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)
TEXT SIZE - +
— 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

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 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.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid