a chef and restaurant owner isn't easy. Yet that is the path taken by Tran Lee, owner of Viet Citron restaurant in Burlington, Massachusetts, who had a vision and comprehensive plan for what her business could be as a place of support for employees and community for customers. She continues to chart a path forward, equipped with her knowledge of Small Business Administration (SBA) loans and other financing programs that have helped to make her dreams possible as a small business owner.
From Architect to Restaurant Owner
For a decade, Lee worked as a design architect and one of few women assigned to manage multi-million-dollar commercial and residential projects. During this time, she came up with the idea for her life-long dream of starting and owning a fresh casual restaurant, a concept she continued to refine over 10 years. Without connections to the restaurant sector, she independently pursued opportunities to test out her theories. She also reached out to the Eastern Bank branch closest to where she planned to locate her restaurant for an introduction to a relationship banking team. Working closely with her Eastern Banking Relationship Manager, she created a road map, making her restaurant idea happen through a well-thought out approach and solid business plan.
She envisioned a high-quality, customer-centric experience focused on fresh casual Vietnamese foods given their wide appeal. Locating in Burlington, Massachusetts met her criteria of being close to offices and prosperous communities with unmet supply for authentic Asian cuisine. Ensuring her employees were treated well and enjoyed coming to work was a key part of her vision, and she took a temporary job at a leading fast-casual, fresh restaurant company to directly experience what motivates people to work in the sector and what working in the food industry was really like. Now, she carries this understanding with her and draws upon it for inspiring a rewarding work environment for colleagues at her own company.
Taking this further, as she left one mostly male-led field for another, Lee envisioned doing things differently as a business owner able to directly shape the culture of her company, pushing for environmental sustainability and work-life balance.
She says, “I want my staff to be home and not pulling in long hours. We're open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., so people can still go home for dinner and pursue their interests. Everyone has two days off. That flexibility allows the team to have lives beyond work."
In addition, she sought out restaurant owners who offered insights on management, employee benefits and challenges they faced, many of whom continue to be mentors to Lee today. After reading about loan requirements through the SBA and many conversations with an Eastern banker, Lee had the resources in place to act on her business plan.
Eastern’s business banking team worked closely with Lee, holding early morning and late night phone calls to discuss the most recent updates to her plans and the kinds of loans and financing options that would enable her to start her business. Eastern's knowledge of deadlines and business road map expectations were very clear and helped Lee navigate her business financing. Before officially opening, Lee held private openings to test products and would often cater events to fine-tune ingredients. She also led an early adaptation of online ordering with food delivery apps, a strategy that she could not have anticipated would come well into play when the pandemic happened.
Opening a Women-Led Business in a Pandemic
It was the initial wave of the pandemic in early 2020 that kept Lee learning. Just two weeks after opening its doors, Viet Citron had to shut down.
"No one plans for a pandemic," Lee says, echoing what so many other business owners have felt. She adds that with Eastern’s assistance, the first round of Paycheck Protection Program lending was very helpful in keeping her business open. The restaurant pivoted to a partial opening model which helped Lee and her team rethink their concept, adjust to customer preferences, implement improvements and thrive — all while operating on a reduced schedule.
"We went from a negative profit in year one to making a profit in year two,” she says. “We're open to changing, adapting and trying different things. And our customers adapt with us over time. Many have been with us since we opened. Now I have investors saying, 'When you expand, let us know. We want to be part of this.'"
What’s more, her dream of creating opportunity for women has been realized with women comprising approximately 65 percent of her staff, including the manager and sous-chef. Overall expansion of her restaurant concept is something Lee plans to consider in the future. And working with her Eastern relationship banking team, options to explore different types of financing and cash flow solutions are close by as she pursues her dream.
From being a woman starting a business in a new field to developing a comprehensive road map for her company, Tran Lee's story proves that success is possible when you're adapting to new circumstances and asking for help—especially the kind of financing assistance offered by institutions such as Eastern Bank. If you're looking to start or expand your small business today, get in touch with us.