June is Immigrant and Refugee Awareness Month. The Office of Economic Development recognizes and celebrates all the immigrant business owners who make tremendous contributions to our City.
Truong Le is the successful owner of Tony’s Bakery in South Seattle. This local community landmark is more than your average bakery. Its extensive deli counter sells authentic Vietnamese food and beverages, while also selling groceries, sundries, and baked goods to diverse and loyal customers.
Like its owner, Tony’s Bakery is a “jack-of-all-trades” establishment that has expanded beyond traditional bakery services to include catering and wholesale floral services for PCC, Thriftway, Metropolitan Market, and other local grocery stores.
His business has expanded over the years; he initially focused on the bakery and through that, developed a reputation for service and excellence that enabled him to grow.
“I can do everything myself; I can cook, do flowers, do cakes. I work hard, I work long hours, and I’m gifted by God.”Truong Le
Mr. Le feels fortunate to have experienced such success. Thirty years ago, he resettled in the United States as a refugee from Vietnam. He had fled Vietnam in 1987, during a period of “very bad luck,” and ended up living for a year and a half in a refugee camp on a small island in Malaysia.
While in Malaysia Mr. Le was determined to learn English. He asked the volunteer teachers if he could “stay outside the classroom and learn while they were teaching others.” Mr. Le attended his own lessons, listened in on other students’ lessons, studied at the library, and copied words from the dictionary in order to learn English. In addition to language skills, his time in Malaysia also taught him the importance of being resourceful and determined in meeting his goals.
He resettled to Seattle in 1989 — arriving “empty handed” at the age of 26 — and began working at a department store. He also attended English classes at several community colleges on different days of the week. He explains, “I listened wherever I went. I took the bus to work, wrote out words I saw on the bus, and taught myself, too.”
He transitioned from ESL classes to the culinary arts program at Seattle Central College, where, he says, “I just loved baking.” He began volunteering at a bakery and was later hired.
Mr. Le maintained a rigorous schedule attending culinary school from 6 a.m. – 12 p.m. daily, working in the bakery from 1 – 5 p.m., then washing dishes in a Vietnamese restaurant from 6 – 10 p.m.
By 1997, he finally saved enough money to open his own 300 square-foot bakery on Beacon Hill. Four years ago, he bought his current business, Tony’s Bakery, from friends who were retiring. The bakery had been in business for 18 years and was named after the former owners’ son. Coincidentally, Tony is also the name of Mr. Le’s son.
Over the decades, Mr. Le has overcome various challenges to establish a successful business and life. COVID-19, he notes, has created a unique set of difficulties that have been “totally different” and “more hectic and worrying” than other circumstances he has faced. Nevertheless, throughout the public health crisis, stay-at-home directives, and changes in the economy and consumer habits, Mr. Le has kept Tony’s Bakery open.
The first few weeks after Governor Inslee’s ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy’ order was issued, Mr. Le and his employees thought the stay at home directives meant no one was allowed to leave home at all.
After talking with trusted members of his community, he learned that as long as social distancing protocols were observed, the bakery could stay open as an essential business. In the beginning, Mr. Le worked essentially alone, maintaining all aspects of the business because there was “so much uncertainty.”
Many of his employees felt uncomfortable traveling back and forth from work because they feared getting detained, so he gave all of them his business card and instructions about what to say, “in case they got stopped by police.” In addition to staffing challenges, Mr. Le also had difficulty procuring necessary items to adhere to public health guidance, like hand sanitizer and face coverings.
“I couldn’t buy hand sanitizer anywhere!” he says, “I made my own with bleach for more than two months.” He has recently been purchasing masks from people sewing them at home.
Early on, Mr. Le didn’t apply for any of the federal loans designed to provide COVID-19-related relief because he was concerned about getting scammed. Scammers have targeted immigrant business owners in Seattle, spreading false information and demanding upfront payment with the false promise of assisting in the application process for COVID-19 disaster relief loans.
Through connections with a friend who works at the City, Mr. Le learned he could get reliable and trustworthy information from Linh Huynh at the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA).
“Linh helped me realize I had to be careful,” Mr. Le said. “I trust people easily—and there are a lot of scammers out there. I’ve been in business more than 25 years; they pretend to be asking for donations. I had one lady offering to help me apply for loans. It was a scam.”
In response to an increase in scamming within the business community, the Office of Economic Development has offered in-language technical services to help Seattle businesses with the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Small Business Assistance (SBA) loans. Business owners can call 206-684-8090 to request trustworthy assistance in-language, or email OED@seattle.gov for help.
Mr. Le’s strong connections with community have helped him weather the pandemic storm. He says simply, “People in the community know me and love me.” He’s grateful that his “very diverse clientele” has been supportive. He’s taken extra steps to explain that it’s safe to shop at the bakery and the establishment is clean and sanitary. He also makes “extra desserts to make the customers happy” and gives back to the community in a variety of ways.
As the economy slowly begins to open up Mr. Le continues working long days and remains hopeful that our region is turning the corner toward recovery.