Nick and KV Bui didn’t even know what Buzzfeed was when the internet news organization and viral-video factory first contacted them about featuring their little Vietnamese noodle shop on the site. Two weeks later, the “world’s biggest bowl of pho” made its way around the internet, making mouths water for the giant combination of broth, meat, and noodles served at the tiny, ten-table shop in Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood. Within 15 minutes of the story going live, the shop was mobbed.
Dong Thap isn’t your average pho shop with a gimmick: it’s actually one of the only places in the city—and even the country—making fresh rice noodles in-house for their pho. The time-consuming, labor-intensive task is standard issue in the Vietnamese province of Dong Thap, where Nick’s family lives. When he decided to open a restaurant in Seattle, the noodles seemed like a good option—and a way to set his place apart from the hundreds of pho shops that abound in the city. The giant bowl was a marketing promotion that he dreamed up early on, never imagining the type of fame it would bring—and how hard it would be to manage the resulting business.
The shop opened in October 2015, and the Seattle Times food writer Bethany Jean Clement sussed it out immediately, telling of Nick’s noodle heritage and declaring that “Dining deals don’t come much better.” Under the “what to skip” heading of the same article, she panned the “Pho Super Bowl Challenge,” suggesting that while finishing the three liters of broth, four pounds of noodles, and four pounds of meat within 90 minutes would erase your $40 tab and get you a $100 reward, “win or lose, you’ll never want to see or smell a bowl of pho again, and what kind of life is that?”
But memories are short, and by February, Clement ran a piece about trying to complete the challenge with local chefs, causing the restaurant’s first rush. They hadn’t noticed much of an uptick in business after Clement’s original article, but after the Super Bowl one, Nick complained “she didn’t warn us!”
They scrambled to staff up to meet demand—KV, after 16 years as a nurse, quit her job to help—and also took the challenge down a notch: the bowl is now just three pounds each of noodles and meat, along with the three liters of broth.
The crowd was just a preview of what was to come. After Buzzfeed contacted Dong Thap, the Buis’s pre-teens filled them in on what it was. But they didn’t do much, didn’t really believe that a video would make much of a difference.
How wrong they were, they laugh now. The 90-second video, set to music and captioned, shows KV making the noodles, slicing the meat, and putting together one of the giant bowls, complete with steamy, food-pornish shots. Within minutes of it going live, the crowds started to stream in.
The customers were a little different than their usual: a little younger, many from out of state, and one couple even flew in from Boston just to try the meal. Overwhelmed by the hordes, the staff called all their family members, anyone who knew the program, to help. The fresh noodles complicated things, because nobody else in town makes pho with them—they couldn’t just grab a pho cook from another restaurant. They increased noodle production four times over, quickly adapting so they could produce noodles during the day, while the kitchen was serving, so that Nick wasn’t stuck after hours making noodles until four or five in the morning. Even so, they struggled to keep up with the demand, often running out of noodles or racking up 30-minute waits for tables and 45-minute waits for food once seated.
Today, four months and about 50 million video views later, they’ve doubled their staff and settled into the new routine. After the Seattle Times article, the crowds finally ebbed after a month. This time, it shows no signs of slowing down. Buzzfeed told them to expect at least six months of the increased interest, but Nick and KV hope to parlay their moment of internet fame into ongoing enthusiasm for what they really do: make fantastic fresh noodles.
They’ve made a few changes to convert the Super Bowl customer into return business, including allowing people not participating in the challenge to split the giant bowl—essentially allowing people to order it solely for the novelty factor. While challengers still need to call ahead and make an appointment, the Super Bowl is served to share whenever.
They are careful to train their service staff to explain the fresh noodles to each customer, not only to remind people why the pho here is better than elsewhere, but also for the chance to explain why the pho costs a little bit more and takes a bit longer here than the other half-dozen spots within two blocks. “Sometimes it feels like a waste,” the Buis say of people coming in only for the giant bowl, but when they explain the fresh noodles, customers are surprised and often see the difference.
Looking back, they say that the worst part about it is that they don’t see their kids as much—they’ve been too busy with the restaurant. Also, KV laughs, pointing at her husband and remarking on how much time they’ve spent in the kitchen, “I have to see him all the time, 24/7!” But when it comes down to it, KV and Nick both say that, given the chance to do it all over, they wouldn’t change a thing or even heed the warnings more. “We liked the surprise!”