Those who work in business can tell you that success requires hard work, adaptation, and some smiles from fate. Julie Vu Whitaker, founder and driving force behind Vu Noodles, can attest to all three.
In 2013, after 20 years as a social worker, Whitaker decided on a career shift. “[While] I still loved it, I was ready for a change,” she says.
From childhood, she enjoyed cooking and sharing foods from her Vietnamese heritage, and she credits her immigrant family (they arrived in Waynesboro when Whitaker was 8) with instilling a strong work ethic: “My family has always been in their own business.” She began selling Vu Noodles, her “to-go” take on traditional Vietnamese vegetable bowls, at The Farm corner grocery in Belmont. “It really opened my eyes,” she says. “People liked my food.”
Vu Noodles’ popularity led Whitaker to get her home kitchen commercially certified so she could supply vendors around town, from Whole Foods Market to Rebecca’s Natural Food and Martha Jefferson Hospital’s café. After three years working long hours—her bowls are prepared fresh every day—Whitaker says she needed some help. “I was thinking, ‘I can’t keep doing this alone.’” She jumped at the opportunity to take over The Spot on Second Street in partnership with Kathy Zentgraf of Greenie’s.
Demand soon meant the business had outgrown Whitaker’s home kitchen, so she struck a deal with Pearl Island Catering to rent the kitchen at the Jefferson School City Center and supply the café there. “Now I had a sit-down space, and could interact more with the customers, which I loved,” she recalls. But sharing the kitchen with Pearl Island’s growing business began to bind. By late 2019, Whitaker was considering the new Dairy Market, which would have meant taking on significant debt. “I’d always been able to fund my business myself,” she says.
Enter another opportunity: Early this year Whitaker got an offer to take over The Flat Creperie’s space—right off the Downtown Mall, with its own kitchen, and small enough for Whitaker to handle with help from her husband and two sons, now in high school.
In another smile from fate, in May the United Way of Greater Charlottesville and the city’s Minority Business Alliance announced the first grants under a new partnership to help support local minority- and women-owned small businesses. One of the $5,000 grants went to Vu Noodles, although Whitaker had to be convinced by a friend to even apply. “I always feel that someone else needs the money more,” she says.
The timing was perfect. The grant (and the pandemic shutdown) enabled Whitaker to renovate the kitchen and install a microphone for contactless ordering before opening in July.
Starting up at a new location while downtown foot traffic is just recovering is a challenge, but over the years Vu Noodles has developed a sizable and devoted following. Whitaker’s offerings now include pho and banh mi sandwiches as well as her noodle bowls, and are all completely vegan—except for one important holdout. “I had to keep the fish sauce,” she says with a smile. “It’s so much a part of our food tradition.”