15 Inside the Monster Pho Phenomenon: Turning Kindness Into Red-Hot Merch and $2 Million in Revenue

Inside the Monster Pho Phenomenon: Turning Kindness Into Red-Hot Merch and $2 Million in Revenue
With equal parts care for his community and a knack to anticipate change, Tee Tran has built Monster Pho into a buzzy restaurant and brand that’s poised for even more exciting growth this year.
by Aja Evans, Keila Hill-Trawick Apr 23, 2024 — 7 min read
Inside the Monster Pho Phenomenon: Turning Kindness Into Red-Hot Merch and $2 Million in Revenue

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This article is for educational purposes and does not constitute legal, financial, or tax advice. For specific advice applicable to your business, please contact a professional.

Talking to Monster Pho founder Tee Tran is an infectious experience. His enthusiasm for his restaurant and his love for people are so genuine that you’ll feel compelled to book the first flight to Oakland to experience it for yourself. 

In 1989, two years after leaving Vietnam by boat and living in camps in Thailand and the Philippines, Tran arrived in the United States with his mother, aunt, and two of his brothers. “We didn’t have anything but the clothes on our backs,” Tran said. “For the first couple of days, we slept in the living room with no blanket. So my mom always makes sure we don’t forget where we came from.”

From that moment, Tran had an abiding belief in the goodness of people and a desire to take care of them — something that would eventually form part one of his blueprint for success at Monster Pho.

In 2012, with zero restaurant experience but inspired by love and admiration for his mother and the food she cooks, Tran rented a space two blocks from where he managed an Oakland car dealership, and after a lengthy build-out, Monster Pho opened for business on March 1, 2014.

Why trading dine-in for delivery before everyone else early on paid off in dividends 

Part two of that blueprint is Tran’s ability to anticipate change. With uncanny prescience, in 2020 he increased his digital presence and formed partnerships with delivery services such as DoorDash. And before California mandated closures, he halted dine-in and went online. Tran and his team ramped up their marketing and promotions to keep orders coming in. But they soon learned that the best marketing is, in fact, free.

How giving turned Monster Pho into a media sensation

The laundry list of initiatives Tran has founded began with giving free food to seniors during the shutdown and planting a mini community garden in front of Monster Pho.

Add to that free coffee for health care workers, coat drives, blanket drives, food deliveries for the elderly, and an after-school program providing food for kids, and it’s little wonder the media took notice. At least 10 different publications, including The New York Times, wrote about Monster Pho, and the Tamron Hall Show asked Tran to come on the air.

Tran’s commitment to helping people, paired with the unexpected publicity, has generated a revolving door of loyal customers and a reliable stream of new faces. “We’re doing $90,000, $100,000, or more a month and almost $2 million a year because people have come back and supported us,” Tran said.

Using Square Loans to fuel growth

Modern tech is making its mark on nearly every aspect of Monster Pho, including its point-of-sale system. But it was a bumpy ride. 

“I’d never been a restaurateur before. Everybody says, ‘POS system, POS system. That’s the way to go.’ You have to get this big, bulky thing that’s heavy and stays in one area. It’s expensive. It doesn’t move. It’s very inconvenient. I used one of those for years, and I hated it. But everything changed when the pandemic started,” he remembered.

“I said, ‘You know what? This is ridiculous. There has to be a better way.’ So we converted to Square, and we’re doing to-go, we’re just doing it on the iPad, and we’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’”

Switching to a flexible, integrated system has completely changed the way Tran runs Monster Pho — without denting his bank account. “The cost of using Square is literally, like, none,” he said. “It’s just the hardware, but after a few years, it’s paid for itself.”

But if there’s one thing that’s been truly transformative, it’s QR code ordering, which lets guests order piping-hot pho right from their tables. Orders fly straight to the kitchen, and in no time, they’re motoring gently to diners’ sides in the careful metal clutches of a robot.

Tran is effusive about what this new tech has done for Monster Pho and how it’s given him an opportunity to offer better service.

“The Square QR feature is the most amazing freaking thing ever,” he said. “When a customer walks in, we let them know to pick any open table they like. You have a QR code. All you need to do is scan, order, and pay directly through your phone.”

“We just have more opportunities to earn their business: increasing sales with easy tech and Square Loans. Tran also took advantage of a business loan1 from Square, which has given him money in the bank to grow Monster Pho however he sees fit.

With the additional resources and the power to control everything from inventory to payments to marketing in one place, sales have made a dramatic climb — nearly double.

“It goes back to convenience,” Tran said. “People can come in, or they can sit in their cars, and we can go to them. We just have more opportunities to earn their business.”

And business is booming. Lines snake out the door during the evenings and all weekend long, packed with customers either waiting for a table or getting ready to place a to-go order through the QR code near the entrance.

With increasing business comes a need to track sales data — and an even bigger need to make sense of it. Tran uses the reporting feature in the platform to test drinks, dishes, and appetizers and to monitor overall sales numbers. If an item doesn’t sell, he simply removes it from the menu. No guesswork, just confidence. “When you know the correct answer and you know the numbers and figures, you can say yes or no without being iffy,” he said.

Fueling growth and building brand equity

Featuring a custom-designed and extremely cute green “monster,” Tran’s merch includes hats, shirts, hoodies, and more. He uses Monster Pho as a merch laboratory: staff dons letterman jackets and trucker hats, and Tran measures demand according to customer reactions.

He sells everything in-store and offers online purchases through his custom Square website, which will soon house even more Monster Pho-branded products.

What’s in the cards for Monster Pho

2024 and beyond will see this sensation go truly nationwide as Tran launches an entirely new revenue stream: a range of ready-made, Monster Pho-branded products, including soups, broths, and pho.

“We have the brand, we have the logo, we have the quality of food. Now we’re doing the testing,” he said. “We’re going to do prepackaged beef, chicken, and veggie broth; we’re going to do pho. We’ll sell it here first in our own little supermarket, and my goal at the end of next year, hopefully, is to bring it out to Safeway — even Costco, Sprouts. In 2025, we’ll start to open more locations.”

Editor’s note: The following columns were first featured in the Square Banking newsletter. Aja Evans and Keila Hill-Trawick are not employees or consultants of Square and the views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and are not endorsed by Square.

Finance in Focus: How to hire great people — and help them thrive

Aja Evans.jpeg

Aja Evans is a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in financial therapy. She owns and operates a private practice in New York City.

Dear Aja,

I was trying to hire people with experience, and after the first year, I flipped my whole script around. Now I hire the nicest person. I’ll take them over anybody with years of experience, because you can’t buy personality. 

— Tee Tran, Monster Pho, Oakland, California

Dear Tee,

Personality is paramount in hospitality; you know you want your customers feeling good when they leave your restaurant. Soft skills like being kind, flexible, remaining calm under pressure, and being personable can be harder to teach and don’t always come with years of experience.

Different positions, like front of house versus back of house, may require different traits in your staff. Take a moment to identify the values you’re looking for. This can help you get the right people in and have a positive effect on your revenue — happy customers want to come back!

Knowing how to support your staff will help you, your business, and your people thrive.

Communicate openly. Regular all-staff meetings are a great way for everyone to get on the same page and to create a dialogue between you and your team.

Show your appreciation. When you see someone taking initiative or embodying your values, acknowledge their effort — even a small verbal affirmation can go a long way. 

Identify extra training. Offer resources like management courses or other training to keep employees growing. Sometimes that resource may be your time and mentorship.

As an avid food lover, I know I am far more content when problems arise if I have a server who cares. Brilliant pivot! Good for you!

Good With Numbers: Manage fluctuating costs with more confidence

Keila Hill.jpeg

Keila Hill-Trawick is founder and CEO of Little Fish Accounting, a boutique CPA firm dedicated to serving micro businesses through accounting and tax support.

Dear Keila,

Ingredient costs have skyrocketed. Usually, people just switch to the cheaper version to maintain [their] margins. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to compromise the quality of what we do. So, we have evaporating margins, and we need a margin so we can invest back into the business. As a business owner, I lose sleep over having to raise prices.” 

— Katie, donut shop owner, Portland, Oregon

Inflation is hitting everyone hard, and restaurants and food establishments seem to be experiencing it the worst. Fluctuating ingredient costs alone are a big stressor. One of the best ways to stay prepared for the ebbs and flows associated with your expenses is to track that information so you have historical data to look at. 

Your best preparation for managing rising expenses is data. Tracking and analyzing that information can help you make more strategic decisions about your next steps.

1All loans are issued by Square Financial Services, Inc., a Utah-Chartered Industrial Bank. Member FDIC. Actual fee depends upon payment card processing history, loan amount, and other eligibility factors. A minimum payment is required and you must repay your loan as specified in the loan terms. Loan eligibility is not guaranteed. All loans are subject to credit approval.


Aja Evans
Aja Evans, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who specializes in Financial Therapy. She owns and operates a private practice in New York City.
Keila Hill-Trawick
Keila Hill-Trawick is the Founder and CEO of Little Fish Accounting, a boutique CPA firm dedicated to serving micro businesses through accounting and tax support. Based out of Washington, D.C. by way of Atlanta, GA, Little Fish serves clients nationwide.

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