Fire doesn’t douse Whittier businessman’s dreams

Michael Pham’s Pamar Plaza burned last month, but real estate entrepreneur hopes to come back bigger than before

Michael Cong Pham came to Minneapolis from Vietnam in 1986 at the age of 20. Since then, Pham has worked his way into a Nicollet Avenue real estate empire. In addition to owning a successful supermarket, Pham is a landlord who has provided space focused on small immigrant businesses in the Whittier neighborhood.

Pham, with the help of his younger brother Hoang Pham, owns the former 5th Police Precinct building at 2429 Nicollet Ave., now home to his newly renovated business, the Duc Loi Supermarket. He also owns the building that formerly housed the Duc Loi, at 2515 Nicollet Ave.

Michael Pham made the news last month when a third building he owns, Pamar Plaza at 2650 Nicollet Ave., was seriously damaged by fire. It was home to more than a dozen immigrant-owned businesses.

Pham is unbowed; he said he looks at the setback as an opportunity to build something better, for even more immigrant businesses to flourish.

Tom Berthiume, head of the Nicollet Avenue Business Association (NABA) said, "Immigrant businesses have become a pretty important part of the marketplace. Michael Pham has been a landlord to many of them — it’s a good thing,"

Pham’s business in Whittier

City records show Michael Pham bought 2515 Nicollet Ave. in 1993, but he said it wasn’t until 1998 that he started his first Whittier business, Duc Loi Supermarket, in that location.

The building, which according to city records was valued at $110,000 when Pham purchased it, is now worth nearly three times that.

The Pham brothers moved the Duc Loi a few storefronts north to 2429 Nicollet Ave. in 2001 because they liked the space and the parking lot. (The building had been mostly vacant since the 5th Precinct moved out in the late ’90s; it served as R.T. Rybak’s campaign headquarters when he ran for mayor in 2001.) The Phams bought that building in 2001, putting a lot of money and work into renovating the property in 2003 and reopening a new Duc Loi last October.

In 2002, the Phams purchased the Pamar building. They increased the building’s value by improving the property. The property’s assessed value increased from $650,000 in 2002 to $780,000 million in 2003, according to city records.

To finance the Whittier ventures, Michael Pham said he had gotten some help from people in Vietnam, as well as his friends and family. He now owns more than $2 million in Nicollet Avenue real estate.

A business legacy picks up on Nicollet Avenue

While Michael Pham said he looks at his place in the business world as a way to help other immigrant businesses flourish, he said it’s also been a way for his family to carry on a legacy started decades back in Vietnam. He said his training in business began there.

Michael Pham said he grew up in a small-business atmosphere; his grandfather owned a market and hardware store, and his parents carried on the tradition. "In my country, my mom and dad either had a market or jewelry store," he said.

After coming to the United States in 1986 to link up with his older brother, a Honeywell, Inc. engineer, Michael Pham said he began working in a restaurant, trying his hand at nearly every job in the restaurant, from dishwasher to vegetable chopper to chef.

Michael Pham said that experience helped prepare him to open his own restaurant in 1992, called August Hope in Anoka. Pham said he worked to build that business with Hoang Pham and a sister who has since moved out of the state.

Michael Pham and his brother have worked together on every business venture since; Hoang Pham serves as the Duc Loi’s manager. Their company is called Pamar Brothers Co.

The brothers sold the Anoka restaurant shortly before they bought their first Whittier property. Michael Pham, who lives in Golden Valley, said he decided to focus his efforts and money on Whittier because it is a proven immigrant business incubator.

"This location is international," he said, adding, "I really like this neighborhood and the people around here, too — they’re nice."

Michael Pham said business people depend on each other for support, and the more immigrant businesses they can attract, the more notoriety the area can gain as an international attraction in the state.

Tammy Wong, owner of the Rainbow Chinese Restaurant and Bar, 2739 Nicollet Ave., lives in Whittier and is an NABA member. She said although she’s had little interaction with the Phams, she’s a regular shopper at the Duc Loi and has watched Pham’s business ventures grow. Wong said Michael Pham is doing a great job and has put a lot of effort into the business.

Pham’s future Whittier plans

Michael Pham’s entrepreneurial drive is apparent when he talks about his Whittier properties’ future. Despite the devastation caused by the fire at his Pamar building last April, he and his brother are focused on the future and have grand aspirations of a rebuild. He said they’re currently looking for someone who can help finance the dream.

The brothers estimate they’d need between $2 million and $4 million to rebuild and expand the Pamar Building from 15,000 square feet to 24,000 and add parking. However, Hoang Pham said they probably couldn’t afford that, so the brothers are going to try and devise a more affordable plan.

Michael Pham said he’s meeting with community members and neighborhood groups to talk about funding possibilities. While neighborhood leaders praise the Phams’ business acumen, they say they don’t know them very well because immigrant entrepreneurs usually spend so much time managing their businesses.

The Pham brothers welcome any suggestions regarding the property and opportunities for assistance. They can be reached at 870-8684.