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5 days on a boat, 7 years in a refugee camp. How this Fuel America owner found motivation in a dishwashing job

Tan Du immigrated to the United States from Vietnam on May 1, 1998. The next day, he walked into a restaurant in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. The owner’s words of motivation changed his life.


Head shot of Tan Du, owner of Fuel America.
Tan Du is the owner of the new Fuel America in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex on Northeastern’s Boston campus. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

On May 1, 1998, Tan Du immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. He was 18 years old, spoke only broken English and had no friends or source of income.

The next day, he walked into the former Bangkok City restaurant on John Fitch Highway in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. After a brief interview, the owner offered him a job. 

The owner told Du that he would pay him to wash dishes under a few conditions — he work hard, be on time and be polite to the customers.

He also offered Du some words of motivation that would change his life.

He told Du that he should not settle for being paid an hourly minimum wage. And that he should open his own restaurant someday.

Open his own restaurant?

“The owner said, ‘Watch the way I run my restaurant,’” Du says. “‘If you do this and that, learn and work hard, you can open your own restaurant.’”

Twenty-five years later, that restaurant is Fuel America, located inside the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex on Northeastern University’s Boston campus.

Hands hold a small pile of roasted coffee beans.
In addition to all things java made from their own coffee beans, Fuel serves all-day breakfast, sandwiches, smoothies, acai bowls and salads. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Du opened his new coffeehouse last month and a grand opening was held on Nov. 2.

In addition to all things java, Fuel serves all-day breakfast, sandwiches, smoothies, acai bowls and salads.

Du wishes his first boss could see him now.

“I never forgot what he told me all those years ago,” he says. “And look, here I am. I’m the owner of a restaurant just like he said I could be.”

Du says he became interested in purchasing a Fuel franchise after being a regular customer at the Fuel on Front Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, and learning about the company’s story.

The story is much like his own, he says.

Fuel, Du says, celebrates diversity, pride, grit, determination and the country’s “can-do attitude.” 

The food and drink, he says, is a noticeable step up from your one-on-every-corner Dunkin’ and Starbucks. Everything is made fresh when ordered. The beans are roasted daily in Worcester. Du recently purchased that franchise, as well as the location on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.

“It’s all about quality,” he says.

To understand Du’s journey from recent immigrant and dishwasher to restaurant owner, you must start at the beginning — on a boat in the South China Sea.

In the decades after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, millions attempted to flee the country’s new Communist rule. Du was one of those people.

Now 42, he was 9 when he boarded a small wooden boat with his mother, two sisters and 31 strangers in 1989. After five long days in the ocean, traveling over 800 miles, their vessel washed ashore on Bidong Island off the northeast coast of Malaysia.

That’s where Du and his family called home for seven years — two years in an overcrowded refugee camp on Bidong and another five in a smaller camp in Sungai Besi, just outside Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

In 1996, the refugee camps were closed and Du and his family were forced by the government to return to Vietnam where Du completed two years of high school. He made the best of a bad situation, he says.

“They didn’t have electricity when I left, but they had it when I returned,” Du says.

In 1998, Du’s family legally immigrated to the United States under a last-chance Clinton-era refugee program called the Resettlement Opportunity for Vietnamese Returnees. He enrolled at Fitchburg High School in Central Massachusetts.

Du credits his high school English teacher and guidance counselor with teaching him how to read and write. He would often stay after school and read library books with them.

“High school is much different here than in Vietnam,” Du says. “Teachers here want to prove to you that you can do it. You can do it! It’s not like all countries. In other countries, you’re on your own.”

The interior of Fuel America Cafe in the Mercantile Center in Worcester, Massachusetts.
The interior of the Fuel America in Worcester, Massachusetts, where the coffee beans are roasted. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Du says he’s still learning every day.

“English is my passion,” he says. 

After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, but the four-hour round-trip commute from his aunt’s house didn’t allow him to earn enough money to pay for school. Working odd construction jobs wasn’t paying the bills.

That’s when a friend invited him to eat lunch in Boston, where the friend was working as a dealer in a casino on a cruise ship. Du left that lunch inspired. He drove directly to Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut, and applied for a job. 

For four months, Du trained for four hours a day, five days a week to become a dealer. At the same time, he completed a cosmetology program.

Soon after landing a full-time job at the casino, he saved up enough money to purchase his first business, a nail salon in Wallingford, Connecticut. That was Jan. 7, 2000.

Du is very good with dates.

“They are milestones in my life,” he says.

For the next five years, Du worked at his nail salon from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. He then drove the hour home and a took a bus to the casino, where he dealt cards from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. 

He slept from 6 to 9 a.m.

Three hours of sleep, six days a week, for five years.

“It didn’t matter,” Du says. “I had achieved the American dream.”

He wasn’t getting rich, though. In fact, he was broke, using his words. 

Instead of saving his money, he was sending most of it back to Vietnam to help his grandmother support her 12 brothers and sisters, and their families.

Vietnamese people, he says, are expected to help their aging relatives when they can’t help themselves.

“I didn’t have a dollar for myself,” Du says. “But that’s OK because I was supporting my family. That was my responsibility.”

Fast-forward to the present.

In addition to the Fuel America coffeehouses, Du owns a nail salon at the Mall at Whitney Fields in Leominster. That’s where he met his wife. The couple lives in Holden, Massachusetts, with their two children.

Du also manages several rental properties in the Worcester area and works as an interpreter and translator. He’s also an amateur photographer.

Most days, however, he can be found in ISEC, a smile on his face, a hot cup of coffee, smoothie or pastry in his outstretched right hand.

“Not bad for someone who came to America with nothing,” Du says. “I’m proof that if you work hard and follow your dreams, you can do whatever you want in life.”

David Nordman is executive editor of Northeastern Global News. Meghan Donovan and Mark Conti contributed to this story.