Phong Luong

This is a column in a series from Upserve called “Restaurant Voices,” which features firsthand experiences and lessons from people working within the restaurant industry. Each column in the series describes a specific turning point or moment for restaurateurs that changed or defined their careers. This column is by Phong Luong, a restaurateur who’s idea of work-life balance blends family and career.

I’m like the Elon Musk of the food industry. I’ve got an insatiable curiosity, can’t stand boredom, and have my hands in a variety of projects.

But unlike Elon, I’m not focused on rocket ships nor is my success linked to insane risk tolerance. Rather, my interests are focused in hospitality and my success rooted in something much more plain and simple: family.

If Musk is a “People on Mars” man, I’m “A Clan Man,” with family as the central force and defining aspect to everything I do. It’s also, as it turns out, the hardest part of my life work.

In my story family before career, actually means career because of family.

But let’s back up a bit. 20-some years ago I was just a guy working a pretty low-level job at a hotel on the east coast. I didn’t know it, but at the time the hotel was going through a merger and was getting gobbled up by a bigger chain. My colleagues started quitting left and right, jumping out like popcorn in a too-small bowl. I chose to stick around. In fact, I stuck around until the very last moment of our former hotel’s existence, showing up to work with the kind of dedication that we don’t often see anymore. At some point, someone took notice. A higher-up manager appreciated my work ethic and offered me a major promotion, a career-changing role within the hotel. He asked me to become a special accountant focused on other mergers and acquisitions, which I did and excelled at. My job was quickly becoming bigger and bigger, but at the same time more and more time-consuming.

At some point, I knew I needed to stop. I wanted to be closer to my wife and two daughters. The whole “work-life balance thing” took hold.

Eventually, I quit the hotel business, moved to North Carolina and switched over to the restaurant business. My brother owned a Spanish tapas venture called Ole Ole. It was extremely successful. I came onboard to help him grow, and eventually span out, too. We could have stopped there. But I have this little thing called “insatiable curiosity”—entrepreneurs know it well—and Ole Ole was just the first taste of my textured restaurant career.

Over the next 20 years, I’d play in a kaleidoscope of pursuits: I owned restaurants, launched Apps, created a magazine, and even curated new community events. I’ve spent time in tech, business, community coordination, and even PR. It’s a smorgasbord, really.

But a commitment to family is what holds the pieces together.

I don’t mean my nuclear family. I’m a restaurateur, entrepreneur, and businessman. To me, family are all of the people in each of those worlds. It’s my wife and kids, certainly, but it’s also the patrons that come to my restaurants, people I’ve met through business, and the entire community that’s involved in my world.

At some point, I knew I needed to stop. I wanted to be closer to my wife and two daughters. The whole “work-life balance thing” took hold.

Lucky for me, food—and dinner tables specifically—have long united families. It’s the central place for people to come together to talk, share burdens, and commiserate.

In my career, I attempt to curate this family culture beyond the dinner table by both providing a seat at the table and holding the interests of all my patrons as a part of my own. This is a standard I hold for myself, and also to all of my employees.

As a result, I’ve got a big family. 20 years realistically equates to 15,000 people.

In some ways, that is wonderful. I’ve seen babies born, degrees earned, divorces had, and love re-found. I have employees who’ve stayed with me for over two decades, noting their sense of belonging as the reason to stay. I’ve seen little girls who once ordered noodles off the kids’ menu, go on to graduate from Stanford University.

But in other ways, holding the interests of 15,000 people is the most challenging aspect of my life.

I mean, can you imagine having a 15,000-person family? There would be therapists who’d have to specialize in just name memorization alone.

To be a good “Clan Man” means I’m around tough times in life, as much as the fun times. With that big of a family, the tough aspects collectively become a real weight.

I don’t mean my nuclear family. I’m a restaurateur, entrepreneur, and businessman. To me, family are all the people in each of those worlds.

I also do business with my real family. I owned Ole Ole with my brother, and later launched a restaurant App, called NexTable, with my brother-in-law. The app, built to help hostesses with seating and reservations, was a hit. But managing its success and eventual sale into a larger Indian-based company, Zomato, without ruining the relationship with my in-law wasn’t quite as easy. It took patience, resolve, understanding, support, compromise, and extreme discipline in believing in the value of family before career.

The good news is understanding how to have these values — patience, resolve, understanding, support, compromise –directly stem from practicing family values. My ability to overcome some of my life’s most challenging parts is directly tied to my value system which bears them. To me, that’s a beautiful circle.

Lots of people will tell you: don’t do business with family. I’m here to tell you: that might not be the case. Doing business with family, for family, and because of family, is one of the main reasons for my myriad of successes as an entrepreneur. A family of 15,000 supports each new thing I dabble in.

In my story, family before career actually means career because of family.

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Phong Luong lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and two daughters. When he's not working at the restaurant or developing new apps, Phong can be found spending time with his family. He loves to dine out, enjoys travel, and is always working on the next innovative business idea. He's extremely excited for the launch of Wine and Tapas week, a play off of the national Restaurant Week, which is launching in Charlotte in April.