Those who want to elevate Vietnamese cuisine with the American model

Paul Pham, owner of Hughie’s restaurant in Houston, believes that the model of selling bread to drivers passing by will help Vietnamese cuisine to the throne.

Hughie’s restaurant on West 18th Street is one of many restaurants opened by Vietnamese people in Houston, Texas, USA. This place used to be a Dairy Queen fast food outlet. The sign on the façade still has the iconic eye-line of the ice cream chain, but the menu now features bread and beef shakes.

Car drivers receive food through the window at Mi-Sant Banh Mi restaurant in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota in April. Photo: NY Times

Car drivers receive food through the window at Mi-Sant Banh Mi restaurant in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota in April. Photo: NY Times

The most similarity between Hughie’s and Dairy Queen is the model of serving customers who drive cars to buy goods through the window, applied from March 2020 to deal with Covid-19. Paul Pham, the owner of Hughie’s, hopes to one day be as famous as Dairy Queen. Next year, he will open a third store and is planning to expand the business throughout Texas, even other states.

According to Pham, driving a car past the store to buy things, the initiative to take advantage of the car culture into the American-style fast food industry, will be a potential method to help Vietnamese cuisine ascend to the throne. Pham believes that more and more Americans know about Vietnamese cuisine, which is an ideal condition for the development of the model.

In recent years, several similar-minded Vietnamese restaurants have opened in Houston such as Oui Banh Mi, Saigon Hustle and Kim’s Pho & Grill. Some Vietnamese restaurants in California, Minnesota also apply the model of serving customers who drive to buy goods. Restaurant owners are trying to attract a large number of Vietnamese foodies by combining Vietnamese sandwiches with American convenience.

Vietnamese-style banh mi in Hughies.  Photo: NY Times

Vietnamese-style banh mi at Hughie’s. Image: NY Times

Pham was born and raised in Houston, home to 150,000 Vietnamese Americans and one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the United States. His family opened their first Hughie’s restaurant in 2013.

He thinks technology needs to be used to serve customers faster, opening more restaurants in densely populated areas and closing on Sundays, which is less common at long-standing Vietnamese restaurants in Houston.

About 2.1 million people of Vietnamese origin live in the US, according to the 2020 census. Many cities like Philadelphia in Washington state and San Jose in California are witnessing a wave of Vietnamese restaurants.

By adopting car sales and other fast food industry practices, restaurant owners hope to reach new Vietnamese-American customers.

“We’re trying to get the same as Panda Express,” said Cassie Ghaffar, who with partner Sandy Nguyen opened the Saigon Hustle restaurant in February in Oak Forest, Houston.

Saigon Hustle sells bread, vermicelli and rice, served in the model of a restaurant that is sold to passersby. Cassie Ghaffar and Sandy Nguyen say the restaurant is on track to hit $1.8 million in revenue this year and plan to expand operations in multiple states over the next two to three years.

Ghaffar, 40 years old, said that driving through the store to buy groceries helps more people have the opportunity to know Vietnamese cuisine.

The car-buying model appeared in the mid-20th century and flourished in the 1970s in the US, mainly serving burgers and fries. Mexican food chains such as Taco Bell or Taco Cabana have widely adopted this model.

A Vietnamese fast food restaurant has found a way to expand its operations across the US. Lee’s Sandwiches opened in San Jose in 1983 by Ba Le and Hanh Nguyen. To date, the chain has 62 restaurants in 8 states, some serving customers by car.

The restaurant began to expand its operations in 2001, despite many difficulties at first. Jimmy Le, vice president of Lee’s Sandwiches and grandson of the two founders, said “we were very cautious at the time” and only chose to open restaurants in areas with a large Vietnamese-American population.

Le, 40, said Lee’s Sandwiches has opened locations in more ethnically diverse areas, but half is still located in predominantly Asian neighborhoods. He is pleased to see more and more Vietnamese fast food restaurants spring up, but he is not trying to turn Lee’s Sandwiches into an American chain.

“We don’t want to change too much, we don’t even want to change at all,” he said. “Lee’s Sandwiches is familiar to many people and they all know what they want to eat when they go to the restaurant.”

Mai Nguyen, 58, a longtime Vietnamese restaurant owner in the US, is not excited about the new restaurant model. She has run Mai’s, a popular Vietnamese restaurant in Houston since 1990. Her parents opened the restaurant in 1978.

“I see the current generation opening very nice and modern restaurants,” she said. “But the food is not traditional.”

Cassie Ghaffar (left) and Sandy Nguyen, two owners of Saigon Hustle restaurant in Houston.  Photo: NY Times

Cassie Ghaffar (left) and Sandy Nguyen, two owners of Saigon Hustle restaurant in Houston. Image: NY Times

Traditional-style food has a different meaning to many new-style Vietnamese restaurant owners. In addition to the traditional bread, Mi-sant restaurant on the outskirts of Minneapolis also sells croissants, a special dish created by the owner, Quoc Le, 37 years old. Le was trained by her father to make European cakes in France.

“This dish is also part of our identity,” says Linh Nguyen, a co-owner of Mi-sant. “The model of buying goods through cars is also not new to us.”

However, Nguyen admits it is possible to lose many Vietnamese customers who prefer the traditional style in the process of expanding the customer file.

“Not all of my staff know how to speak Vietnamese to receive guests,” she said. “The menu doesn’t have Vietnamese so they can’t read it, and the price of the food is also more expensive than many Vietnamese restaurants in the area.”

Some people are not used to buying bread through the car. “Having customers come here and order hamburgers and tacos, it’s funny,” Nguyen said. “I have to answer that we don’t have this here.”

For Pham, developing Hughie’s as an American fast food restaurant will help appeal to a broader audience and reflect his growing up in Houston. “The menu is a fusion of two different cultures and means a lot to me,” Pham said.

Hong Hanh (Theo NY Times)

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