I had the chance to get to know Tina and David Nguyen, the brother-sister team behind the Asian-American restaurant Ba Bellies. They shared their story about growing up in the restaurant industry and how their background has influenced their menu. Ba Bellies is located in Peachtree Corners, Georgia.
Tina: We are first-generation Americans. Our parents came from Vietnam after the war. They were living in a refugee camp and the U.S. was the first to open their border to refugees while they were living there. And because my dad was in the army and had helped the U.S., they got through in the first round.
David: Our dad was a high-ranking officer in the Vietnam Army – on the “wrong side,” the losing side. So they had to get out. They had to leave Vietnam or it was going to be hard for our family to live there. Mom was pregnant with me on the way here. They came in 1981, and I was born in January 1982 in Philadelphia.
T: In Vietnam, their families would come in from the country, cook food, and sell it in the market. You made money where you could. So they had to learn new skills when they got to the U.S. They just started hustling then eventually came up with the idea of doing a food truck. And this is way before food trucks were cool! And it was before people knew what Pho or Banh Mi was.
D: My parents work well together but have very different mindsets. Dad likes to play it safe, “This works, so let’s just stick with this.” And mom thinks, “No, we have to do better. This isn’t enough.” So when they started the food truck, it was an amazing business. They had the top customer base among 10 other trucks in the area. They were the ones with the longest line. So she wanted to get another truck and park it 3 or 4 cars down. Then that would alleviate some of the wait for the customers. But he said, “Why would we do that? We would put all this money into it and it would be the same.” But it helped a lot. Because now you are doubling your money. Later on she wanted to open a restaurant. And he said, “Why? The truck is doing so well.” But they ended up opening the restaurant because she has the skill set in the kitchen and has a say in everything and controls everything. It was hard work to open the restaurant but the payoff was better. So from there they expanded to a bigger restaurant and made a name for themselves in Philadelphia.
D: Growing up we were always washing dishes, busing tables, serving tables, in the kitchen… We were working! Chopping broccoli, garlic… yeah we did whatever prep we could do at that age. Asian kids don’t get allowance. Either we work or we get punished!
T: Yeah, it was definitely a chore. Other kids had cleaning up as chores, but we had to peel carrots! It’s all hands on deck when you are a small family business. If you can, you contribute. It wasn’t about teaching us a the value of a dollar. No, it was “Are you able to work? Then work.”
Space for Creativity
David: I moved to Atlanta first, and went to culinary school. Then my parents came to visit. During their visit they really liked the area, so they started coming more often, then eventually we decided to build our business down here. They opened Nam Phuong, served traditional Vietnamese food, and recreated their same reputation here. I worked with them for 10 years. But there was no creativity involved. It was all authentic Vietnamese food, so the menu never changed. It got really boring. Eventually I said, “I want to go out on my own” and our parents were really supportive.
Tina: It also happened that I was quitting my job in Philadelphia at the same time. I had been consulting in GIS geospatial software. It’s funny because after working in a restaurant all my life, in high school I said, “I’m leaving restaurant life!” I wanted to hang out with my friends. I wanted my weekends. I wanted my paid vacation. All that. But then I came full circle and I came crawling back two years ago! There’s a freedom to being your own boss. So I decided to move to Atlanta and help David with the front of house, because he hates front of house!
D: I hate people. I’m all things kitchen, and she’s all things front and bar. Ironically, when we decided to go into business with each other the whole family said “Oh they’re going to go at it!” Because when we were younger we always went at it. We fought about everything. Anything stupid. And you hear that Business 101 is “Don’t go into business with family.” But we thought, “Hmm. Oh well, let’s try it.”
T: When people ask us what kind of food we serve at Ba Bellies I don’t like to say “Asian Fusion” because Asian fusion has a connotation of being a sushi restaurant that serves Pad Thai as well. And that’s not what we do. So I like to say “We’re Asian American.” That’s what our menu is. It’s literally Asian American. We have the burgers and the meatloaf, and we have the gochujang sauce and the fish sauce.
D: With this place we wanted to start exploring flavors and dishes. If you look at the menu it’s not set in stone. It’s all over the place, but it all ties into Asian flavors.