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Lotus Inn gets new name, remains a favorite

After being closed for two years, the Vietnamese Lotus Inn in western Duluth has returned, sporting a new name, a pared-down menu and standard coffee-shop fare alongside its staple Vietnamese dishes.

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Cuc Allen and Steve Allen stand in the coffeehouse area of the Vietnamese Lotus Inn in Gary New Duluth Friday aftenoon. The two have reopened the restaurant now with a coffeehouse. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

After being closed for two years, the Vietnamese Lotus Inn in western Duluth has returned, sporting a new name, a pared-down menu and standard coffee-shop fare alongside its staple Vietnamese dishes.

The Lotus Inn is now the VN Coffee House, and owners Steve and Cuc Allen say business is booming. The restaurant in the Gary-New Duluth neighborhood had what Steve calls a "soft opening" on May 4, and has been seeing about 40 customers per day since.

The Allens closed the Vietnamese Lotus Inn two years ago. Cuc Allen said they wanted to retire early but, Steve's opinion was that they could not sell the building and did not want to come down on price. Eventually, they decided to restart the business. Steve said it was easier the second time around.

"We were in business before for 10 years, so we knew the ropes and we knew the mistakes we made in the past," he said. "It was really kind of easy."

Streamlining the menu was the biggest change the Allens made. They removed some of the more labor-intensive items - such as cream cheese wontons and sweet and sour chicken - and added some American dishes, such as ham and cheese sandwiches and chicken fingers.

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They also have worked harder to save on utility bills. Instead of making ice on-site Steve buys it, which he said saves water. The Allens do not serve water to customers unless it is requested. The restaurant owners launder their own linens.

Though the Allens had hoped the new coffee house would be much simpler than it is now, two months after its re-opening, they are happy to take suggestions from customers and slightly expand the menu offerings. The menu hanging above the counter has options written on it in permanent marker; Steve said they eventually will need to take it down and rewrite it.

"We're not naive," he said. "If people want what we did in the past we will provide it."

The Allens are the only ones working at the restaurant, which is one reason it's important to the couple to keep it simple. While making ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch customers, Cuc cut the lettuce off a fresh head. She said nothing in the restaurant is pre-made.

Running a "mom-and-pop" business gives Steve a sense of pride, he said. He enjoys working with Cuc, who said the VN Coffee House provides a unique experience. She said her background influences her cooking and makes it individual.

"Our cooking here is totally different because I'm part French and Chinese and Vietnamese," Cuc said. "My cooking is probably different than elsewhere, that's one thing. And everything we cook here is ... all homemade."

Barb Smith was a regular at the Vietnamese Lotus Inn when it was open and said she ate there about once a week. She has been to the VN Coffee House a couple of times since it opened, and is glad one of her favorite restaurants is back in business. Smith said she appreciates the coffee house's atmosphere, which hasn't changed much.

"I'm glad they're back," Smith said. "They're friendly to you, they come and talk to you, you feel like you're part of the community."

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The Allens also said they're glad to be back cooking and talking to customers.

"I love food, you can see I love food," Cuc said. "I love people and love food."

More information

The VN Coffee House is located at 1314 Commonwealth Ave. in Duluth. Its phone number is (218) 626-1098. Hours are 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Find more about the VN Coffee House, including its menu, on its Facebook page .

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