Delicately seated at an outdoor table in a crisp, white linen chef coat emblazoned with her name and title in gold cursive lettering, Helene An, executive chef, commands a certain measure of respect before she says a word. To those around her, though, she is known simply as “Mama An.”
“This is my wish, that they came here,” Helene says, her soft-spoken words almost being swallowed on the Tiato Garden patio in Santa Monica as a catering crew prepares the facility for an event the following day. The “they” to whom she is referring are her five daughters, Hannah, Elizabeth, Monique, Jacky, and Catherine. “I have to tell you one thing, that I am so happy that all my daughters can stay together and work with me.”
The youngest of 17 children, Helene knows a thing or two about sibling relations. A native of Vietnam, her family resided on a large parcel of land in the northern region of the country, and her father worked as a governor. Despite having all her meals prepared for her while growing up, Helene absorbed the flavors and aromas of her native cuisine, as they would eventually constitute the key ingredients of her business.
Helene’s business roots date back to her mother-in-law, Diane An’s, 1971 visit to San Francisco. While there, she made an impulse purchase. “She saw a café on the side of the street and [said], ‘Why don’t we buy it?’” Helene says, recalling the spontaneous nature of the An family’s first business venture. Diane plunked down $5,000 on the spot as a down payment on a $55,000 space. Helene’s father, still in Vietnam, was not expecting the news and, after his initial shock subsided, flew to San Francisco to counsel his wife on the art of business transactions. The family converted the modest Italian deli into Thanh Long, San Francisco’s first Vietnamese restaurant. In 1975, Helene made the United States her permanent home and began building the foundation for what would become her legacy.
Recognized as one of the best food and hospitality conglomerates in Southern California, House of An was bestowed with the “Family Business Award of Excellence” at the 2013 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards. The company operates Southern California restaurants Crustacean in Beverly Hills (1997), Tiato Kitchen Bar Garden + Venue in Santa Monica, and AnQi by Crustacean in Costa Mesa, as well as An Catering by Crustacean (2007). Both San Francisco’s Thanh Long (1971) and the original Crustacean restaurant (1991) still thrive today.
In early February, House of An co-hosted, alongside the Board of Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce (BHCC), the City of Beverly Hills’ Centennial Celebration at its fine-dining flagship, Crustacean. The star-studded event attracted a guest list that included Jessica Alba, Terrence Howard, and Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch (see pg. 134). But the evening was not a departure from business as usual; the An Family has gotten used to the fact that Hollywood luminaries flock to its acclaimed Beverly Hills seafood restaurant.
The youngest of the five daughters, Catherine An, leads the catering division, but her entrepreneurial voice resonates with the other four siblings—each of whom was attracted to the idea of being her own boss within a niche for the House of An business. Hannah An, the eldest and the first of the daughters to enter the House of An business, studied electrical company engineering with a pre-med background and double-EE major at UC-Davis. Her specialty is analytical thinking, and she manages operations of the three Southern California restaurants.
Based in San Francisco, Monique An supervises the operations for restaurants Thanh Long and Crustacean San Francisco, and Jacky An, in New York, works with handling all aspects of the company’s finances. Elizabeth An, the second eldest daughter, runs the AnQi restaurant, as well as oversees the branding and marketing/design concepts and business development for House of An’s growth and expansion. And if the past is any indication of House of An’s future going forward, that’s just where the business is headed.
In 2007, An Catering launched. Two years later, House of An’s latest additions, Tiato in Santa Monica and AnQi in Costa Mesa, followed.
For an executive chef who has built her family’s culinary dynasty rewarding loyalty, Helene keeps the special herbs for which her cooking is known close to her vest. Keeping the sanctity of her family recipes in a kitchen separate from the restaurant’s open kitchens, only those workers who prove themselves loyal get a peek inside.
The secret is out, however, on Tiato. Catherine has transformed the locale into a popular site for bar mitzvahs, weddings, and other weekend events. In February, the restaurant was already booked through 2014, and 2015 is filling up fast.
“I think they should switch it out, just go with the browns. Is that what they wanted? We can do all browns for them, it can look nice,” Catherine whispers to Hannah later during our interview, subtly critiquing the catering team’s chair placement decisions.
Always considering the details, Catherine humbly smiles and returns her attention to the table. “I think it’s just what happens when you start your own business and open it from ground up,” she explains. “You’re constantly trying to fix things.”
With their five restaurants already owned and operated, the An Family wants to see the brand further grow, maybe even overseas. Their goal, to find a concept of the “scaleable” – a younger, more hip Crustacean or a few more fast and casual healthy Tiatos around the U.S. – centers around continuing to create that new experience for customers.
To be recognized with last year’s E&Y Family Business Award was especially gratifying, according to Catherine. “For 40-plus years in business and to still get that recognition in a group of entrepreneurs,” she says, her voice filled with appreciation.
Mama An, the matriarch, adds a final thought that reflects her sage outlook and perhaps offers some insight as to why prosperity – both in business and in family – have gravitated to her over the years. “The only thing I have now is my children,” she says. “I want [that] everybody can stay together, united. I want my children to make a decision [to do] what they like. I just want to make sure they get a good college [education] and after that they have to make a decision on their own life.”