When Opportunity Knocks

For one restaurateur, the movie ‘Gran Torino’ provided the start of another journey.
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For Genevieve Vang, the call came at 6 p.m.

The caller asked if she could prepare Thailand and Hmong cuisine for 164 people and be on the set of Gran Torino in Highland Park the next morning.

“I cooked the whole night,” says Vang, co-owner along with her husband, Guy Vang, of Bangkok 96 in Dearborn. “I had enough food in the restaurant to make it the first day, and then I ordered different foods so there was always something new (over the following 10 days on the set).”

The movie, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, tells the story of a retired assembly line worker who comes to terms with his rapidly deteriorating neighborhood. It was the high point of Michigan’s film tax credit program, which for a time led the nation. For Vang, the movie break represented the start of another journey.

“I get these entrepreneurial spurts, and I thought after the movie I really needed to challenge myself,” Vang says. “Our restaurant business grew 30 percent after Gran Torino came out (in 2008), but I wanted to do something new. That’s how the frozen food line got started (in 2011).”

The Thai Feast line — Pad Thai, Pad Se’ew, and Pad Woon Sen — is gluten-free, low in sodium and sugar, and has no MSG. The meals are offered in more than 400 outlets, including such national players as Whole Foods, Pathmark, and Rouses. Local stores carrying the line include Westborn Market, Market Fresh, Market Square, and Hiller’s Market, to name a few.

Vang was born in Laos. For the first half of her life, she didn’t so much live as survive. At a young age, she and her family became refugees in Thailand at the start of the Vietnam War. She picked cotton and rice by hand to help make ends meet. All the while, she heard stories of America as the land of opportunity. “I kept thinking I would get there some day,” she recalls.

In 1977, her family moved to the country in Normandy, France, but life was still difficult. “We had no food, no car, no grocery store, and no gas station,” Vang says. “We lived off the land.” Four years later, conditions improved. “We moved to the west side of Paris and I was able to take accounting courses. And then I started getting the entrepreneurial bug.”

From her apartment, she assembled women’s accessories for Coco Chanel (her largest single order was for 3,000 purses). Soon after, Vang was married and she and her husband followed her grandmother to Detroit. Within a year, the family had saved $50,000 and bought a Chinese restaurant in Dearborn and converted it into the 80-seat Bangkok Tiger.

Seven years later, in 1996, the Vangs sold the restaurant and opened Bangkok 96, with 120 seats. “All my life I dreamed of being in America,” Vang says. “But I don’t want to take anything for granted. When I got the call from Gran Torino, I knew this was an opportunity. I was so happy, I was crying.”

For Vang, like so many other entrepreneurs, the secret to success is to recognize an opportunity, take it to the next level, and blaze a new trail. Standing still is not an option. db

R.J. King

rjking@dbusiness.com

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