Refugee to Restaurant Owner
Ele Tran, owner of six restaurants in Savannah knows all too well how to overcome adversity. She was born in a war-torn country, lived in a refugee camp, and poured her life savings into her first restaurant before finding her well-earned success.
Today, Ele and the Chef, her husband Chef Sean, have created a portfolio of restaurants that have been delighting guests since 2001. It’s hard to believe she started her hospitality career as a busser at 16, but her story begins well before that.
RISING LIKE A PHOENIX
Just shortly after the Vietnam War ended, another conflict began in 1979 between China and Vietnam. That same year, a young family of
fishermen was blessed with a new baby girl, Ele. Fearing that the communist government would take away their way of life, the family fled in the dead of night aboard their fishing boat.
Out in international waters, their ship was raided by pirates four times before trying to dock in Thailand. After being denied entry and taking on the passengers of a sinking ship, the new crew of 50 strong headed to Indonesia.
“The people my family rescued told us that Indonesia would accept us if we crashed our boat on the shoreline,” said Tran. After they shipwrecked, the refugees were welcomed into a camp in the jungle of Indonesia, where they built their own place to live. “My mother cried every day,” she added.
For one year, the family lived there with young Ele hoping that they would get an opportunity to emigrate for a new chance at life. Finally, a refugee rescue service offered to help the family come to the U.S. With 6 months of English language courses, the whole family arrived in America ready to begin anew.
MOVING TO SAVANNAH
Ele and her husband Sean were living in Florida when Ele’s mother called from Savannah and said, “You should come start a restaurant here.” Ever since arriving in America, her parents had instilled in her a strong work ethic and an entrepreneurial spirit.
“Sean liked to cook, and we wanted to be closer to my mother, so we brought together $12,000 each to open Little Saigon on Whitemarsh Island.” With their first restaurant, they poured themselves into it, working non-stop.
TOURISM HELPED HER GROW
One restaurant success led to other restaurants and the demand for their food was strong. What started out as a restaurant group that primarily served the locals, it was Ele’s partnership with David Minkovitz, the CBT Commercial Real Estate Agent that helped her company tap into the tourism market.
The two of them found a location off Chippewa Square that was right in the heart of the historic district. Ele and the Chef opened Fire Street
Food in 2013 and served more and more visitors as their online reviews kept showing favorably.
They opened Ele Restaurant on Wilmington Island, which recently underwent renovations. The success of Ele and Fire led to the start of two more spots on Broughton Street, Chive and Flying Monk. Then, she moved to the Starland District with The Vault Kitchen + Market.
“We wouldn’t have expanded if it weren’t for the strength of tourism in Savannah,” added Tran. “The more tourism grows, the better we all are—more jobs, more options, better lives.”
Ele and the Chef are set to open a new restaurant on Ellis Square, named Little Duck Diner soon. They show no signs of slowing down in their investment into Savannah. And, their prosperity has been great for the jobs market. They hire more than 200 people between all their Savannah locations. While she may have started out as a misplaced refugee, she now feeds the masses with each restaurant from her diverse portfolio.
“I am so grateful to be doing what I love and living this out here in the United States as so many others have done after immigrating over the past centuries. The American dream came true for us with a lot of hard work and a fresh start. We are very grateful and remember this every single day.”
Started As /
Restaurant Group Owner