Picture of Truc Le and Phoebe Dao

Truc Le and Phoebe Dau

Bachelor of Business (2013); Masters of Management (2014)

Culinary creators and epicurean entrepreneurs

Crafting a recipe for success

For Truc Le and Phoebe Dau, building a life and a business in Australia has been a recipe for success.

Located just a stone’s throw from the Sydney’s Royal Randwick Racecourse, a picturesque café known as Eggshellent has become a favourite among locals. Homely wood panels adorn the walls and benches, which are painted with a subtle eggshell motif. An impressive stone pizza oven takes pride of place in the open kitchen.

One would never guess that neither of its owners, UTS graduates Truc Le and Phoebe Dau, have a background in hospitality. But by pooling their talents and resources, the husband-and-wife team turned this café into a symbol of their struggle to make a life for themselves in Australia.

Originally from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Le came to Australia to undertake a Bachelor of Business at UTS. Phoebe who was completing a degree in Chinese linguistics at the time, followed soon after and enrolled in a Masters of Management at UTS.

English language skills were an immediate issue, and they enrolled in a ten-week course at UTS Insearch. “We didn’t speak any English at first,” recalls Le. “In Vietnam, we were taught about grammar and how to form sentences, but we were never taught how to speak.”

“Studying here is very different from studying in Vietnam,” adds Phoebe. “In Vietnam, you’re expected to learn everything by heart. If there was something you didn’t understand, the teacher is always too far away to reach. I still remember my first class in Australia. I cried because I didn’t really understand what I was learning, but the lecturer gave me very helpful instructions and showed me how to study.”

The need to pay university fees meant that both Le and Phoebe had to take up part-time work – with Le working as a chef in one restaurant and Phoebe as a barista and kitchen hand at another. That’s when they discovered their shared passion for hospitality.

“Whenever I brought out a coffee with a nice picture on it, or a dish of nice food, it made people happy. I made people happy all day,” says Phoebe. “It also helped me learn more about the Australian culture and I made many new friends.”

In 2014, when the owner of the café Phoebe worked at asked if they’d be interested in taking over the business under a sublease, they leapt at the opportunity.

“Study hard. Play hard. And make friends with the locals – they will help you explore the country and the culture.”

“We decided to take the business, but I remember we didn’t even have enough change for the till,” recalls Le. “We had to borrow it from the owner and pay it back with the rent.”

It didn’t make sense to everyone at first. “I remember someone kept telling me that accounting and finance won’t be helpful in the hospitality industry,” says Le. “But it was super helpful. Accounting showed me how to manage everything, especially what’s necessary to put into the business and how to maximise returns. I don’t even need an accountant!”

And they made a great team. Together with the skills that Phoebe acquired during her degree in event management, they slowly turned the café into their own and reinvested every spare dollar they made into the business.

Their plans took an unexpected turn when Phoebe fell pregnant with their first child, and were then told two months in that their baby may have Down syndrome.

“We weren’t planning on it. Everything was upside down. Our families couldn’t support us here. I just wanted to go back to Vietnam,” Phoebe confesses. “But what’s the point of being rich and successful if it means having to giving up your child?”

Despite the challenges it posed to their business, their finances, and even the possibility of having to return to Vietnam, Le and Phoebe decided to have the baby. A week later, further tests found they weren’t at risk of Down syndrome. Within five months, Le was ably running the business himself, and Phoebe gave birth to a healthy boy.

“After that day, we knew that nothing could stop us,” Phoebe reflects. “We knew what we wanted and what we’re striving for.”

The pair has since purchased a second café in Sydney’s Martin Place, just opposite NSW Parliament House.

Noah, their son, now aged three, has completely changed their hopes for life in Australia.

“We’ve been here for nine years now. Everyone here is like family,” adds Le.

“When you have a child, your thinking totally changes,” says Phoebe. “We didn’t plan to stay here at first. But after Noah was born, I thought about the education and the experiences I’ve had in Australia, and I realised I want him to be able to enjoy it too.”

They are now awaiting the outcome of a 457 Visa application, which will allow them to remain in Australia.

Until then, Le and Phoebe plan to continue their Australian journey and show Noah all that they’ve learned here: “Study hard. Play hard. And make friends with the locals – they will help you explore the country and the culture.”

Story and photography by Kevin Cheung

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