Dinners at Nguyen Huy Han's Michigan Restaurants Like to Order the Green-Plate Special—Money to Go

updated 10/24/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Around this time of year, the people who dine at Nguyen Huy Han's two restaurants in Pontiac, Mich., get to thinking about asking for their money back. It's not that, come autumn, the quality of food or service declines; it's just that Han's customers know it pays to eat at his restaurants because Han is one restaurateur who believes it's just as good to give as it is to receive.

Here's the deal: Diners are given an account number the first time they visit either of Han's restaurants, which serve a variety of Asian and other ethnic foods. The receipts from that first and all subsequent meals are placed under the customer's account number. After Sept. 30, the conclusion of Han's fiscal year, he totals all the sales slips and then doles out 10 percent rebates, based on his profits. This year Han estimates that 3,000 registered customers are eligible for $25,000 in net profits. "The rebate program is nice," says advertising executive and regular patron Bill Haney, "but I come here because the food is good, the price is so modest, and you feel you are part of something meaningful."

Han's rebate scheme is, in part, his way of paying back the American people for what they have given him. A former high-ranking bureaucrat in the South Vietnamese treasury, Han moved to Michigan, penniless, in 1975, after the fall of Saigon. He took a variety of menial jobs since he couldn't speak English. He was on welfare for a year while studying English and learning about the food-service industry through a county training program.

Each day, on his way to school, Han passed a boarded-up A&W root beer stand. In 1977 he made the owner an offer: In return for two years' free rent, Han would fix up the site and open a restaurant. "Nobody believed I could do it," says Han, 52. "My sister Kim and I started the restaurant with $200 worth of food stamps and $1,000 saved from welfare. This comes from the American people. Now I want to give back. I want to share."

Han opened his second restaurant a year ago. He pays himself just $150 a month in salary. A bachelor, he eats only one meal a day, a late-night supper that he shares with his 87-year-old mother in their tiny, century-old house in Pontiac. "I need only a dollar a day to live," he says proudly.

As for his rebate program (so far, he has returned about $250,000), Han likes to quote one of his favorite Americans: "My restaurant is of the people, by the people and for the people."

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