By Amanda Renkiewicz
Feature Photos by Scarlett Piedmonte
Some things simply go together, from a childhood peanut butter and jelly sandwich, to a bottle of wine and good conversation. We accept these examples of parallel perfection and become inured to the subtle magic of them. When a new combination arises that is as successful a match, it’s a dazzling moment. Our community has been witness and participant of a surprising new take on Food and Philanthropy, a combination that isn’t just beneficial for the guest but for the world. Imagine the partnership between thrilling Vietnamese cuisine and charitable giving locally, regionally, and globally, and you’ve found The Good Bowl.
Life’s most urgent question: What are you doing for others?–Martin Luther King Jr.
Founder Soon Hagerty’s journey into the world of giving began at a young age. Her family emigrated from Saigon, Vietnam when she was only five years old. “It was a feeling, a sense of gratitude and contribution ever since I can remember,” Soon explains. “I knew from a very early age how lucky I was to have been taken in by the U.S. as a Vietnamese refugee.” While Soon’s career focused on public relations and marketing, her love of good food coupled with her desire to introduce the growing cuisine of Vietnam to Traverse City led to a restaurant idea. It was her third business venture, and she had confidence in northern Michigan’s ready interest in diverse cultures and foods. Aiming for a lively but casual ambiance, her restaurant began to take shape. Yet the piece that made it more than simply fantastic food was philanthropy. “I think gratitude and philanthropy are so interconnected. This feeling has led me to always think about the world as a global place, which is why having a local, national and global charity recipient each quarter was vital to our mission-driven charity model,” Soon says.
The Good Bowl was aptly named for the $1 donation to a charity of the guest’s choice for every bowl purchased. It exists as a catalyst to bring people together with unique cuisine and experience centered around nourishing their hearts, minds, and communities. Every quarter the restaurant receives suggestions and ideas for a local, national, and global charity, and selects one per category. While the community offers their ideas, the employees vote on the final charities, allowing them active involvement and pride in the process. “It’s been insightful to learn about new organizations for me personally, as well as for our team. I think the community has enjoyed hearing about other nonprofits during the nomination process,” Soon reveals.
As viewers of the Traverse City dining scene know, the restaurant competition is intense, and many places are unable to sustain their businesses. With that in mind, we asked Soon, “Do you believe The Good Bowl’s mission offers something beyond a traditional restaurant, that people are so responsive to?” She answered, “The surprising thing to me is how competitive the local restaurant scene really is for such a small city. The restaurant business is one of the toughest businesses that anyone could try. I knew that going into it, and I still know it now, but what we focus on is creating a good team culture and quality and consistency in our food.”
I believe our mission-driven concept does bring something to the table that our guests really love. For sure the food has to be good regardless of our charity model, but I feel our guests are proud to be part of something bigger than just a restaurant.-Soon Hagerty
Not only is Soon conquering the restaurant world, but she is the founder of Help in Heels, a charity she started with eleven other local women. It focuses on a different organization each month that each member picks. They donate their time through projects like gardening for the Women’s Resource Center, painting rooms for Michael’s Place, helping with Habitat for Humanity, cleaning up for Wings of Wonder and Peace Ranch, and on the list goes. “Our group loves these experiences! We joke that we came up with the concept since we used to get together once a month for evil, and now, we get together once a month for good! But occasionally there might be lunch or a drink or two afterward…” Soon laughs.
Finding like-minded people has been key in Soon’s personal and business life. She instills a sense of philanthropy within her family. Her 7-year-old daughter Ava loves asking how much they’ve raised, and Soon often talks to her about people’s responsibility to help others, making her attuned into charity and giving. “My stepdaughters Sophia and Olivia have been my sounding board for new ideas and concepts, so it’s been a fun experience for our family. I joke a lot with them that I will force noodles into any meal I can when we travel, but luckily they have really embraced learning about Vietnamese cuisine and culture,” Soon says. She cites her husband McKeel as her biggest advocate for doing something meaningful for the community.
Her business partner, Tony Vu, shares the same values: the belief that food can be a great vehicle to connect people, and a commitment to contribute to society. “The connective history of our families as refugees greatly bound us and gave us the focus to create the restaurant as a thank you to the U.S. for taking us in,” Soon adds gratefully. “Tony is the best. He is creative, humble, and a team player. He is the creative expression of our food experience.” Equally vital team members include their Chef de Cuisine, Michael Evans, and General Manager Shana Sicotte. The Good Bowl aims to provide a strong and uplifting culture, and each player is instrumental in their success.
The partnership of Soon and Tony is another example of something exactly right. They were thrilled to receive the Best New Restaurant award by Red Hot Best in 2019. “It was the biggest surprise for me! It meant so much to me that people not only believed in what we do but were willing to take the time to vote for us. The biggest impact for me was how our team felt. I could tell how proud they were to create something from scratch that resonated with the community.” Soon is quick to clarify that while such an honor, their work, and aim for high achievement is ongoing. “We never rest on our laurels. We’re always trying to create different experiences for our guests while maintaining a great culture for our team.”
The Good Bowl is certainly adding dynamic new options, by ramping up the dining options with more than just their unique menu. Dim Sum Sunday brunch has been a delicious new addition. In Asian cultures, Dim Sum is the go-to family experience, as it’s the perfect way to eat in large groups and create a lively sharing aspect of trying many small plates. Their winning dishes so far have been their Banh Cuon (Vietnamese rice rolls with pork), shumai dumplings, congee (rice soup with Chinese sausage) and grilled napa cabbage with oyster sauce (a surprise hit). Thursdays offer Family Meals, with two starters, make your own bun rice vermicelli bowls with a choice of two proteins (lemongrass pork, kaffir lime chicken or grilled turmeric tofu), a choice of salt & pepper shrimp or their much loved Vietnamese pork ribs, and a large sharing bowl of jasmine rice.
The Good Bowl has beautifully connected dining and donating, providing a continuous, sustainable business model as a force for good. While Soon says she created The Good Bowl to thank our country, we as a community have to thank her for bringing Vietnamese food, warm hospitality, and a platform for people to contribute and connect.
NOTE: Because of state-mandated restrictions, the Good Bowl – 328 E Front Traverse City, Michigan – is offering its entire menu via carryout from 11:00 AM to 6:30 PM. Please order at (231) 252-2662 They are working on online ordering options. You can view the menu here.