Mai Nguyen owns multiple restaurants in the Salt Lake Valley and is also one of the area’s busiest business developers. She was recently awarded the 2014 Outstanding Asian Business Owner award by the Asian Chamber of Commerce and the Women Business Owner of the Year award from the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) in Salt Lake City. She is also a licensed contractor and has plans to help minority business owners achieve their own goals for success.
What businesses do you currently own?
In downtown Salt Lake City, there’s Sapa. In West Valley, there’s Bucket O’ Crawfish, Pho Green Papaya [now Noodle and Chopstick] and Fat Fish. Also, I am planning on franchising Pho Green Papaya and Fat Fish.
It sounds like most of your restaurants are Asian themed. What made you decide to open Bucket O’ Crawfish?
I love seafood. Bucket O’ Crawfish uses our recipe, and we have a Louisianan chef. It’s a true crawfish meal that you eat with your hands. We also have clams, mussels, catfish and chicken wings.
What business ventures are you currently exploring?
We own a piece of land close to Valley Fair Mall; it’s about two to three acres. We are hoping to offer space to local businesses—even to people who don’t have strong credit or can’t afford to buy. There will be approximately 28 to 30 units.
Another project will take place across from Sapa in the 700 S. State Street area. I want to create an alley of restaurants that are locally owned to appeal to chefs who want to own their own businesses. We’ll hold a contest, and the winner will manage a restaurant and work toward full ownership.
How do you find the time to be involved with your restaurants while still creating new projects?
Sometimes I work up to 90 hours a week. I help the servers, cooks—whatever needs to be done. I’m all over the place—very hands-on—but I enjoy it. I like waking up in the morning knowing that I have something to do.
Your family members are also part of your business. You and your family moved to Utah in 1992. What prompted that decision?
My family is originally from Vietnam, and I spent my early years in Oakland, Calif. Sadly, my father passed away and left my mother with seven children to raise. My mom asked around. She wanted to find a place that was family friendly to raise her kids, and everybody told her Salt Lake City was the best place. My mom knew how to do restaurant work, so that’s what she did. That’s why I like to help people now—I know how hard it is to make a living.
What do you think about Salt Lake City’s current restaurant scene?
The people in Salt Lake City have become much more interested in a variety of foods, probably thanks to Food Network. I’m happy about that, but I’d like to have even more diverse restaurants in Salt Lake City. We still need more authentic ethnic food here.
What’s one thing that’s unique about your restaurants?
For me, the whole experience of dining is important. For example, when you go to Sapa, you really feel like you’re in another country.