On Pho Restaurant Quality And Service, And Pho 79 Revisited

Pho 79 sign closeup

Pho 79 sign off of Brookhurst St.

In the early days of lovingpho.com, I did a review on Pho 79 in Garden Grove CA. I gave it a stellar 26 out of 25 points -  due to a system of extra points a pho restaurant can earn, total points can exceed the maximum.

I haven't been back to Pho 79 since, but words from a couple of unhappy Pho 79 customers prompted me to write this post about pho business, pho quality versus service, and the changing marketplace.

Here's the original Pho 79 review.

While we all know that quality can change over time, and I can't attest to Pho 79 quality these days, I think this is a perfect opportunity to discuss pho restaurant customer service.

Sometime You Wonder If Restaurants Really Care What Customers Are Experiencing

Here's what reader Bran wrote the other day:

The service at Pho 79 is atrocious. Doesn’t matter how good the pho is, I won’t ever go back there again just because of the horrible customer service I experienced there. I asked for some extra ngo gai and the server looks me in the face and snaps at me that I already have some right there and like I should be grateful I even got some…turns around as if I offended him and leaves. Damned near lost my temper and chewed his ass out in front of the whole restaurant. The pho isn’t THAT good to put up with bad service. They lost a customer for life after that and I’ll never recommend them to anybody that I know ever again.

Here's what ĐOÀN VINH wrote in Vietnamese with translation:

1/ Long 11 khi lấy order từ khách hàng,không biết có bị điếc hay không mà cứ hỏi lại cái gì, cái gì?
Nghe có vẻ không được lịch sự với khách hàng.
2/Khi khách hàng đang ngồi ăn thì mấy người đi dọn bàn quăng dục bát đũa kêu loảng xoảng, làm như muốn đuổi khách.
3/Cũng khi khách đang ngồi ăn thì mấy ông Mễ nhào vô chào mời mua dâu,mua xoải.
4/ Rau húng quế và rau cải cúc còn gọi là tần ô để ăn phở hoặc hủ tíu thì đã khô héo.
Trên đây là mấy điểm khiến chúng tôi cảm thấy khó chịu khi vào ngồi ăn ở tiệm phở nổi tiếng này.
Rất mong quý tiệm sửa đổi lại hầu giúp khách hàng chúng tôi cảm thấy thỏai mái hơn khi ngồi vào bàn enjoy các món của quý tiệm. Ngược lại nếu còn tái diễn, buộc lòng chúng tôi phải good bye for ever.

My translation:

  1. When taking [my] order, server just kept asking what, what... like he's deaf or something.
  2. When [I, customers] were eating, the bus person noisily threw bowls and chopsticks as they cleared tables, as if they wanted to chase customers away.
  3. Also while [you are] eating, Mexican street hawkers and vendors came in to sell strawberries and mangoes.
  4.  The basil and other vegetables (like rau tần ô for hu tieu) are pretty much dry and withered.

Above are a few points that made us feel uncomfortable when eating at this "famous" pho shop.
We wish the restaurant would change and improve their ways so customers like us can feel more comfortable while enjoying your dishes. Conversely, if still such behavior continues, it will force us to say good bye forever.

I guess customers like Bran and ĐOÀN VINH were gentlemen enough to not have made a big scene; I would be pretty upset myself. But instead of complaining to the owner/manager of Pho 79, they shared with their friends and other readers (customers) online.

This is pretty much the reality for many Vietnamese and pho restaurants who have not changed with the time. With popularity of pho increasing all the time, new waves of customers, especially Gen X and Y (the millennials) and younger customers, are expecting much more than questionably good pho quality and bad customer service.

What The Data Is Really Telling Us

Opinions don't count for much, unless they are backed by data. So here's a running poll I've been tracking closely. If you haven't done so, please take the poll before viewing the results.

What makes for a successful long term pho restaurant? Note: Good customer service is a part of well run business.

View Results

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First, I must point out an important note about the poll. The poll answers seem to force good pho and good service (well run business) to be somewhat mutually exclusive, meaning you cannot have both good pho and well run business at the same time. But we know that this is not true in reality. So while the poll itself is limited in its flexibility and scope, it still gives us some strong indication of what pho eaters are thinking.

So looking at the result, what surprises me the most is the fact that many respondents consider good pho more important than good customer service. People are saying that it is acceptable reason to continue giving business to a restaurant that has bad customer service if you love their pho enough.

This may be an eye opener for many, but on the other hand it may not be news to others, if you dig a little deeper. Here's why.

From the poll result I'm getting the following 2 important things:

  1. Pho eaters' desire for a good bowl of pho is so strong that when they find it, customer service becomes secondary or is much less important. Unfortunately this may be the "conventional wisdom" and common views about Viet and pho restaurants in general that's been around for many years, that you get good food and cheap prices together with bad service and very dirty restrooms. While this thinking is still very common, thankfully this leads to the next observation.
  2. That in a given market or locality, good pho is still hard to find. There are still plenty of bad pho around, with dirty restrooms and all! This means there are still opportunities for new pho restaurants to open and serve good pho AND have great customer service. Think about it, what if there are plenty of pho restaurants that serve good pho AND have great service? Do you think places like Pho 79 can survive in such market for too long? Exactly my point.

The Bottom Line: Vote With Your Wallet

So I think there are still good opportunities for new pho restaurants to open and serve great pho and have great customer service. This will definitely allow (or force) the dinosaurs to go extinct in a natural way, and sooner too.

So what to do about Pho 79? It's simple: I think you should vote with your wallet, like you do with any other retail businesses.

My friend Tim and I have a pho meetup every week or so, and we always alternate between 2 places. The other day, he asked me: "hey do you want to try a different pho place?" I said: "remember the last time when you walked out of a bad pho joint, wished you didn't waste your $8-$10 or whatever you paid, and wished you had gone to a place you knew is good? Remember that feeling?"

He got the point and we went to one of the 2 places we always went to, and we both walked out very full and happy.

So, let's just let the dinosaurs die.

What you think about your selection of where to spend your money on pho? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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