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Ladysmith restaurant retiring ‘Wigwam’ name after 99 years

Owners retiring after operating business for more than 30 years
Danh Phan and Ninh Bui Phan will be retiring this month after owning and operating the Wigwam Restaurant for more than 30 years. (Duck Paterson photo)


A downtown Ladysmith restaurant has been the Wigwam for 99 years, but that will be changing, as the owners for the past 30-plus years are retiring.

Danh Phan and Ninh Bui Phan, owners of the Wigwam Restaurant for the past 32 years, will work their last day there on April 27.

The Phans were both in Vietnam, their home country, during the Vietnam War. Danny came from a town call Long Xuyen and Ninh is from a district in Saigon, what is now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

“If it wasn’t for the fall of Saigon they probably would never have met and consequently the two daughters would never have been born,” said their daughter Jean.

Danny and Ninh got out of Vietnam in early 1980, Danny via a refugee camp in Thailand and Ninh making a harrowing escape from Saigon.

“Their escape was on an old junk,” she said. “The boat eventually started to take on water. Moments before it sank, by chance, a nearby Dutch oil tanker came and luckily rescued them.”

Canada was participating in the humanitarian effort at the time, and the Canadian ambassadors visited the refugee camps to assist in immigration. Danny and Ninh immigrated separately to Victoria, and met there while taking English classes. Danny trained and worked as a sous-chef at a restaurant in a downtown Victoria hotel.

The family moved to Vancouver briefly to be near other family members, but Jean said “the big city life was not for them,” and they returned to the Island soon afterward.

After a few different jobs, Danny came across a business opportunity in Ladysmith. In their first conversation with Larry and Sue Jung, the owners of the Wigwam at the time, the Phans were told that Ladysmith is a family-oriented community and that the Wigwam had many longtime loyal customers.

“It didn’t take much convincing for Dad to settle back to his culinary roots,” Jean said.

Danny and Ninh’s families back in Vietnam owned businesses, so owning and operating a business and putting in long hours wasn’t new to the two of them. Danny did all the cooking and Ninh handled the front end, and Jean and her sister Kimmy started working there too at a very young age, doing their homework on the side.

“Since we were little, our parents have always instilled strong work ethics in both of us,” Jean said. “One of the things I remember very well is they often preached, ‘as long as you have two hands, you can always make a living.’ We spent much of our childhood growing up in the Wigwam. I mean, we practically lived there.”

Jean said the pandemic was very difficult for her parents, and she thought it was a sign that they should consider retirement. But they wanted to continue to serve their customers while keeping healthy and safe, and moved to a takeout-only model.

“This was their life for the last three-plus decades. We saw generations of customers eating at our restaurant. Some from toddlers growing into parents themselves,” Jean said.

There was never any thought of the business staying in the family after Danny and Ninh’s retirement. Jean and her family live in Nanaimo, where she works as a critical care nurse, and Kimmy and her family live on the Lower Mainland, where she works as a medical lab assistant.

“Believe it or not, our parents never wanted us to take over the business,” Jean said. “They wanted us to have a post-secondary education, which allowed us to embark on our own career path. They have, on more than a few occasions, hinted to us to go to the health-care field.”

When asked abut the future of the Wigwam, the Phans said the new owners intend to keep the business as a restaurant, likely a different cuisine, and the name ‘Wigwam’ will be retired as well.

It has been a restaurant since 1925, though the business name in Ladysmith can be traced back even further, to 1909. The Wigwam is in the history books as it was there that Canada’s 1947 candy bar strike started. After the price of chocolate bars went up from five cents to eight cents, a group of children organized a protest outside the café and confectionery, and the protest spread across the country.

Danny and Ninh’s retirement plans will put family first and foremost, but they also have some bucket-list travel in mind, and they want to spend more time with church, fishing and gardening.

The Phans say their experience at the restaurant was the best of times, and they’re thankful for all the memories over the last three decades.

“We wish to thank all our customers, both past and present, there are no better people,” Jean said. “Our family has been so lucky.”

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