Friday, May 24, 2024

Fire closed Gastonia restaurant, daughters’ love for father helped bring it back

A Japanese restaurant in Gastonia that closed for almost nine months due to a fire reopened just as its 25th year in business was coming to an end.

Sisters Lisa Nguyen and Linda Nguyen reopened Gastonia’s Sake Express on Dec. 22. An early morning grease fire March 31 caused approximately $1 million in damage and took the sisters months to have its roof, kitchen and HVAC units repaired. Both say permanently closing the Sake Express restaurant started by their Vietnamese-born father was never considered.

“That never crossed our minds,” older sister Lisa Nguyen says. “We had to continue our dad’s legacy and his memory. It’s also a big part of our income and the income for the people who work for us.”

Sake Express – which offers both dine-in and drive-through options – has won customer loyalty over the decades with its teriyaki chicken and hibachi steak entrees with sides of rice and carrots, zucchini and onions or mushrooms, as well as sushi rolls and yum yum sauce.

Father’s legacy

The backstory of Sake Express involves more than just food. 

Lisa Nguyen and Linda Nguyen took over the restaurant in 2004 when their father Phat Nguyen’s health began to decline. They were 21 and 19 years old, respectively, at the time. They had worked in their father’s restaurant when he first opened in 1998, and they are often credited with perfecting the brand, which includes a second Sake Express opened in 2010 in Belmont.

Their father, Phat Nguyen, died in June 2019 at age 63. He was born in Vietnam in 1955 and as a teenager drafted into a war that involved the U.S. from 1962 to 1975. Nguyen fought with American forces and was captive by the Viet Cong as a prisoner of war, according to his obituary. 

Nguyen survived that experience and fleed to the Philippines, and then to the U.S., by virtue of a sponsor. He met his future wife, Nga Tran, who is still alive, while working in a factory together while living in Gaston County. They saved the wages from their factory jobs to eventually buy and operate three coin-laundry locations. They sold all three laundries to follow their dream of owning a restaurant, the first in Florence, South Carolina. Nguyen found success with Gastonia’s restaurant.

“We were one of the first, if not the first, Japanese restaurant here, so we sort of set the standard,” says Linda Nguyen. “We have a lot of loyal customers that have supported us over the years. And, of course, we also have good food as well as great customer service.”

Restoration of the restaurant was a “total gut job,” says Lisa Nguyen and took longer than expected. “Our father showed us how to be resilient and strong, how to tackle problems head-on and never give up,” Lisa Nguyen says. “He’d be glad that we worked hard to make Gastonia rise again from the ashes.”

The two restaurants employ about 25 workers each. The Gastonia restaurant lost many of its frontline workers, the sisters say, because there weren’t enough hours to keep employees busy with just one restaurant open. Staffing issues and problems with some of the kitchen equipment led them to do a soft opening in Gastonia. “We had a rough opening,” says Lisa Nguyen, “but it’s good to be back.”

The sisters both work full time in the two restaurants, and the Gastonia restaurant remains short staffed, they say. But, they quickly add, the kinks of the reopen are working themselves out and they have each other’s back.

“We’re not only business partners, but we‘re sisters. Our work life and our family life go together,” says Linda Nguyen. “We grew up in the business together at such a young age so we’re always understanding of each other. We make things work no matter how hard things get.”

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