Walk into Tony Hang’s Vietnamese restaurant, Mama Pho, and right away you are hit with a sense of his creativity and energy.
The walls of the Main Street establishment are covered with his art work, fun and welcoming, and with plays on the word “pho” – the steamy Vietnamese soup with rice noodles, herbs and meat, fish or vegetables.“ Girls just want to have pho,” it said on one wall, while another read: “Dude are you Pho Real!”
The savory smells from the kitchen are enticing where his mother, Phan Duong, and he conjure authentic Vietnamese food from street foods such as grilled spring rolls and fried tofu, pho with meat, seafood or vegetables and American-influenced blends such as a “phoritto” which is a burrito made with some of the ingredients found in pho wrapped together.
“I think I was the first location in Connecticut to do a phoritto,” Hang said.
Hang has been surprising his elders with his business acumen ever since he arrived in the U.S. from Vietnam in 2011 at the age of 20, with, as he describes it: “No car, no English, no money, nothing at all.”
Twelve years later he is the owner of two buildings on Main Street in Winsted with four businesses, including his award-winning Vietnamese restaurant, Mama Pho.
He also owns Laurel Lanes, a bowling alley with a bubble tea bar called Papa Boba run by his fiancée, Lynn Lieu, and a nail salon, called Wonderland Nails that is run by his sister, Alice.
“People say American dream? I am American dream,” said Hang. “In America, you have more opportunities if you are hardworking and smart.”
Those who know Tony say he is both.
“I love Tony and I love everything he and his partner have done here,” said Josh Kelly, Winchester town manager. “They have multiple successful businesses. They have not been satisfied just to have one iron in the fire. They really seem to have a drive in them to further their success in a multitude of different ways. They are creative, they are energetic…”
Ted Shafer, Winchester’s director of economic development, said Hang is “very astute as to what will work well and what does not work well. He has these entrepreneurial instincts that serve him very well.
“He’s a positive force in the community at just right the time. We see him as a partner in the rejuvenation efforts.”
When Hang arrived in the U.S. to stay with an aunt in West Hartford, he considered going to school but he was too old for high school and he did not have the high school diploma he would need to go to college.
Besides, he said, “I had no money. I need money.”
So he and his mother took a bus to East Hartford where they spotted a Vietnamese restaurant. They both landed jobs but got paid only $1 an hour or $12 a day.
“We knew nothing about minimum wage,” Hang said. “We have no minimum wage in my country.”
But Hang is not resentful about the lack of pay as he looks back because it gave him the chance to learn English, as well as putting a small amount of money in his pocket.
He learned English, he said, from the waitresses and from the menu, which were numbered.
“I would say what number you want?” Hang said. Slowly he learned the English names for each menu offering. When customers had special requests, he would learn more English.
With his earnings, he was able to buy a decades-old Toyota for $400. The car enabled him to look for better jobs farther away. He got one at a now-closed Vietnamese restaurant in Middletown. His wages were fair, he said, and the owner liked him so much she hired an English teacher to work with him for two hours on Saturdays.
Eventually, he parlayed his earnings into purchasing a Vietnamese restaurant in Wallingford in 2016. How did he do it?
“Work hard, save money, get a loan,” Hang said.
Not long after, in 2017, he went out to the Winsted area to swim in the lake and spend the day. When it was time for dinner, he and his friend cruised around Winsted.
That’s when he had the idea to start a Vietnamese restaurant in Winsted. He found a building and opened the first Mama Pho restaurant in 2018 at 108 Main St.
A few years later he moved the restaurant to its current location at 246 Main St. and bought the building that housed 242-246 Main St. At the end of 2021 he bought Laurel Lanes Bowling at 266 Main St.
“I know nothing about bowling. I know nothing about machines,” he said. “But I know business.”
Hang said he’s always thinking about his businesses, doesn’t sleep much and works very long hours. He’s determined to make the most of himself in his new country and to provide “a good future for my kids.”
“It’s not easy to come to America,” Hang said. “If you come to America, you very lucky.”