Michael Cua and John Tian Seng: the Cousin Duo Behind Pho Hoa and My Thai

Vietnamese food is somewhat of a rare find here in the Philippines. Even now, when international cuisine has become increasingly common, you can’t really order a bowl of Pho as easily as you can order a bowl of ramen from a random establishment in a mall. If you happen to be craving Pho, then the first place you would go to would probably be Pho Hoa, which is one of the pioneers of Vietnamese food in the Philippines.

Pho Hoa had its humble origin in California. It was established by a Vietnamese native named Binh Nguyen, who fled from Hanoi after the end of the Vietnamese War. It was then franchised to the Philippines by sisters-in-law Jean Cua and Nancy Cua. However, the catch was, they would only manage the restaurant for two years at most, and then they would pass it on to Nancy’s son, Michael Cua, and his cousin, John Tian Seng.

Michael and John both grew up in the Philippines and moved to Canada in 1984 for high school and college. According to Nancy, they were the perfect candidates to run Pho Hoa, since they had already been exposed to the restaurant industry from an early age, and they were also kind with people. Michel had worked as a waiter, dishwasher, janitor and cook at his parents’ restaurant in British Columbia, while John worked as a manager for a restaurant called Bread Garden in Vancouver, which is where he learned the basics of running a restaurant.

However, they initially took on career paths outside of the restaurant industry. Michael wanted to be a pilot, which was influenced by his dad who was also a pilot, and when he came back to the Philippines, he worked as a stockbroker for 3 years. John, on the other hand, studied graphic arts and advertising in college, though he was able to add a creative touch to his current career, since his artwork can be found in some of his restaurants. But despite pursuing different career paths, they eventually found their way back to the restaurant industry.

Michael Cua (left) and John Tian Seng (right) at the Pho Hoa branch at Unimart, Greenhills

The beginning of Pho Hoa

Having spent some time in a multicultural country such as Canada, there were a lot of restaurants around their neighborhood that served different cuisines, and one that caught Michael’s eye in particular was Vietnamese cuisine.

“My parents would always bring me to Vietnamese restaurants. Initially, I didn’t like it, but [eventually] I would find myself going there at night time after basketball games with a couple of Fil-Chi friends and cousins. We would try different places] and end up in one of these Vietnameses restaurants, so we kinda figured that it’s something appealing to everybody.” Michael says.

Michael’s family moved back to the Philippines in 1994, they realized that there weren’t many options for Vietnamese food in Manila, so when Nancy mentioned Jean’s plan of franchising Pho Hoa, they were understandably excited. It didn’t matter to them if Pho Hoa would make money but at least their family would get to enjoy authentic Vietnamese noodle soup in the Philippines.

Michael brought this idea up to John, who was still in Canada at that time. John decided to join him, and they trained together at the headquarters of Pho Hoa in San Jose, California. After training for a month, they opened the first Pho Hoa branch on Jupiter Street in Makati in January 1998. Choosing the right location was a bit of a learning curve, and there were some locations that closed down because it wasn’t attracting customers, but January 2023 will mark Pho Hoa’s 25th year anniversary, and according to John, they will be close to around 40 stores by that time.

Like many business endeavors, however, Pho Hoa’s steady success didn’t come easy. “Sa simula it was hard, kasi what’s Vietnamese food back in the 90s? You don’t even know what you’re gonna get,” John says.

“Thankfully a lot of word of mouth helped us. It’s mostly balikbayans, when they come back from Canada and the States, and they’re like ‘oh meron palang Vietnamese dito’ and they bring their relatives to Pho Hoa to try. More and more people have come to appreciate the taste of Vietnamese noodle soup, but it took a while,” Michael continues.

It was also thanks to the word of mouth of doctors, who recommended Pho Hoa to their patients because the herbal broth of Pho is soothing and not oily, and the noodle soup itself does not contain starch.

“Mostly, yung mga regulars ngayon, they don’t even need the menu. They already know what soup number to order. Sa pinto pa lang, sinasabihan na nila yung waiter ‘soup number 50,’” John adds.

Ambience at Pho Hoa Unimart

Bringing in My Thai

Even though Pho Hoa has a sizable menu, they try to keep the stores small for practicality, although there are times when malls would offer them spaces that were too big for just one concept, so Michael and John decided to add another concept. Due to their mutual love of traveling and trying out different cuisines, they decided to add My Thai to the mix and opened the first My Thai restaurant in Eastwood Mall back in 2008. The succeeding My Thai branches were opened as tandem stores with Pho Hoa. Lately, they have been opening more independent My Thai restaurants, with a particular example being the My Thai at Gateway Mall, which opened as a standalone store in April 2022.

“It was very cost efficient because we have one kitchen serving two concepts. I noticed that some of the other restaurant groups are combining different concepts nowadays. It’s practical during the pandemic, when you’re trying to cut the cost down, so you’ll hit two birds with one stone,” John explains.

Pho Hoa and My Thai have since become somewhat of an iconic duo, and it’s only fitting that it’s also run by a cousin duo. But as they say, behind every great man is a great woman, so while John and Michael handle the large-scale operations like accounting payables and construction, their partners in crime, Geevee Tian Seng and Vivian Cua, handle the meticulous things like HR manpower, online marketing, and purchasing. Both couples also handle the day to day operations, checking food quality, and presentation.

“Most of the Thai restaurants earlier on, we noticed na medyo mahal, so we wanted to price it somewhere casual, and the taste would be adjusted less spicy to the Filipino taste. But the main goal there was to have affordable, casual pricing, [and bring] something new to the Filipino taste buds.” John went on.

From left to right: Geevee Tian Seng, John Tian Seng, Michael Cua, and Vivian Cua

The future of Pho Hoa and My Thai

“Our greatest achievement is being able to grow the business during the toughest of times. From 2020 to this year, during the height of the pandemic, we kept most of the stores open. We were able to keep a lot of our staff employed, and to buck the trend, we were able to open new stores during the pandemic,” Michael shares.

They were able to open 9 new stores since 2020, and when it comes to opening new concept stores in the future, they said that the possibility is there, but right now they are focusing more on improving the operations of the existing stores and expanding nationwide.

“We have not gone down to Cebu or Davao or further up North, so gradual expansion is in the works. With food, I think we’re adding certain items on the menu with franchisor approval. We just want to be good at what we’re good at, but we never say never to the possibility of other food concepts. We could if we find something we really like and the market here is ready for it,” Michael says.

“For me basically, running a restaurant is keeping the food consistent. You don’t expect everyday to be problem-free. Basically, we just want to make the operations smooth everyday, make the brand stronger. We consider ourselves lucky to be expanding the business even though there are quite a few Vietnamese restaurants out there. We are very proud to hear from friends, and other customers [relating] us as the benchmark for Vietnamese food. It’s flattering to hear them say ‘oh this should be more like Pho Hoa or it should taste more like Pho Hoa,” John adds.

Ambience at Pho Hoa Unimart

Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs

“Don’t get in the restaurant business, it’s really tough,” Michael jokes, and then later adds. “It’s a very competitive business, especially in the Philippines. Whatever they decide to do, they really have to put 100% into it. I guess you can say that for any business entrepreneurs get into because as an entrepreneur, you can’t clock out.”

“[It’s not a] nine-to-five job. Once you get home, you’re still thinking about what you’re preparing for the next day, and then you try to review kung anong yung mga nagkamali during that day, so it’s pretty much 24/7. We don’t sleep until the last restaurant closes,” John states.

Being in the restaurant industry is indeed tough. A new Pho Hoa branch recently opened in Unimart, Greenhills, and a lot of things have already gone wrong not even a week since they started operations. The problems ranged from a broken roll up door to leaky air conditioners, but while there’s alway challenges along the way, it provides good stress that would improve the performance of both the staff and the people behind the scene. So as long as you have the passion and perseverance for it, the seemingly unending work hours and countless sleepless nights are worth it for the love of food.

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