The Right Recipe

Diligence pays off for Vietnamese owner of `NY’deli

By Cheryl Hall / Financial Editor of The Dallas Morning News
Published 09-11-1994

The bakery at Cindi’s New York Style Delicatessen and Pancake House is operating in overdrive, churning out challah for the Jewish New Year. Picking up a 5-pound loaf, the deli’s owner explains that the circular bread signifies renewal and luck all year round.

Her name isn’t Cindi, and she isn’t Jewish. She’s never even been to New York. But “Cindi,” aka Anh Tran, who escaped Vietnam by boat in 1979 with only her husband and towel-wrapped newborn, knows about chutzpah and luck.

Her story isn’t a tale of instant wealth. Rather, Mrs. Tran is building her stake in America one bagel at a time.

She took over Cindy’s North Central Expressway location in 1989, after the previous owner went under and closed his three neighborhood restaurants. She called back some employees, changed the “y” to an “i,” and reopened the one deli – just as construction would make it nearly impossible to reach her front door.

To stay alive, she started delivering to nearby office buildings. And, yes, she drove the family car to make the rounds.

That section of Central between Royal Lane and Northaven Road is now complete, and there’s fresh paint and a new sign outside, courtesy of the landlord, who apparently agrees that the worst is over.

Fifteen years after landing destitute in Dallas, she’s expanded with a second location and bakery in North Dallas – using the same means she’s used throughout life: working hard, squirreling away whatever she could, then reinvesting her savings judiciously.

Roadwork and recession have been the least of her travails.

Trouble at home

Anh Tran was an 18-year-old bride of six months when the Viet Cong swept into her home in Saigon and captured her husband, an officer in the South Vietnamese army. Hong Tran was carted off to a prison camp in the mountains. Late one night, most of the family belongings were raided.

She managed, however, to stash the gold and diamonds that her mother had given her as a wedding gift.

For the next 31/2 years, she braved jungle and mountains, skirting snipers and booby-traps to get to the prison camp, where she bribed a soldier to get her husband out.

“I was very brave,” says the 38-year-old, now a bit mystified by her youthful daring. “I was scared of nothing at that age.”

On her first trip to the prison camp, she got caught by a North Vietnamese soldier, who could have imprisoned her for illegal travel. Instead, he let her go. A few weeks later, he showed up at Mrs. Tran’s home and demanded money to release her husband. Not knowing whether he could do what he said, she gave him part of her dowry anyway.

“What else could I do?” she asks.

That would prove to be the first of many payments – each additional bribe meant she had to make another dangerous trip to the mountain prison. Just as her personal cache was nearly depleted, Mr. Tran was miraculously released.

Mrs. Tran was seven months pregnant when the young couple eventually made it to their seaport escape route. Her husband tried to learn how to deliver a baby in a boat. Perhaps fortunately, they missed the first chance out. Their baby girl, named Minh-Hai after that fishing village, was born 19 days before they boarded a small boat with 200 other people and headed for freedom in Indonesia. Mrs. Tran worried that her baby would die at sea, but a proverb gave her hope: “In Vietnam, people with long ears are supposed to have long lives. And she had very big ears.”

On weekends today, 15-year-old Minh-Hai tends the register and plays hostess. Her mother’s survival stories must seem like a Grimms’ Fairy Tale, far removed from her teen-age world of friends and fashion at Berkner High School.

Arriving with nothing

During the Trans’ two weeks at sea, they were robbed four times by pirates – leaving them with only the clothes on their backs and the towel that wrapped the baby. Only the calm sea cooperated.

“Without nice weather, there was no way we could make it,” Mrs. Tran recalls.

From Indonesia, the family flew to Dallas under a government program that allowed Vietnamese refugees to resettle in the United States and pay back the cost over time.

“When I came here, I’m out of my mind because this country is so different,” she says, still putting little twists to a language she found so foreign.

Mrs. Tran had thought she knew English until she found that what she learned in Vietnam wasn’t anything like what people spoke here. She couldn’t turn to her husband for help because his second language was French.

“I cannot talk to my neighbor,” she says of her early days in Dallas. “I cannot drive. Sometimes I would walk down the street and cry. Then I thought, `I have to work very hard and use my talents to get a business.’ ”

Mrs. Tran had a good role model.

Before the Communist takeover in Vietnam, her mother had been a successful wholesale and retail fabric merchant.

“I have my mother’s blood. Any business – if you have common sense – you can do it.”

Long days

So Mrs. Tran took in sewing. Mr. Tran went to work at an electronics company for minimum wage.

“We used to work 16 hours a day,” she says.

Home sewing turned into a contract-sewing business. He became a technician for Xerox. The couple also had two sons and another daughter along the way.

In three years, the Trans had saved enough for a grocery, meat market and deli in the Lake June area. The business wasn’t that great, but the kitchen had an elderly cook who taught Mrs. Tran how to prepare down-home Texas food.

That’s why chicken-fried steak – not exactly a New York deli mainstay – highlights Cindi’s menu.

Some of Mrs. Tran’s Jewish regulars – who’ve nicknamed her a “Vietnamese princess” – have shared protected family recipes. When her bread pudding drew only complaints, a customer came to her rescue with a grandmother’s secret.

“People always ask me why I didn’t open a Vietnamese restaurant,” Mrs. Tran says. “In Vietnam, I never cooked. I can cook American food better.”

Profits from the Lake June store were used in the mid-1980s to buy a convenience store on Inwood, which a couple of years later would finance a restaurant on Harry Hines, which would finance Cindi’s on Central in fall 1989.

“When I started, I didn’t have very much money, but I tried to keep improving,” Mrs. Tran says. “I had to be very, very patient. When you go into business, you expect to make money right away. But it takes time. Sometimes, a lot more than you thought.”

A restaurant-supply salesman helped her track down a woman who had telephone numbers for the old Cindy’s crew, and Mrs. Tran hired them back.

“They’ve been with me forever,” she says of her five years on Central.

‘She just dives in’

Jewel Kendrick, who enjoys the restaurant’s neighborhood feel, has been there 10 years – with the exception of that forced four-month hiatus.

“When the landlord locked the doors (in 1989), I had to leave,” she says with a little laugh.

Ms. Kendrick marvels at the way Mrs. Tran delves into the unknown. “She’s totally undaunted. When she wants to do something, she just dives in.”

Like the time someone wanted her to cater a Chinese dinner for 70. Afraid that the customer would simply call someone else rather than change the menu, she pulled out some cookbooks and went to work.

She’s sold everything to concentrate on Cindi’s, which now includes a restaurant and bakery that used to be the Bagel Emporium. Her husband oversees the bakery operation, which, in addition to its retail clientele, sells bagels and breads commercially to hotels and country clubs.

Columbian Country Club, a predominantly Jewish club, says it buys Mrs. Tran’s bagels because of their consistent quality. The Adolphus Hotel echoes that praise.

She’s redecorating the Campbell and Coit location. She’s added booths. Carpet is next – if business stays solid on Central.

That’s her word to the wise. Never bite off more than you can chew.

“Before business got better on Central, I didn’t even think about buying another business, because you have to have one make a profit to spend on the other. . . . We’re just barely making it,” she says, perhaps an understatement. “But I’m sure later on, we’ll do much better.”

To detractors of this country’s economic promise, Anh Tran says baloney. Or at the very least, corned beef on rye.


Reprinted with permission

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