No choice but success
Out of the most difficultBy Betty Shimabukuro
circumstances, a refugee from
Vietnam built the Assagio
Thomas Ky is the kind of guy who makes you feel like you've been standing still your entire life. His time in this country has been a treadmill of hard work and hard-won achievement beginning the day his parents put him on a tiny boat and sent him away from Vietnam, carrying the family's future. He was 14.
Many immigrant stories begin this way -- in youth, in poverty, in loneliness in a strange land. Thomas Ky's story is extraordinary for how totally he has overcome all that, to become a player in perhaps Hawaii's toughest business.
Barely 20 years since stepping onto that boat, speaking no English, carrying no cash, Ky owns four classy, thriving Italian restaurants, all of them opened without bank financing. This month, he opened a Thai restaurant in Hawaii Kai, and by year's end he plans to open yet another in Ala Moana Center.
Finally, four years ago he was able to bring his parents and four brothers and sisters out of Vietnam -- and to his new home in Waialae Iki.
Tell him his story is remarkable, though, and he insists he could see no other way. "Sometimes there is no choice. Either you die or you go and live ... Sometimes it's not too fair. But life is not fair." This is the matter-of-fact way he discusses most things.
"I don't graduate high school, I don't speak too much English, but from working hard and learning ... when you love to do something, you be a success in that thing."
By any measure, Ky's Assagio restaurants make him as successful a restaurateur as any of Hawaii's celebrity chefs, with none of their star power. His restaurants do not bear his name, he has no cookbooks, virtually no public profile. He did a TV cooking show once, he recalls, about five years ago with Hari Kojima.
"I don't want to be special," he says. "I just want to be like my workers, same level. I punch in a time card, I get paid by the hour ($10 to $13). I just want them to respect me, my persistence, that's all."
Priorities are different when your goal for so many years has been to get your family away from the Communists.
Ky's restaurants are quietly elegant, with a reputation for good food in generous portions, at moderate prices. He's opened them all in suburbia, far from Waikiki and the crowded restaurant scene in town. They're not the kind of places, he says, where they "give you a hamburger and take away your wallet."
His Chinese name is Quang, meaning "Sunny," which Ky says is totally inappropriate. "I always not happy person, always sad."
For good reason.
The Ky family, ethnic Chinese struggling to survive on the outskirts of Saigon, lost their home three times in the crossfires of war. In 1979 his parents chose him, the fourth of their five children, for the trip to America.
"My parents, they only have enough money to send one person out. They tell me, 'You going to go and you going to make it.' "
"One night they take me to the boat. So scary. My mom, she give me a ring and a gold chain. Before I go, I give her back the gold ring. I tell her she need it more than me. 'I going to be free.' "
It was a tiny boat, he remembers, and it took him to another boat, only slightly bigger, with 200 people crammed aboard. It was five harrowing days to Malaysia, then nine months in a camp.
He had to sell his mother's chain to buy a tarp for shelter.
Ky was sent to a foster home in Statton Island, N.Y., where he went to high school, learned English and with his remaining waking hours, worked.
"First was kind of panic -- people talk so fast. Just like you go to another planet. You so crazy, like the brain is so dizzy."
He took jobs in Chinese restaurants, riding "subway, ferry, subway" into Chinatown to bus tables and wash dishes. Summers he worked six days a week, 14 hours a day, to send money back to Vietnam. It amounted to $700-$800 a month after taxes. "But I eat free!"
He came to Hawaii in January 1984, six months before he would've earned his high school degree. He had a relative here willing to take him in, Ky says, and he thought he would be more comfortable in a place with greater Asian traditions.
He gave up on high school when he found he wouldn't be able to graduate that year (he was lacking the Hawaiian history credits) and instead took jobs in three Chinese restaurants. It was one of those choices that wasn't really a choice: "Either make money and go to school later, or go to school now and make a big hole. To climb up the hole later is hard."
So he worked -- 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., then 5 to 9:30 p.m., then 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
"I sleep in between, two hour-two hour, like that ... Lots of time I pull out the alarm clock and throw it against the wall." This lasted six months until he finally had to give up one job. "Every day is hell."
His goal was to put $1,000 a month in the bank, while sending $300 to $400 a month home. Within a year that goal had grown to opening his own restaurant. And from here, life progressed at break-neck pace.
He took a job in the kitchen at Castagnola with the idea of learning to cook Italian, even if he had to start washing dishes. "I want to start low, so I learn everything. This is my investment. I say to myself, 'I have to go inside Castagnola and learn quick. The sooner I learn, the smaller hole I make.' "
In 18 months he saved $16,000 washing dishes, busing tables, cooking and serving customers. It was time for restaurant No. 1: Salerno in McCully Shopping Center, a partnership with the cook at Castagnola. They pooled their savings and brought in two more partners to make it happen.
Two years later came Fax Food, built on the gimmick of filling orders sent in by fax. "Crazy idea, but it worked." He put it in the hands of his girlfriend, now his wife, Sari, whom he'd met working at Castagnola.
Then -- because "business must be expansion" and his partners were reluctant to move on -- he sold his interest in Salerno for $50,000. That became the seed money for the 1991 opening of Assagio Ristorante Italiano in Kailua, followed in 1992 by Paesano in Manoa, Assagio Mililani in 1994, Assagio Hawaii Kai in 1995, Bua Khao this year.
Ky opened the restaurants with an assortment of business partners, many of them relatives. He's never had to go to a bank for financing -- not even for the $800,000 it took to put up the building for Assagio Mililani.
The restaurant business is simply too treacherous to guarantee the income flow you'd need to make bank payments, he says.
"Financing is very dangerous in the restaurant business. In life only two things guaranteed. We going to get old and we going to die. Everything else is chance."
One of those impressed by Ky's approach is Stephen Goodhart, co-owner of Kailua Business Center, landlord to Assagio Kailua. He and a partner, Bernard Sherman, offered Ky the Kailua spot after spending a chain of Sundays eating his food at Salerno.
They wanted someone who would be a successful paying tenant for a long time, Goodhart says, and for that they were willing to buy in as partners.
"I guess I said that too many times and he finally said, 'No, I'll do it myself.' " In the end, Ky found his own partners and Goodhart's real estate development group helped cover the expense of preparing the space for Assagio.
Their faith was rewarded when customers lined up outside the day Assagio opened.
"The restaurant business is probably the worst business to go into. You have more failures than successes. You have to be willing to put in 28 hours a day. Thomas Ky will put in 28 hours a day to make something work," Goodhart says. "I've never met anyone like him."
Similar thoughts come from Fleur-Elaine and Robert Wilson -- Ky calls them "mom and pop" -- two teachers who took Ky and several other immigrant youths under their wings back in New York.
"Tommy was, I guess, the favorite," Mrs. Wilson says. She recalls a sensitive, lively, trusting kid, "one who could always save a nickel. He was building his base for establishing himself and it was an intelligent thing to do."
The couple took the boys to their waterfront home in Virginia on holidays and let them fish and crab. "Then Tom would generally cook dinner," Mr. Wilson says. "He was a terrific cook. He'd whip up dinner at no time at all."
They'd like him to ease up a little and come home, meaning their home. "We love him very much. We consider him our son."
Ky's typical work day is 8:30 a.m. to midnight, spent mostly at the Mililani restaurant. He sees his 6-year-old daughter, Samantha, on weekends between 9 and 10:30 a.m., he says.
His wife, Sari, matches him in work hours, running both Hawaii Kai restaurants, although she takes time to get Samantha to school and help with her homework. Their time as a couple, Sari Ky says, is pretty much limited to a meal together at 1 a.m.
Their theory is that if a normal person works 60 hours a week and retires at age 60, they can work 100 hours a week and retire 20 years earlier. Ky doesn't even seem to realize that "normal" would be more like 40 hours.
"Right now we're still young, baby is still young, so we want to make it now."
His wife emphasizes that they both love the work and take satisfaction in providing jobs -- for 150 employees, full and part time.
Thomas Ky has been living on the run, but he sees himself turning a corner. The next restaurant -- an Assagio in the old Byron II site in Ala Moana Center -- will be the last, he says. He'd eventually like to scale back and become a consultant in something he's very good at: opening restaurants.
Whether he'll ever learn to relax is another question. In his early years here, he says, "I never know that I live Hawaii because I never see water, I never go to the beach." Now his home in Waialae Iki has a view of the ocean. "Still don't go to beach."
But this summer, maybe the family will take a real vacation, go to Disney World, visit the Wilsons at their retirement home in Bradenton, Fla.
"A good story must end. It cannot just go go go. I got to figure out how to end this story."
Thomas and Sari Ky opened a Thai restaurant in the Koko Marina Shopping Center earlier this month. Call 595-2501. Here is a sample from the menu:
Taste it yourself
Crispy Fried FishBua Khao Thai Restaurant1 whole red snapper, about 1-1/2 poundsCut 2-3 lines on each side of the fish. Lightly salt and deep fry in 375-degree oil until golden brown. Set aside.
1/4-1/2 teaspoon salt
Oil for frying
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 green bell pepper, sliced
1 onion, sliced
1 stalk lemon grass
1 red shallot
2 Chinese parsley roots
2 cloves garlic
1 red chile pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Saute vegetables and arrange around fish.
To make sauce, combine ingredients in a blender and puree. Spoon over fish. Serves 2.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 490 calories, 24 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, 85 mg cholesterol, 380 mg sodium.*
1987: Salerno, McCully Shopping Center; sold out to partners in 1989
Restaurant openingsThomas Ky's restaurants:
1989: Fax Food, Queen Street; sold in 1992
1991: Assagio Ristorante Italiano, Uluniu Street. The name means 'To Taste'
1992: Paesano, Manoa Marketplace, in the former Castagnola space
1994: Assagio Mililani, Mililani Town Center
1995: Assagio Hawaii Kai, Koko Marina
April 1999: Bua Khao, Koko Marina
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