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Cover Guy: Phil Bui

When this month’s cover model, Phil Bui, decided to open a restaurant in the heart of West Hollywood, his family wasn’t exactly thrilled. After all, the software engineer, who was pulling in a six-figure salary from a defense company, knew more about computer servers than he did about food servers. “They thought I’d fail because I didn’t have experience or know anything about the restaurant business at all,” he says. Still, he really liked the idea of starting his own business. “I thought West Hollywood needed some nice Vietnamese food,” explains Phil, the son of Vietnamese parents. So he found a vacant restaurant space on Santa Monica Boulevard and planned to market his mother country’s naturally healthy cuisine to body-obsessed West Hollywood.

If anything, Phil comes by his entrepreneurial spirit honestly. His mother, now retired, was an astute businesswoman who owned hair salons across Southern California. But she didn’t want her son to follow in her footsteps. “In the Asian culture, the family always pushes you to be the best,” explains thirtysomething Phil, who, like his four older sisters, was urged to pursue a career in the medical field. He’d initially been on track to become a pharmacist, studying biochemistry at the University of California, Irvine. During his third year, he changed his major to computer science, setting back his studies another two and a half years.

During his college years, Phil got real-world software-engineering experience at a credit company before moving on to defense. He also dabbled in modeling, doing work for Crunch and the Long Beach Convention Center. Even though he was gainfully employed, Phil wanted more. “I like a challenge,” he says. “I wanted the challenge of running my own business.”

So, even without his family’s blessing, Phil made a deal with himself that his restaurant venture would be a success. He admits now that he underestimated what it takes to be successful in business, thinking he’d continue working full time while allowing his restaurant to run on its own.

It didn’t quite work out that way.
He’d put in a full day at the defense company. Then, when most of his colleagues were heading home to their families, Phil commuted to West Hollywood to run his restaurant into the late hours of the night. “I was struggling,” he admits. “Two jobs were just killing me.” He kept up the breakneck schedule for two years until he realized he couldn’t do it anymore. “All my friends were saying, ‘Phil, I don’t know how you can handle it!’” he says. “They’d call me to go out, but I’d have to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t go. I’m just too tired.’”

Recently, Phil left behind the security of his 9-to-5 job to run his restaurant full time, a bittersweet move for the software engineer, who says he loved his computer job. His restaurant—at first named UnPhoGettable, but now called PhoNomenal due to a copyright issue—has managed to survive two years despite the economy’s sluggishness.

Read more about Phil in the June/July double issue of Instinct—out now!