Edmonton entrepreneur helps parents rebuild after family restaurant burns down

Local IT software businessman Tony Phung admits he doesn't know a lot about the restaurant business, but that didn't stop him from helping his parents rebuild and open a new restaurant in west Edmonton.

Tony Phung admits he knows nothing about cooking, but running a business is a different story

Tony Phung and his parents get ready for the lunch rush at the Grain of Rice.

Tony Phung is a little outside his element these days.

The 26-year-old software consultant has traded in his laptop to help out behind the counter at his latest venture.

The Grain of Rice is his family's new restaurant, located at the Market at Lewis Estates in the city's west end.

The IT specialist, who runs a software consulting firm by day, admits he knows nothing about cooking chicken chow mein.

But his parents certainly do.

Helena Chiang and Khai Phung came to Canada in 1985 and worked at various jobs in the restaurant industry. In 2003, they built their dream, the Treasury Restaurant, which opened in a strip mall in the north end.

"It was a very successful," said Phung. "You would have a typical menu of 200, or 300 items, and you'd be overwhelmed and paralyzed by the choices that it had."

During its seven-year run, the restaurant developed quite a following and helped support the family of four.

But all that changed on Christmas Day in 2012.

"I lived right across the street from there, and I saw this big puff of smoke," Phung said.

At first, he didn't think much of it, until the fire began to spread through the strip mall.

'It was devastating'

Phung didn't wake his parents up until about 4:30 a.m., because he knew they would be shocked.

"That was the restaurant that funded my schooling, funded my life," he said. "It was devastating to watch it burn down."

The fire caused more than $12 million in damage and destroyed several businesses. 

The Phungs weren't sure they wanted to start over from scratch.

But eventually their son convinced them to try.

"I saw an opportunity," he said. "And my parents were like, 'Hey, we'll give you the advice, we'll give you the mentorship in the kitchen, we will train the chefs. But everything else, we will need your guidance, in the construction phase and everything to get this building up and running."

That conversation carried on for more than four years.

Now the dream is once again reality.

Fresh food from smaller menu

Unlike the Treasury Restaurant, at the Grain of Rice the vegetables and meat are all local. This week, for instance, the chicken, pork, and beef come from farms in Morinville and Westlock.

Phung painstakingly convinced his parents to trim the menu from hundreds of items to no more than 20. A big reason for that was to control inventory and allow the restaurant to offer food that is always fresh. Grain of Rice does not have a freezer.

A self-professed millennial, Phang also pushed for a flexible, healthier menu, one that offers diners gluten-free and vegan options. His parents were skeptical, but so far he has proven them wrong.

A soft opening last weekend saw two days of long lineups.

"I think on day one, when we had a full house in here and the lineup, my father actually came up to me and said, 'Hey, you know what? I guess it does work."

Grain of Rice will have its official grand opening in the coming weeks.