2011 was a rough year for the Alex Le and his family. The family business of 28 years was failing, his mother and matriarch of the family had a catastrophic stroke, and his younger brother felt increasingly restless and uninspired after five years working as a sous-chef at a popular fine dining restaurant in Moilili.
Alex’s world was crumbling and it was up to him to figure out how to get his family back on track. The answer; reinvent himself, start from the bottom, and work his way back up.
In 1984, Alex and his parents launched their family business, Toys N’ Joys, at the Aloha Stadium Flea Market. It was there, on Saturdays and Sundays selling video games, trinkets, and toys that the adolescent Alex assisted in helping his immigrant parents with building the Toys N’ Joys’ brand. A few years later with a loyal following, they were able to open their flagship storefront on Waialae Avenue. At one time, Toys N’ Joys had four stores; Kaimuki, Pearl City, Kapolei, and Maui. By 2011, due to the decline in business brought on by online shopping and gaming, only the struggling Kaimuki store was left.
Alex, along with his younger brother Andrew (the chef), needed a new plan. As strange as it may sound, that plan brought the two brothers together setting up makeshift restaurants in the parking lots at of farmers’ markets throughout Oahu.
Pop-up tents at the farmers’ market replaced the now old-school method of bringing heavy poles, cement blocks, bungees, and a tarp which were the norm three decades prior at the flea market. Nevertheless, the objective was the same: utilize the market’s inexpensive rent and leverage the plentiful foot traffic to hustle and sell goods or in this case, Vietnamese food as The Pig and the Lady.
Alex’s willingness to start from the bottom and reinvent himself from the toy business to the food business changed his life and his family’s life forever. Here’s how:
- Utilizing his mother’s expertise and Vietnamese recipes for the business helped her recover from a stroke.
- His younger brother Andrew needed an outlet to explore his culinary ambitions.
- The farmers market allowed them to organically build a loyal following of repeat customers.
- Out of those who loved their food and saw their hard work, one supporter was in the position to give their business an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Alex’s mother was the linchpin that that held the family together. She was the entrepreneur, the nurturer, the disciplinarian, and the family cook. The financial stress of a failing business was now compounded by the unbearable thought of losing Mama Le when she suffered a stroke. How would they generate new cash flow to offset the loss in revenue from Toys N’ Joys? How would they help Mama Le recover from her debilitating stroke?
Alex and Andrew used the farmers’ markets as a way to help Mama Le rehabilitate from her stroke by sharing her delicious Vietnamese cuisines with others and keeping her mind and body active.
In doing so, Mama Le was able to teach Alex and Andrew the family recipes while generating extra income to support the family.
Brother Andrew Needed an Outlet
Five years before closing of Toys N’Joys, Andrew Le attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Then, he moved back home to work for the well-known and acclaimed Chef George Mavrothalassitis at Chef Mavros in Moilili. Andrew obtained real-world experience of life in a restaurant by starting as a dishwasher and working his way up to sous-chef.
By 2011, Andrew needed more, and with Alex’s help, he experimented with hosting pop-up events in which he served up five-course meals. The feedback was great, but the pop-ups were sporadic and also dependent on asking other restaurants if they could utilize their space.
The farmer’s market allowed Andrew to experiment with his culinary ideas in a cost-effective way at a steady location. This allowed him to get instant feedback from his customers and perfect his dishes to the delight of his audience.
Building a Loyal Audience
Alex’s extensive experience in retail helped to attract The Pig & the Lady’s initial (and now loyal) first customers. At Toys N’ Joys, he remembered the power of customers being able to visually see the product. Therefore, he displayed pictures of each food item at the front of the ordering station. This helped peak the interest of passersby and help customers easily decide on what to order.
Secondly, he wanted his customers to be comfortable. He brought tables and chairs so they could enjoy their food by sitting at a table right next to their booth.
The combination of being in-tune with how to attract customers, making them feel comfortable, and providing a delicious meal allowed Alex and Andrew to build a faithful audience with repeated diners every week.
This devoted following came in handy in 2013 when they decided to open their first brick-and-mortar restaurant. Through a Kickstarter campaign, they raised over $100,000 to fund the build-out of their new Hotel Street location.
A Supporter with an Offer
One of their loyal customers was Tin Myaing Thein, Executive Director of The Pacific Gateway Center, a non-profit organization that provides social services to poor and underserved immigrants to Hawai’i. Tin Myaing Thein loved their food and she was impressed by the work ethic displayed by Alex and Andrew. She was also in a position to help.
She owned a building in Chinatown and recommended the boys take a look at the vacant space on the bottom floor of the Hotel Street building. Alex and Andrew had no desire to open up a restaurant at the then rundown location, but Tin Myaing Thein presented terms they just couldn’t pass up.
Alex would be the first to tell you, they probably would not have been successful as quickly as they were without the help of Tin Myaing Thein.
She encouraged them to open up a brick-and-mortar restaurant much earlier then they anticipated and gave them favorable terms to help get them started. As opposed to other new Honolulu establishments that typically invest 1 million into a new restaurant, the Le brothers started with $200K at their Chinatown location. For them, that meant a lot of do-it-yourself projects to get the restaurant up and running, and buying secondhand furniture to outfit the dining areas.
What the Le brothers have been able to accomplish in the seven years since they started their pop-up dining events is a testament to Andrew’s talents as a chef, their mother’s recipes, and the great responsibility Alex felt to help his family during significant health and financial hardship.
The Pig & the Lady and their second location, Piggy Smalls, have won numerous Hale Aina Awards. Most recently for 2018, they took home numerous awards including the Gold for Best Oahu Restaurant.
Alex attests that his willingness to start over from the ground up and reinvent himself from a retailer to a restaurateur stems directly from his parents’ example as the hardworking owners of Toys N’ Joys. Through his actions, he was able to help his mother recover from a stroke, encourage his brother’s culinary passions, draw a loyal customer following, and bring about the support of Tin Myaing Thein who helped to elevate The Pig & the Lady to a brick-and-mortar.
As Alex says when he reflects back on how far his family has come from their financial worry, “If you have the work ethic, you can succeed at anything.”
Written by Gabe Amey