When Supporting a Family Means Running Two Businesses

When her parents became ill, Ericka Trinh took over her mom’s St. Paul beauty salon and started a bakery business on the side. She doesn’t sleep.

Ericka Tranh and her mother, whose St. Paul hair salon she took over at a time of family crisis. Tranh also started a bakery catering business to keep her family afloat.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
July 31, 2014, 6:39 a.m.

This pro­file is part of a Next Amer­ica series on the ex­per­i­ences of minor­ity small-busi­ness own­ers in the United States.

From 9:00 in the morn­ing un­til 6:00 at night most days, Er­icka Trinh can be found cut­ting hair, set­ting perms, man­i­cur­ing nails, and wax­ing limbs at her beauty salon in St. Paul, Minn. In the even­ings, she heads to Min­neapol­is and starts work on her second busi­ness. “Sleep­ing is not a big thing that I do,” Trinh jokes. She might stay up all night bak­ing taro-flavored cup­cakes or drap­ing fond­ant over wed­ding cakes.

Trinh, 33, en­joys styl­ing hair. She also en­joys bak­ing. But she’s not run­ning two busi­nesses for fun; she’s do­ing it for fin­an­cial se­cur­ity. “I star­ted right after my mom got bet­ter from can­cer,” Trinh says of her bakery. “That was kind of a wake-up call: you can’t just ride on the money you make now, be­cause it’s just enough for you, and if something were to hap­pen to the fam­ily again, I don’t know how we’d sur­vive.”

Trinh’s par­ents were Vi­et­namese refugees. They met in St. Paul in the late 1970s. Her dad worked as a lab tech­ni­cian at a phar­ma­ceut­ic­al com­pany, and her mom, Anh, owned and op­er­ated a beauty salon, called Anh’s Hair­styl­ists. The Trinhs bought an old house in St. Paul’s Fro­g­town neigh­bor­hood, tore it down, and re­placed it with a two-story clap­board build­ing. The salon took up the ground floor, and the fam­ily lived up­stairs.

Fro­g­town has al­ways been a work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood, with a large im­mig­rant pop­u­la­tion. Anh’s Hair­styl­ists looks out onto on Uni­versity Av­en­ue, the neigh­bor­hood’s main com­mer­cial street. Trinh and her two young­er sib­lings grew up do­ing chores in the salon, fold­ing tow­els, sweep­ing the floor, and tak­ing out perm rods. The salon stayed small, but grew a loy­al cli­en­tele.

Trinh learned to perm hair by the time she was 12, and to cut hair by the time she turned 16. She left home at 19 to earn a bach­el­or’s de­gree in com­puter an­im­a­tion from the Min­nesota School of Busi­ness, a for-profit in­sti­tu­tion. Shortly after she gradu­ated, her dad had a stroke. Trinh came home. Her mom had to care for her dad, and couldn’t spend as much time in the salon. Then her mom was dia­gnosed with can­cer. Then the glob­al eco­nomy col­lapsed.

“I find that whatever chal­lenge comes up, I just kind of deal with it. I don’t really think about how hard it was,” Trinh says. But still, for about three years, as her mom battled can­cer, Trinh was the only per­son work­ing at Anh’s Hair­styl­ists. She was also try­ing to look after her par­ents, as well as her young­er sis­ter, who has a men­tal dis­ab­il­ity.

For­tu­nately, Trinh’s mom re­covered, and the salon sur­vived the re­ces­sion, thanks in part to its low prices. “People who used to spend $50 to $60 on a hair­cut would start com­ing to me for a $15 hair­cut,” Trinh says. She took over as own­er of the salon about two years ago. Her mom works part time, her sis­ter helps out, and her cous­in plans to join the team after beauty school.

In 2011, Trinh star­ted Sil­hou­ette Bakery,a ca­ter­ing busi­ness, as an ex­tra source of in­come. She rents com­mer­cial kit­chen space in the Midtown Glob­al Mar­ket, a small-busi­ness in­cub­at­or in Min­neapol­is, and bakes desserts for birth­day parties, wed­dings, and oth­er cel­eb­ra­tions.

“I do fu­sion fla­vors,” Trinh says. Her elab­or­ate cre­ations — like a two-tiered cake shaped like a castle — look like they be­long on a cook­ing show. Her young­er broth­er, who has a culin­ary arts de­gree, is her busi­ness part­ner, and her boy­friend works with them. Re­cently, Trinh’s par­ents gave her an­oth­er prop­erty they owned, a du­plex next door to the salon, which Trinh plans to re­mod­el in­to a brick-and-mor­tar bakery store­front.

Fro­g­town has be­come one of the most di­verse neigh­bor­hoods in the Twin Cit­ies. It’s home to im­mig­rants from South­east Asia, Africa, and Lat­in Amer­ica, and is dot­ted with small busi­nesses from noodle shops to med­ic­al prac­tices. It’s also be­nefited from pub­lic in­vest­ment: earli­er this sum­mer, a gleam­ing new light-rail line star­ted glid­ing past the front door of Trinh’s salon.

To cap­it­al­ize on the new trans­it, a neigh­bor­hood non­profit is try­ing to brand the area around Trinh’s busi­ness as ‘Little Mekong,’ a des­tin­a­tion dis­trict where vis­it­ors can get a taste of Asi­an cul­ture. The Asi­an Eco­nom­ic De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter now or­gan­izes sum­mer night mar­kets, out­door events fea­tur­ing dan­cers, Lao drum­mers, and lots of food. Trinh learned to make Ja­pan­ese-style cus­tard buns to sell at the mar­ket.

It’s nev­er easy to run a small busi­ness — let alone two — but this is a good time to be a busi­ness own­er in Fro­g­town. “I’m hop­ing the salon will grow a little more. I don’t want it to be just a one-man busi­ness. As much as I love be­ing here, I’d like a little bit of backup,” says Trinh. “I’d hope to bring in maybe a couple more chairs, a few more em­ploy­ees, just to make it a little big­ger, a little bit bet­ter.”

“And then once the bakery’s up and built, I’m hop­ing it will draw in a crowd, and people [will] like what I do. And then maybe I can take a break!” she says, with a laugh. “It would be nice to have a break.”

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