Featured photo: L-R: Owner Kieuanh Ho with her employees Yubania, Callie and Katie on March 14. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

“It’s nothing dramatic.”

That’s what Boba House owner Kieuanh Ho says about the decision to close her and her husband Kiet Nguyen’s vegetarian restaurant after two decades.

It’s not staffing or revenue or any other financial distress that’s causing them to close; it’s much simpler than that.

“We’ve been blessed to do what we do, but we think it’s a good time to focus on our children,” Ho says. “We have four sweet boys and my oldest, he is a sophomore. And I realized, you know, in two years, I will not have all of my four boys under the same roof, traveling, eating dinners, driving them to school and so on.”

When the wider Greensboro community first learned of Boba House’s imminent closure via a Facebook post on Monday, word traveled fast. As the city’s only fully vegetarian restaurant focused on Asian cuisine, people were understandably dismayed.

“I hate this,” posted one commenter. “It’s the only restaurant my vegetarian wife will eat. You will be missed! Thank you so much for your delicious food and memories.”

Another person noted that Boba House has been their favorite restaurant for the last 18 years.

By Thursday afternoon, the post had garnered more than 470 reactions and had been shared 169 times, with many stating they would come one last time before the restaurant officially closes on March 23. It’s a reflection of what the restaurant has meant to the community.

When Boba House first opened its doors in 2003, the idea of a vegetarian restaurant near downtown Greensboro was kind of a crazy idea.

“We had a lot of doubts, and we had a lot of nonbelievers who said, ‘What are you doing? How are you going to survive with a niche clientele because you are limiting yourself?’” Ho recalls. 

Boba House opened in 2003 after husband and wife team Kieuanh Ho and Kiet Nguyen combined their passion for vegetarian food and boba tea. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

But Ho, who has been vegetarian since she was 13 years old, says that both she and Nguyen were young, passionate and willing to take a chance on a novel idea. They combined Ho’s passion for plant-based cooking with Nguyen’s affinity for boba tea, which was just becoming popular in the states, and created what became one of the most beloved institutions in the city.

“Had we known and had more fear or had more to lose, we may not have done it,” Ho says. “But at the time, we just wanted to do what we wanted to do and what we were passionate about. And passion is so key in restaurants.”

Boba House’s menu was inspired by Ho’s Vietnamese background and Thai flavors. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

The menu, which is inspired by Vietnamese and Thai cooking, was created by Ho’s mother’s best friend, Jennifer Gregory, a Vietnamese woman who was a close family friend. They taste tested options over the years, whittling down their multi-page menu to the more streamlined items that patrons have been picking from for years. Popular dishes like the Hula Pot — a Thai red curry-inspired bowl packed full of veggies with an option for rice or vermicelli noodles, or the mixed bowl — a robust salad-type dish with a bed of greens topped with a protein, created diehard fans over the years. The contributing factor was the restaurant’s signature “meats” — beef, chicken, shrimp or ribs — which predate the mainstream options like Beyond Meat or Impossible Meat which are sold in stores now.

Boba House has been serving customers comforting Asian-inspired vegetarian food off of Tate Street for the last 20 years. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

When asked about her favorites on the menu, Ho lists off a bunch of options from the Hula Pot to the pad Thai to the buffalo chicken sandwich and the vegan pho, which is made over the course of several hours.

“It’s really a love dish,” Ho says. “It’s something that you know, only a mom would do because they love you that much. To spend hours making you a hot bowl of pho.”

A letter to customers is taped on the front door at Boba House on March 13. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

That love is reflected not only in the menu, but the roots of the business itself, Ho explains. In fact, without her and her husband’s parents, Boba House wouldn’t exist, she says.

“They both loaned us money,” Ho says. “And usually with Asian parents, they loan us money and they say, ‘Hey, this is my life savings so you need to make sure that you put it to good use.’ But they don’t expect you to ever pay it back. And that’s still the case. I guess you could say that we owe the restaurant to our parents.”

Ho also says that she and her husband had the support of the landlord, Becky Patterson, who took a chance on them despite the fact that they didn’t have any restaurant experience.

“She’s the type of landlord that makes you a good tenant,” she says. “They believed in us and they saw something in us.”

Employee Elyse Sundberg takes a customer’s order at Boba House on March 13. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Over the years, Ho has repaid that debt by keeping a welcoming, wholesome business alive, through both prosperous times and more difficult ones like during the pandemic. She’s changed the menu by adding gluten-free items and making things vegan to keep up with customers’ palettes, even when it cost the restaurant more money. 

And customers have been loyal and receptive to the changes.

On Wednesday afternoon, Jim Ingram and his wife Elizabeth Strater basked in the afternoon sun as they waited for their to-go orders outside. They live in the Westerwood neighborhood and have been coming to Boba House for the last 12 years.

Jim Ingram and Elizabeth Strater wait outside of Boba House for their to-go order on March 13. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

“I’m sad,” Strater said. “It’s an education in vegetarian food. People have stereotypes about vegetarian food but I’m sure they’ve broken that stereotype.”

Inside, Nagatha Tonkins sat near the entrance waiting to take home her mixed bowl. She had been coming to the restaurant for the last two years and visited again after hearing the restaurant’s plans to close.

“The food is just good,” Tonkins said. “It’s fresh, healthy and everyone is always pleasant.”

Nagatha Tonkins had been coming to Boba House for the last few years and visited the restaurant again on March 13 after hearing that the restaurant was soon closing. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Over the years, Ho says she’s developed close relationships with many of her customers who she’s watched grow up.

“It’s good to grow with them,” Ho says. “Our customers have been lifelong friends now. We know them on a personal level…. We’ve had people that we became groomsmen and bridesmaids for…. So when we think about Boba House we just don’t think about the food, we also think about the relationships.”

Ho also attributes much of the business’ success to her dedicated employees who have helped her along the way like her chef Yubania, her manager Katie and her evening shift manager Gelly. In fact, the three have been so integral to the business that when Ho and her husband decided to retire, she approached them and asked if they would want to keep the business going.

L-R: Owner Kieuanh Ho with her employees Yubania, Callie and Katie on March 14. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

“What I had wanted was to gift it to my three staff who had been here with me,” Ho says. But the realities of running a business kept them from taking her up on her offer, she says. And that’s okay.

“I was a little sad and disappointed, but I told them to do what’s right for their families,” she says.

And she understands because that’s why she’s making the difficult decision to close.

“For a year, I felt such a weight on my shoulders that said, Hey, we need to be here to make sure that people have a place to eat,” Ho says. “But now I know there are other places available for them. I feel like it’s okay to quit now. And I’m sure someone else young and passionate will come in and do great as well. So I feel at peace, that it’s okay.”

Boba House’s last day is Saturday, March 23. They will be open until 9 p.m. Find their menu and hours at bobahouse.com.

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