By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Everybody has that 'oh shit' moment," Bergus says. "For me, that 'oh shit' was September 11." Aside from the shock and horror of the day, Bergus, who was grounded in San Francisco for a week, had to face the very real possibility that her upscale steak house might be doomed before it could begin. When they finally got back, they sifted through a rich supply of résumés, staffed the restaurant and quietly opened in early November. "When we first opened, you could hear crickets," she remembers. "Just not a lot of people going out to dinner, not a lot of people spending money. Coming from the mind-set we had before, and the really beefy times in this area right before that, to after was certainly a huge shift in your thinking."
Fearing the restaurant might go down the drain, Bergus hit the pavement, visiting law firms, local corporations and hotels, letting word of mouth fill the seats. By February 2002 she was working with light but steady business. Today Perry's is profitable, Esping says, with year-to-date revenues up 30 percent. "I have yet to exist in stable economic times," Bergus says. "So what that says to me is I'm doing something right."
When they finally did escape, Chen wondered at the time if it was worth it. "It was horrible," he says. "Five days and five nights on the ocean in this small rotten boat. There were 52 people on my boat. The first day everyone was seasick." There was no food, Chen says. But each passenger received a capful of water per day dispensed from a 5-gallon jug. Their boat was sacked three times by pirates.
After several days at sea, Chen and his family spent nine months in refugee camps before settling in the United States, where he worked in a factory earning $3.35 an hour while training in heating and air-conditioning repair in an adult training program. Twenty years later, Chen is a successful real estate investor and businessman. His company, TransAir Inc., installs heating, air conditioning and refrigeration systems in restaurants and other businesses.
When Chen met Khanh Dao, he says he was dazzled by her bold business imagination. He was also drawn to her because they shared similar struggles. Dao, who didn't return calls seeking comment for this article, was also a refugee from Vietnam, escaping with her family when she was 5 years old just as the South Vietnamese government collapsed and Saigon fell to communist forces. Her family's escape was fraught with urgency as her parents worked for the South Vietnamese government and were at risk of arrest and execution. They, too, made their way onto a boat, but it lost power on the high seas. They would have been doomed had they not drifted into the path of a U.S. naval vessel. Her family, too, sifted through refugee camps before making their way to the United States, where they eked out a living.
In an interview with the Dallas Observer in summer 2000, just before she opened Steel, Dao discussed the path she followed to launch one of the most successful Dallas restaurants in recent memory. At an early age, Dao says, she discovered she had a knack for buying and selling cars with prestigious nameplates. "Myself being a woman, I always found myself in male businesses," she said. "It was really tough how guys gang up on you."
This knack eventually landed her a position at Park Place Motorcars selling Porsches. It was there that she met Dallas media mogul Scott Ginsburg. She became involved with Ginsburg and in August 1997 moved in with him. Over the next two years, Dao claims, she played a crucial role in the development of Ginsburg's businesses and investment portfolio, including the Porsche store, his investments in Broadcast.com and Coolcast.com (which reaped him millions, according to her claims in court documents) and his high-end restaurant Voltaire. "It was my concept, my project," she said of the restaurant.
By April 1999, Dao's relationship with Ginsburg had soured, and by June of that year, Dao says in court documents, she agreed to exit the Porsche store and Voltaire in exchange for economic support for her and her family, plus start-up capital for her new venture totaling $5 million.
But in December 1999, Ginsburg slapped Dao with a lawsuit, claiming that she made unauthorized charges on his credit cards and that he loaned her money, which she never repaid. Dao countersued, claiming she never was paid the $5 million Ginsburg promised her after she exited his businesses. Dao further claimed that she and Ginsburg had a common-law marriage, and she sued to dissolve the relationship, seeking $45 million in damages. Ginsburg denied Dao's claims they had a common-law marriage, and in December 2000, a judge threw out their claims after the two had settled their dispute under undisclosed terms.