The secret of the La family's Houston restaurant empire is work, work, work

Don't try telling Tri La that he should stop and smell the roses. This Vietnamese restauranteur, whose family owns the hugely popular Kim Son chain in Houston, works 14 hours a day, six days a week, and didn't take a holiday last year. Does that bother him? Not in the least, he claims. In fact, he couldn't be happier. La actually dreads Sundays. "When I'm not working," he says, "I get bored."

Oh, he does have a few complains. He consumes more Mylanta than he should and speaks of a time when he'll have nothing else to do but play golf. But ask him when that time is likely to come, and the 32-year old La becomes rather evasive. When, after lunching with him one day, I suggested that we take in a movie, he looked downright shocked. You would think that I'd proposed robbing a bank.

La's success story is one that even a Rockefeller might envy. In the 16 years since he and his family arrived in Houston, after fleeing Vietnam, they were able to transform a hole-in-the-wall eatery into something of an empire. Today, the Las own three full-service restaurants and five food-court outlets; together, the family generated revenues in excess of $5 million last year. Not bad for nine people - La, his parents, five brothers, and a sister - who left their homeland with little more than a change of clothes.

And they haven't finished yet. Another Houston restaurant opens this month, and there are plans in the works for branches in Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas. Tri La, the family's designated spokesperson, reports that he also has his eye on California and New Orleans. "Ten years ago," he says, "I wouldn't have dared to expand."