Overcoming the odds

Former refugee finds success with restaurant, Hmong children’s books

Posted on May 1, 2017 :: The Business of Life
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Spend some time with Yee Vue, and you will likely feel two things: awe at all she’s accomplished and exhaustion even imagining how she gets it all done.

The 30-year-old mom of four reports to the City Café in downtown Appleton every weekday at 6 a.m. She and her husband own the popular City Center Plaza restaurant, and Vue does all the day’s cooking for the eatery that specializes in grab-and-go lunch fare.

At 10:30 a.m., Vue heads to her full-time job as Hmong outreach specialist at the Appleton Public Library. In her spare time, after returning home from her library gig at 7:30 p.m., she devotes time to her other business: Skill Stacker, a company that publishes Hmong children’s books, all the while pursuing a doctorate degree.

“Right after leaving City Café, I put on a different hat right at the library here to be helping the community,” Vue says. “I want to do it so my kids can see that with hard work, anything is possible.”

If all of this seems remarkable, consider how Vue’s life began. She’s faced more barriers in her 30 years than many will face in a lifetime. Twenty-six years ago, at the age of 4, she arrived in the Fox Cities from a refugee camp in Thailand.

Her family came here penniless, and she and her parents and six siblings were homeless and relied on government assistance. They moved eight or nine times in three years, staying with relatives, before finally settling in Kaukauna.

After graduating high school, Vue won a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she attended classes and earned a bachelor’s degree while balancing raising her children.

Vue began to learn about the importance of early language and literacy skills, and that led to her pursue and complete a master’s degree in library and information science. The subject was dear to Vue, whose parents are illiterate. She grew up in a culture where literacy wasn’t emphasized, and no one read to her.

“I knew that if that was happening to me, other people that are first-time generation going to school, they have the same struggles like I do,” Vue says.

Vue returned to the Fox Cities and started an internship at the Appleton Public Library. She helped launch Appleton Ready to Read, a program designed to address literacy gaps, especially in the Hmong and Hispanic populations. The success led the library to apply for a grant, and now it employs Vue as well as a Hispanic outreach specialist.

“It changed the patron profile in the library,” says Tanya Misselt, children’s services supervisor for the Appleton Public Library. “Our library became more diverse following the programs.”

Vue’s work included home visits to households in the Hmong community, which led to her realization of a gap in the selection and quality of Hmong children’s books. She and her sister launched Skill Stacker, which aims to create age-appropriate books for Hmong children.

The company printed 500 copies of its first book, “Kaum Tus Me Nyuam Ntses,” or “Ten Little Fish,” which Vue wrote and her brother illustrated. Vue and her sister self-published the book, which features bright, colorful pictures and simple language. The 500 copies sold quickly, and Skill Stacker is printing another 500 copies as well as working on publishing two more books.

Printing the books is a costly endeavor, Vue says, but she’s proud of what it’s accomplishing. “With my Skill Stacker, it’s the books that are making babies giggle and laugh.”

Making people happy also drives Vue and her husband, Thong, in running City Café. The couple purchased the former CSI Appleton in 2015. Vue attributes the restaurant’s success to a solid vision that recognized and built on CSI’s loyal following.

Vue, who received a Future 15 award from Pulse Young Professionals in 2016, learned the business from her parents, who own Appleton’s Mai’s Deli. She and Thong learned CSI’s recipes and incorporated them into their menu as well as adding their own specialties, which Vue calls “Asian cuisine with a modern twist.”

“You can get, like, a Thai curry and a mac and cheese and a cheesecake,” Vue says. “We’re not just making food and selling the food, but through food, we make people really happy.”

Vue, who would like to run for school board in the future, has dedicated herself to giving back to the community that she says has given her so much. Their first year in business, the Vues held City Café Cares week. The restaurant served free meals to the homeless and donated 20 percent of that week’s sales to Homeless Connections, and they’ll hold the event again in May.

Adrienne Palm, director of the Fox Cities Chamber’s Pulse Young Professionals Network, says Vue has helped break down barriers in the community, and in the face of many roadbocks, Vue has emerged a generous, sincere and genuine person.

“She is just amazing,” Palm says. “She’s one of those people who make you feel really bad about yourself, and I mean that as a compliment.”