Vietnamese restaurateur turns philanthropy into business

Among the countless street children Jimmy Pham has met over the decades, the one who comes to mind most often is a young girl whose mother slammed her head against a wall some 16 years ago.

The girl’s mother, who was beside her, had suggested she beg for money from Pham, who had become a kind of casual benefactor to the local children. When the girl refused to beg, her mother punished her with a beating.

The memory of that girl, and others like her, played a key role in the origin of KOTO, the restaurant chain Pham went on to found in 1999. KOTO uses its eateries to take young people off the street and train them in the service industry.

Pham, who as a baby fled Saigon for Australia as the Vietnam War was winding down, returned in 1996 as a travel agent. He was struck immediately by the poverty and says he spent his first few weeks buying meals for street children and giving them money.

Unlike when Pham started out, Vietnam now has a whole host of vocational charities that take the teach-them-to-fish approach. Instead of a handout, the organizations specialize in a teaching marketable skill – from baking brownies to tailoring trousers. The thinking is that they can pass these skills on to poor or disabled people, who then can support themselves.

But Pham says even this approach is no longer enough. “We’re not content with showing them how to fish anymore,” Pham, 40, said in an interview at KOTO’s restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. “We want to show them how to set up the fish shops and teach others to fish.”

The recruits live together for two years at a training center, but food service makes up just part of their lessons. They learn English and play soccer, but also take 36 workshops that cover everything from personal finance to sex education.

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