An Immigrant’s Business Odyssey
Von Larson’s trek of free enterprise runs from Laos to Bayou La Batre, from crab picking to seafood processing, from food truck to premier downtown Mobile eatery.
Crowds form quickly at Von’s Bistro. During prime time dining, the line at this downtown Mobile culinary destination may extend beyond the door, past the building and down the sidewalk. Overseeing the St. Michael Street attraction is its namesake, Von Larson — manager, chef and former Laotian refugee.
“There are two keys to success in this business,” says the restaurateur, who is everywhere, doing everything, four hours before the doors open, “One, you work hard — not just in start-up, but every day, every hour.” She practices what she culinary preaches.
Von’s Bistro may open at 11 a.m., but Von Larson starts at sun up. With one part supervising and one part hands on, meats are cut, vegetables chopped, menus updated, staffing finalized and cooking begun.
“She is the hardest working woman I have ever met,” says husband Paul. “Von is tireless.”
She has to be. It is her creed.
“Success is leased every day,” she says. “You pay rent on success every day. I work as hard today as the first day we opened and never take accomplishments for granted.”
Her second key to business: “Have passion for what you do and put that passion in everything you do,” she declares. “You still have to approach work from a business standpoint, but if you’re passionate, it’s not work. It’s fun.”
Her fun, success and adventure covers three decades and nine thousand miles.
Von’s story is as amazing as her restaurant’s food is good. Her work ethic is a lesson to us all.
In the early 1980s, Von was born in Vientiane, Laos. She later lived in Thailand and also in a refugee camp before escaping Communism for a new life in America. With the aid of a sponsor, toddler Von and her parents moved across the world, settling in Port Arthur, Texas. They had little money and no English.
“My baby brother was born in Texas,” recalls Von. “About the only English words mom and dad knew were ‘Port’ and ‘Arthur.’ They named my brother Arthur.”
News spread among Texas’ Asian settlers. Money could be made in the Alabama seafood business. It was time to learn new words: “Bayou La Batre.”
Saving every dime, the family moved to Alabama’s seafood city and worked in a crabmeat processing plant. Von enrolled in a Bayou La Batre kindergarten. She was four years old.
Her education continued at Theodore High School and later Mobile’s Bishop State Community College, with studies in physical therapy. She and husband Paul have no formal culinary training. They don’t need it. Life taught Von how to cook.
Growing up in South Alabama, she cared for her little brother Arthur while their parents worked. “My parents were always working,” she says. “We lived in low-income apartment housing. It’s all we could afford.” But she considers lessons learned from immigrant housing as priceless.
In the early Alabama years, she notes, “Our neighborhood had immigrants of all kinds — Cambodian, Italian, Vietnamese, you name it. All of the children visited each other’s houses, and, in my case, their parents taught me not just how to cook, but how to cook foods of their homelands. I have been cooking all my life.”
Paul notes that Laotian culture stresses family and cooking, hand in hand. Everyone shares and has a part in preparing meals. The skills transferred to her professional work.
Growing up in a new world, she learned to seize opportunity and profit from it. Von hired herself out as a translator between the Bayou La Batre community and BP oil spill settlement representatives. She also served as a local liaison for Hurricane Katrina issues.
All the while, her parents continued in the fish processing business. In 2000, with money saved, she purchased a seafood supply company, starting her first business, LaosAmerica. Team Von processed blue crab, making a good living, for about five years until 2005, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed it.
Undaunted, she dabbled in real estate sales. Through a listing she discovered an old Bayou La Batre diesel machine shop for sale — perfect for a seafood market and restaurant. She bought it in 2012, spent six months gutting the building and transforming it into the 20-seat, Von’s Restaurant and Grille.
Earlier, in 2011, she met Mobilian, Paul Larson. “We met in a bar and danced all night,” recalls Von. “He called the next day for a date. We have been going out ever since.” They married in 2014, the same year they bought a food truck.
“We literally started the food truck coming off our honeymoon,” says Paul, about the full kitchen on wheels. The big rig enabled the couple to take their culinary show on the road, and most important, on the path to Mobile.
People responded well, which was not a surprise, sort of. “I’ve never met anyone who did not like some kind of Asian food,” Von notes, “But I never intended to open a restaurant in Mobile until we saw the success of our food truck.”
ABOVE The menu at Von’s is as varied as the chef’s immigrant odyssey, from Vietnamese Pho soup (left) to St. Michael Street traffic-stopping seafood nachos (right).
The Larsons realized a happy reality: Mobile loved their food.
Now to make it permanent.
She instructed her realtor to find a spot for a non-mobile Mobile restaurant. The result was 69 St. Michael Street, a labor of love — with emphasis on labor. The building was basically exposed brick, open ductwork and eight months of remodeling until the September, 2015 premiere.
Which brings us to today — the line forms at the door.
“Part of our success is we are not boxed in,” says Von. “We are beyond Asian. We are seafood, U.S. Southern, Korean, a steakhouse and more. Four people can sit at the same table and each find something different each likes.”
Restored brick walls punctuate a bygone era that never dreamed of being Mobile’s culinary Asian destination. Outside seating is available. Inside, everybody sees everything.
The kitchen is the dining room’s centerpiece. It is open and in full view of guests, by design. Most restaurant patrons never see the owner or chefs. Not this one. If Von is here, you see her. If Paul is here, you meet him.
“I love customer interaction,” says Paul, who holds a full-time job outside the restaurant. Typically, he works the bistro evenings and weekends, serving as maître d. He also does administrative tasks, financing and other roles, including egg rolls.
Paul is head cheerleader for his wife’s dishes. “Just check our Facebook page,” he says. “There’s not a menu in Mobile with more variety. No other restaurant down here has what we serve.”
The Asian elation includes Gulf crab and cheese wantons, Pad Thai, and St. Michael Street traffic-stopping shrimp nachos. But entrees change daily.
For in Von’s Bistro, experimentation is part of the challenge and thrill of business. It is a business, coordinated with Paul, but orchestrated by Von, and her drive and passion, from Laos with love.
Emmett Burnett and Elizabeth Gelineau are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. He is based in Satsuma and she in Mobile.