Nhi Tran, entrepreneur. Illustration: Sam Hester

Nhi Tran: How to open a bar in a pandemic

Adapting to bring a little bright light’ to the community.

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To close out 2020, we're bringing you 20 stories from an extraordinary year. Doctors. Teachers. Entrepreneurs. Activists. These are the stories of ordinary Albertans who were changed by circumstances beyond their control—and what they did to make their worlds, and ours, a little better.



Early in 2020, Nhi Tran’s dream of opening a restaurant was finally coming together. In February the space was ready and she and her partners were planning to open soon.

Growing up in a family of restaurateurs, Tran had been dreaming up a restaurant of her own for years. In September 2018, when her parents closed down their Calgary-based, family-run restaurant, Orchid Room, Tran saw it as an opportunity to move forward with another venture and bring her family with her.

“When they let go of the business, we figured it was kind of perfect timing. We had always wanted my mom and my aunt to be in the kitchen,” Tran said.

She partnered up with her fiancé, sister and brother-in-law. Their passion for cocktails and an aspiration to share the Vietnamese culture was coming to fruition at their new bar, Paper Lantern.

Then, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

It was like a hit to everybody’s mental stability.

Nhi Tran

“There was so much going on that the business was just one aspect of it,” Tran said of their reaction. “It was like a hit to everybody's mental stability.”

Tran and her partners didn’t want to do anything to put their family or the public in danger, so they held off on hiring staff due to the unpredictable state of, well, everything.

Relying mostly on family to run the business, they quickly pivoted in March.

While waiting to hear more about restrictions, and seeing how other restaurants and bars were adapting, they decided to create affordable take-home cocktail kits to introduce the community to their business.

The cocktail kits were a hit, selling out nearly every weekend.

“We didn't make very much money off those kits in reality,” Tran said. “It was more so people could have a little bright light in the situation—like basically taking a vacation at home.”

We’ve learned firsthand how many owners of other bars or industry staff are willing to help.

Nhi Tran

And their strategy worked. Paper Lantern made connections in the community, and the bar is now open three days a week with limited seating. Fridays and Saturdays are booked solid.

While this is encouraging news, there is still uncertainty for many small businesses as we wait to see how the pandemic continues to affect them, their owners and their families.

Tran encourages small business owners to lean on each other.

“The business community is smaller than people realize,” she said. “We've learned firsthand how many owners of other bars or industry staff are willing to help. If you have a question, someone will be there to answer it for you.”

Déjà Leonard is a Calgary-based writer who covers business, social issues and the outdoors.

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