News / Asia

Vietnamese Restaurants Turn Philanthropy Into Business

KOTO trainees, some of whom lived on the street before joining the program, have a staff meeting at the restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. (VOA / L. Hoang)
KOTO trainees, some of whom lived on the street before joining the program, have a staff meeting at the restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. (VOA / L. Hoang)
Among the countless street children Jimmy Pham has met over the decades, the one who comes to mind most often is a young girl whose mother slammed her head against a wall 16 years ago.

“It’s Uncle Tuan!” he remembers the five-year-old greeting him on the street. The girl’s mother, who was beside her, then suggested beg for money from Pham, a stranger who lately had become a kind of casual benefactor to the local children. When the girl refused to beg, her mother punished her with a beating.

The memory of that girl, and others like her, played a key role in the origin of KOTO, the restaurant chain Pham went on to found in 1999. KOTO uses its eateries to take young people off the street and train them in the service industry.

Jimmy Pham, 40, says the first street children he trained at KOTO just saw him as a "big fat turkey" from whom they could steal. (VOA / L. Hoang)Jimmy Pham, 40, says the first street children he trained at KOTO just saw him as a "big fat turkey" from whom they could steal. (VOA / L. Hoang)
x
Jimmy Pham, 40, says the first street children he trained at KOTO just saw him as a "big fat turkey" from whom they could steal. (VOA / L. Hoang)
Jimmy Pham, 40, says the first street children he trained at KOTO just saw him as a "big fat turkey" from whom they could steal. (VOA / L. Hoang)
Unlike when Pham started out, Vietnam now has a whole host of vocational charities that take the teach-them-to-fish approach. Instead of a handout, the organizations specialize in a teaching marketable skill - from baking brownies to tailoring trousers. The thinking is that they can pass these skills on to poor or disabled people, who then can support themselves. But Pham says even this approach is no longer enough.

“We’re not content with showing them how to fish anymore,” Pham, 40, said in an interview at KOTO’s restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. “We want to show them how to set up the fish shops and teach others to fish.”

Case in point: Pots 'n Pans. A group of KOTO alumni opened the restaurant in Hanoi this year, using the experience they gained through their alma mater and sending some of the profits back to it. KOTO stands for “Know One, Teach One.”

The non-profit’s shift in strategy is still new, but reflects more generally the endless reinvention that began from KOTO’s early days.

Pham, who as a baby fled Saigon for Australia as the Vietnam War was winding down, returned in 1996 as a travel agent. He was struck immediately by the poverty and says he spent his first few weeks buying meals for street children and giving them money.

But he knew that couldn’t last. After a few years, he set up a sandwich shop in Hanoi so he could hire young Vietnamese and help them earn a living. He called that group KOTO’s inaugural class (twice a year, the KOTO branches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City each welcome a new class of 30 recruits).

But the first class looked nothing like the ones today. Pham rented a house for the teenagers, who left it a mess and told the landlady to charge him double so they could keep the extra money. They skipped out on their English classes and thought of him, Pham said, as a “big fat turkey.”

“Looking back, I could have been very angry,” he said. In the background at the restaurant, “Hello, Vietnam,” a song of homecoming by a Vietnamese-Belgian, played softly.

But instead of giving up, Pham and his colleagues built on the concept. Over the course of 13 years, through a process of trial and error that still is evolving, KOTO has become one of the most recognizable social enterprises in the country. Its restaurants, which serve Vietnamese and fusion cuisine, are a favorite stopover during diplomatic visits, and its catering appears regularly at embassy and consular functions.

Thuy Hang, a public diplomacy officer at the Australian Consulate here, called KOTO “special” because it “not only provides a high standard of employment-focused skills training to young people, but also broader 'life skills' training.”

The recruits live together for two years at a training center, one in each city, but food service makes up just part of their lessons. They learn English and play soccer, but also take 36 workshops that cover everything from personal finance to sex education.

The rigorous application and vetting process requires that the trainees start between ages 16 to 22 and come from disadvantaged backgrounds. More than 500 Vietnamese have graduated with a certificate accredited by Box Hill Institute, which provides vocational education in Australia and through international partners.

Bui Viet An, who grew up in a thatch-roof house before a storm blew it away, believes KOTO accepted him into its program because he has always wanted to make a better life for himself. (VOA / L. Hoang)Bui Viet An, who grew up in a thatch-roof house before a storm blew it away, believes KOTO accepted him into its program because he has always wanted to make a better life for himself. (VOA / L. Hoang)
x
Bui Viet An, who grew up in a thatch-roof house before a storm blew it away, believes KOTO accepted him into its program because he has always wanted to make a better life for himself. (VOA / L. Hoang)
Bui Viet An, who grew up in a thatch-roof house before a storm blew it away, believes KOTO accepted him into its program because he has always wanted to make a better life for himself. (VOA / L. Hoang)
Soon, Bui Viet An will count himself among those alumni. Having lost both parents by age 10, he grew up with grandparents in a thatch-roof house that, one year, blew apart in a storm.

“I wasn’t happy, because it was just my grandparents and they were sick,” An, 23, said during a break from his training. “From seventh grade, I would go to school in the morning, and in the afternoon go look for work.”

He was bussing tables at a noodle shop, sometimes as early as 5 a.m., and as late as 2 a.m., when he heard about KOTO. After he graduates at year’s end, An hopes to work at a five-star hotel.

At this stage in its transition, KOTO is moving to shed the image of charity and become a self-sustaining business. The organization has had its share of lean years, relying on government, corporate, and private donors because its restaurants still don’t make enough profit to fund the training, which costs an estimated $10,000 per student.

Pham, dubbed a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum last year, talks about turning a profit by diversifying the enterprise, maybe expanding into the hotel business and setting up in other countries. He wants people to come to KOTO for the quality, not just the philanthropy, but says it will remain a “business with heart.”

You May Like

Scotland Vote Raises Questions of International Law

Experts say self-determination, as defined and protected by international law, confined narrowly to independence movements in process of de-colonization More

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

Conservationists hail ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015 More

Annual Military Exercise Takes on New Meaning for Ukraine Troops

Troops from 15 nations participating in annual event, 'Rapid Trident' in western Ukraine More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Quang Nguyen from: USA
October 24, 2012 5:01 PM
Can anyone provide the physical address of this restaurant in Saigon? Many thanks.


by: Marc Nguyen from: HCMC
October 22, 2012 12:01 PM
That's really wonderful Jimmy, thanks for helping them.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctionsi
X
September 18, 2014 2:28 AM
A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctions

A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Belgian Researchers Discover Way to Block Cancer Metastasis

Cancer remains one of the deadliest diseases, despite many new methods to combat it. Modern medicine has treatments to prevent the growth of primary tumor cells. But most cancer deaths are caused by metastasis, the stage when primary tumor cells change and move to other parts of the body. A team of Belgian scientists says it has found a way to prevent that process. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Mogadishu's Flood of Foreign Workers Leaves Somalis Out of Work

Unemployment and conflict has forced many young Somalians out of the country in search of a better life. But a newfound stability in the once-lawless nation has created hope — and jobs — which, some say, are too often being filled by foreigners. Abdulaziz Billow reports from Mogadishu.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid