Goleta Grapevine Interviews Phucthanh "Anthony" Le
By Silvia Uribe
If you live in Goleta, Isla Vista, or UCSB, you've almost certainly seen his face, particularly if you like to have your nails professionally done. His name is Phucthanh Le, but you might know him as Anthony.
The owner of Famous Nails was born in Saigon, Vietnam, 42 years ago. He is the father of two beautiful girls, nine-year-old Le Vi and one-year-old Le Madelynn. He always has a smile on his face and is the hardest working person I've met. I remember a time when my nails were screaming for help and I decided go see Anthony that night. He was working on his last client, and when he saw me he signaled me in. Since he took me, I assumed it was not too late.
He was already working on my nails when I noticed that all employees were gone and his wife, Phan Thoi, was also leaving, wearing an exhausted expression. He finished the work on my hands quickly, as usual, and as usual did a first class job. I offered him a ride home, but he preferred to walk the short distance in the fresh air. I wished him a good night and jumped in my car, surprised to discover that it was 11:30 p.m. I had no idea it was that late!
With this experience in mind, I decided to interview Anthony, so we got together at a restaurant near his business in the Kmart shopping center on Calle Real. He told me that it was 1991 when he first immigrated to this country, landing first in Santa Barbara, then going to Oxnard, then New Jersey ...
Le: My brother came here in 1975 after the Vietnam War. He was in the military first, living in Port Hueneme, and then he became an engineer. He brought us and our parents here. We are nine siblings total.
Grapevine: What made you decide to come to Santa Barbara?
I had just finished college. You know, I studied acting. For a while I had big dreams of becoming a famous actor in my country. I am also trained as a dancer. I did ballroom dancing. I knew that if I came to the U.S., I would have to give up my dreams of being an actor, since I have no connections in that world here. However, I wanted to be with my family. I missed them, they're very important to me.
What was your experience as a recent immigrant?
Oh my God! Everything was so hard in the beginning. I didn't speak the language and that made things very difficult for me. I started taking ESL [English as a second language] classes, and it took me two years to feel confident. If I have an accent now, in those days it was way thicker, so it was hard for people to understand me.
I then started working at a doughnut place, preparing, baking, and selling doughnuts. I would get up at 3 a.m. every day and there was little money. It was then when a couple of friends, and very important people in my life, James Truong and Tru, introduced me to the nails world. It was a big cultural shock for me because in Vietnam this kind of work is never done by a man. I didn't want to do it, but you have to be open to other ideas and ways of doing things if you're going to live in a country other than yours. I accepted, I learned, and I started working for them.
The money was great. I was making four times what I was making baking doughnuts! A year later, I got a job offer to do the same thing in New Jersey. I felt bad leaving the people who first offered me an opportunity, but I needed to look for a better future, so I took it. I moved there and I was not only making double the money, but I was learning nail design, and business management, and dealing with employees and suppliers. I worked there for 10 years.
While you were living in New Jersey, you went back to Vietnam and met your wife?
We started dating and after a year we got married. It had to be like that because the distance was too much and the price of going back and forth was very high. [Laughs at the memory. In 1997, after they married, she came with him.]
Why and when did you come back to California?
My wife and I made the decision and came back because we wanted to move closer to the family and have our children grow up near them.
How did you become an entrepreneur and start your business?
[Le's eyes light up and a big smile shines on his face.] I don't really know how it happened. The opportunity to buy the nail salon came, and with the help of our family, we were able to purchase it. Look, I know the business well, I love dealing with people and making them happy, and I have good employees, which are not easy to find these days (Vietnamese are very patient and skillful with small tools). I have all I need: A good business, even in these times. I have a great family. I'm a very lucky man!
Your nail salon is always full. What is your secret for success?
I guess my secret is great customer service, a clean business, making customers feel good, and attending to their needs. You know, Silvia, I'm very appreciative of the customers because they help me stay in business. I'm happy for the clients that I have. I consider them friends. That's why I stay as late as they need me to stay. They are busy people with tight schedules, and I understand that. I want them to always feel welcome at Famous Nails.
Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latina perspective.
Cross-posted at the Independent.com