After Years of Leasing, Owner Realizes Benefits of Building Ownership

Success Story
December 17, 2019

Thi Huynh became a U.S. citizen when he was 19. At that point – many years before he became known for his phở – and ready for a new beginning, he agreed to an offer to change his name on his new documents.

Others chose easy Americanized names, like Michael, Peter and Chris. But Thi, who accompanied his family from Vietnam to the U.S., opened his mouth and said the “first thing that popped into my head.” 


The first movie the teen saw when he arrived in the U.S. starred John Wayne, the very image of the quintessential American cowboy. Duke’s not even sure which movie it was. Yet he chose the actor’s famous nickname and it stuck.

Two decades later,  Duke has followed another quintessential American path, that of the immigrant who chooses small business ownership as his path to success. He opened his small family restaurant, Phở Ca Dao & Grill, specializing in the soup of his native Vietnam, in 2001. He since has expanded to add eateries in communities throughout San Diego County. 

Lending by CDC Small Business Finance helped make this dream possible, as Duke took his next steps. He purchased a building in Poway, a suburb of San Diego, so he could own, rather than lease space for the first time. His latest restaurant opened almost two years ago. 

CDC Small Business Finance Restaurants Phở

Duke Huynh, owner of Phở Ca Dao, with Merri Adams of CDC Small Business Finance.

Shifting into ownership with SBA 504

To transition away from leasing, Duke needed help. His banker referred him to CDC and senior loan officer Merri Adams, who guided him through the process to obtain an SBA 504 loan

The loan is designed to support small business owners as they make large capital investments, such as commercial real estate or major machinery. Some business owners even benefit from taking out multiple SBA 504 loans. As Duke continues to grow, the SBA 504 remains an option as he considers strategies for expanding to other sites.

Merri, said Duke, is “very detailed,” and eased the way.

“Working with her is a joy,” he said. “She really, really helped us out and helped us get through the process.”

Merri sees her role as part teacher and part guide – to help the client see the long-term advantages of the SBA 504 loan, while also establishing trust. Building that, she said, “is a huge part of what I do.”

With money in hand, and site secured, Duke set about applying his many years of knowledge to just how he wanted his restaurant to look and operate. “No shortcuts,” as he put it. That commitment has paid off. This year, Pho Ca Dao received the San Diego Magazine Readers’ Pick for best phở.

Duke’s restaurant is bright and airy with a wall of windows to one side and paintings arrayed under small spotlights on the opposite wall. He commissioned the art from his homeland so he could offer more than a taste of Vietnam in his little corner of Poway. 

CDC Small Business Finance Restaurants Phở

(Top) The process of preparing phở. First, in huge stock pots, where the cooks add seasoning. (Bottom) Ladling the broth into bowls before the phở is ready to be served.

Expanding Ph Ca Dao

The kitchen bustles, lined with enormous stock pots so those preparing phở and other specialities can easily ladle in the broth to finish the dishes. When they are ready, someone yells, “Hot soup!” as a warning to make way as servers approach to grab the trays.

Duke started the restaurant with his brother, who had been working in kitchens for 10 years. They chose a space in City Heights, a diverse community in central San Diego. It took years for them to realize that if they wanted things to operate more smoothly, they had to invest more money in Phở Ca Dao.

“As immigrants like us, we tend to work very hard, (and) when you work hard, usually you focus on working. You don’t see what’s happening outside, you just focus,” he recalled.

“After that many years, the business was growing, but growing slowly, so we realized that we have to apply and adapt with new technologies (and) new cooking methods,” he said. “(The) only way to do that is to invest in better equipment. So it took us a good six years to figure that out.”

Real estate ownership ends rent woes

After that eureka moment, things began to change and the vision for Phở Ca Dao expanded to include new sites. After years of leasing, though, Duke realized how beneficial purchasing a property might be. He could better predict his operating costs with the fixed expense of a commercial real estate payment rather than the ups and downs of a lease.

“(Now) we don’t have to worry about our rent being increased,” Duke said. “As a business owner, paying rent is the No. 1 headache.”

Another bonus? He had more leeway to shape his own space, both to maximize efficiencies and ensure that his employees move as quickly as possible in order to best serve customers.

“This is like my baby,” he said outside his kitchen in Poway. “This is my first building.”

Another plus to Ph Ca Dao

One side benefit of the restaurant business is Duke’s ability to create jobs for immigrants like his younger self. He struggled with English throughout high school and community college in San Diego, which limited his job prospects.

He eventually graduated from San Diego State University with an accounting degree, and now his business not only offers jobs to other immigrants, it inspires them. Several former employees have struck out on their own, opening their own restaurants. Yet they respected him enough to first inform him of their ambitions. He calls generating these opportunities “one of my joys.”

“Now I look back, I’m very happy, very thankful for being in this country,” Duke said. “It’s truly a land of opportunity. You need to work hard, (but) when you work hard and you have the right set of mind, you will achieve what you want.”

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CDC Small Business Finance is the No. 1 SBA 504 lender in the nation and a trusted, award-winning nonprofit that’s committed to your business success. We offer long-term, fixed rate financing for your building, major equipment or land purchases. Tell our loan experts about your business, and they’ll work to match you with a financing plan that best suits you. Let’s talk! Reach us at or (619) 243-8667.