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Ha Long Bay to enter ‘new era’ under second generation of family ownership

Stephanie and Jacqueline Le. Photo supplied.

When Jean Tran first opened Ha Long Bay, a Vietnamese restaurant on Madison’s Williamson St., in 2009, she never thought it would be the culinary staple it is today.

“It really started as a retirement project for my aunt, so it was never intended to be this big thing,” Stephanie Le, Tran’s niece, explained. 

Fifteen years later, Le and her sister, Jacqueline, have taken on ownership and management of the restaurant, with exciting plans on the horizon. On April 7, the beloved restaurant closed its doors for a brief hiatus that will bring about systematic and architectural changes to the establishment, while keeping its essence of a family restaurant.

While Ha Long Bay’s doors are closed, Little Palace, the family’s other restaurant located on King St., will serve a blended menu from both restaurants. A reopening date for Little Palace, which the sisters temporarily closed in December of 2023 to focus on Ha Long Bay’s transition, has yet to be determined. 

Conversations between the Le sisters and their aunt began in 2022, when Tran expressed wanting to truly retire instead of working at the restaurant daily. The two are intimately familiar with the inner workings of the business, having been a part of Ha Long Bay to some capacity since it opened. 

“We were just like, okay, I think it makes sense for us to at least talk to her about it and say, ‘If you do want to retire, we are interested in buying the business and we would like to keep the legacy,’” J. Le said.

Despite the fact that the transition will be a large undertaking given the restaurant’s popularity, neither sister expressed hesitations about taking over and ushering Ha Long Bay into its second iteration. 

“I’m typically a person that doesn’t really have much reservations if I make a decision [about] doing something,” J. Le explained. “So I just always know that whatever obstacles there are, then we’ll be able to get through it and overcome it.”

Since taking over in January of this year, the changes made have mostly been logistic and focused on efficiency, including the implementation of a point of sale system. “We wanted to modernize certain things and be able to streamline the processes in order to be able to get food to more people and faster,” S. Le said. 

“I think what’s really important to us is that we want to create a full experience and it’s not just about the food,” J. Le added. “We know that the food is the most important and so we’re not trying to change that at all.” The two shared that their mother, who has been in charge of the recipes from the beginning, will remain in the back of house when the restaurant reopens.

Renovations to the space will include an expansion of its kitchen and the construction of a full bar. “Part of our renovations is bringing Ha Long Bay into a new era,” S. Le said. “We’re really hoping to create a beautiful inviting space for people to enjoy.”

One could say that the Le sisters remain undaunted by the feat of taking over Ha Long Bay because of the business acumen they’ve built over the years. With both parents having strong entrepreneurial backgrounds, the sisters have a wealth of life experience and intergenerational wisdom to back their current ventures.

While S. Le earned a BBA in Marketing and an MA in Design and Innovation, J. Le has been part of multiple startup teams in Chicago across various industries, and also owns the nail salon The Shop on E. Johnson St. in Madison.

J. Le says having these hands-on experiences under her belt helps her manage expectations around success, especially when a business is first starting out. “When I’m opening a business now, [it’s important] to be like, ‘It’s not gonna happen immediately’ and to not focus on instant gratification,” she shared.

S. Le added that watching their family run businesses also offered valuable lessons for them when they were starting out: “I think one of the big things that we’ve learned is to trust in yourself and your knowledge, and work hard to see it all the way through,” she said. “Trust that the things that you know and what you’re putting in will help you forge your way through.”

Even with all of these resources to draw from, the sisters are keenly aware of how things like identity factor into being able to run successful businesses. J. Le shared that as a woman, and as an Asian American woman, she’s come to realize that she isn’t on equal footing with her white peers. 

“I have truly realized that we are not equals [and] it was a hard pill to swallow,” J. Le said. “Even when you’re from Madison. Stephanie and I were born and raised here. We’re from here.”

Even at The Shop, which J. Le owns with her fiancé, she’s noticed that while she’s the one making most of the business decisions, people will often go to her partner with questions. “A lot of times they would even just want to go to him even if he truly doesn’t know the answer,” she said.

In January 2023, these messages of disrespect and unbelonging came to a head when the sidewalk outside of Little Palace was vandalized in chalk, with a misogynistic message that mentioned Jacqueline by name. “That vandalism was also just another thing of like, ‘Oh, just a reminder, you’re not respected the same way,” she said.

Despite these inequities that are baked into the system, the Le sisters both pride themselves on addressing these issues directly they arise. “I know there’s a generation above us where they have dealt with the same things we deal with,” S. Le said.

She continued: “But what we hope to do with our businesses now is to be able to deal with those things more head on and share those experiences out loud so that people can understand that these are the things that happen to people like us, no matter how outwardly successful you may seem.”

For other Asian American women and women of color looking to start their own businesses, the 

pair drove home the importance of having the confidence to see a business through in the long term. “Really have a thoughtful idea of what business you want and stick with it, because you’ll create longevity with that,” J. Le said.

This, partnered with a willingness to be adaptable and to always learn, will set you up with a higher chance for a successful business. “You’re never going to know everything at a certain point in time,” S. Le pointed out. “It’s really important to see what else is out there [to] broaden your perspective.”

Perhaps most importantly, J. Le emphasized that running a business truly takes a village. “Having a good network of support is really beneficial,” she said. “A lot of the times, what I notice is that people are really afraid to ask for help and think that they have to do it on their own […] I know that I wouldn’t have been able to open up my first business or any of my businesses if I didn’t have the right support behind me.”