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 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
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

Brutality Eroding IS Financial Support

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says IS's penchant for publicizing beheadings, other brutal forms of punishment hurts group’s bottom line More

Studies: Climate Change a Factor in Disasters in Syria, California

The studies point to the possibility of clear and present dangers from a threat often considered to be far in the future More

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees 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.
Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukrainei
X
March 03, 2015 3:11 AM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video US, Cuba Report Progress in Latest Talks to Restore Ties

The United States and Cuba say they have made progress in the second round of talks on restoring diplomatic relations more than 50 years after breaking off ties. Delegations from both sides met in Washington on Friday to work on opening embassies in Havana and Washington and iron out key obstacles to historic change. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas reports from the State Department.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video NYC's Restaurant Week: An Economic Boom in Fine Dining

New Yorkers take pride in setting world trends — in fashion, the arts and fine dining. The city’s famous biannual Restaurant Week plays a significant role in a booming tourism industry that sustains 359,000 jobs and generates $61 billion in yearly revenue. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
Video

Video Brookhaven at Cutting Edge of US Energy Research

Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and instability in the Middle East are driving debate in the U.S. about making America energy independent. Recently, the American Energy Innovation Council urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a priority. One beneficiary of increased energy spending would be the Brookhaven National Lab, where clean, renewable, efficient energy is the goal. VOA's Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More