Only five years ago, Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate Hai Tran and his family opened their first restaurant in this country. The Tran family already had a couple of restaurants and other businesses in Vietnam, but now they were ready to give it a shot in America.
Saigon Pho & Café, located at 7237 Madison St. in Forest Park, was their first venture. The permitting and licensing needed to open the restaurant was a first for the family — Tran explained that in his native Vietnam, such legal requirements were practically nonexistent.
“In Vietnam it’s much easier,” he said. “You put up the sign and you’re ready to go.”
When the lease for the Forest Park location expired, though, they decided to relocate Saigon Pho to the up-and-coming restaurant scene in Oak Park, Tran explained. The new Saigon Pho opened at 726 Lake St. earlier this year.
High-rise residential buildings going up in the downtown area and the confluence of new restaurants popping up in and around the downtown area attracted them to the location, Tran said.
“It’s not just because Oak Park is a growing town but the location is very diverse,” he said, noting that the strip along Lake Street offers a variety of cuisines, including sushi, Greek and Thai, among others. “We wanted to be in a place where people go out and can get whatever they want.”
It wasn’t so long ago that restaurants were less common in Oak Park — the Madison Street strip in Forest Park was the place to go if you wanted to dine out. But Forest Park eateries opening new or second locations in Oak Park is not limited to the Trans.
The owner of Novo, located on the same block as Saigon Pho at 734 Lake St., formerly operated House Red Vinoteca in downtown Forest Park.
Owner Neb Mrvaljevic said he began thinking of relocating to Oak Park because the Madison business district was “more of a bar scene” than a restaurant scene.
“I was approached by both [Oak Park Mayor] Anan [Abu-Taleb] and Viktor Schrader [Oak Park Economic Development Corporation], and I told them I know Oak Park has a lot of tough rules [for opening a business], but they said everything has changed,” he recalled. “It was true. I think I did everything in four months.”
Oak Park-based commercial realtor David King, of David King & Associates, located both Saigon Pho and Novo at their current locations, along with Forest Park-based Scratch Kitchen and Lounge, which announced last month that it will be opening a second location roughly twice the size of its current location, at 733 Lake St. later this year. Saigon Pho’s move also increased its dining room seating capacity.
King said the deals actually show the strength of Forest Park’s Madison Street business district. “Opening a second location [for Scratch] was only possible due to their presence on Madison Street,” he said.
“Neb’s lease expired and was replaced by the new upscale Heritage Restaurant; there was no existing restaurant space in Forest Park for Saigon Pho to expand to,” King said. “But quite honestly, I could not have closed these deals without the welcoming atmosphere in Oak Park.”
Restaurant owners said the word is out about Oak Park Village Hall streamlining its permitting and licensing process. That, combined with large-scale developments being completed, is making restaurateurs take a closer look at the village, they say.
Tammie Grossman, Oak Park’s director of Development Customer Services, said it’s no accident that business owners are finding it easier to set up shop in the village.
A new software system at village hall, which connects building inspectors, licensing, the Oak Park Fire Department and others, has made the process much more user-friendly. Business owners can now go online to see the status of their permits and applications, Grossman said.
The village also consolidated the building, building services, planning and housing departments into the Department of Development Customer Services in 2014, fostering greater communication between the four departments, Grossman said.
“I think it’s all about the ability to provide quick, effective communication and work through problems, and that’s the attitude we have at village hall,” she said, “and it is showing with restaurateurs coming in and finding it’s a different experience to work with us.”
Tran said his experience was easier opening the second Saigon Pho, in part because it was his second time going through the process but also because of the help he received from the village.
“A lot of people say, ‘It’s hard in Oak Park to get a license,’ but it was a breeze for us,” he said.