The long and meandering journey that led Mary Nguyen Aregoni to open her own restaurant seemed to be guided by destiny, with critical factors presenting themselves to her at the right place and time. But the growth of her Saigon Sisters chain was clearly a deliberate and painstaking endeavor that succeeded in spite of external forces rather than because of them. Aregoni’s sheer determination, ability to adjust and desire to focus on her cuisine’s health aspects, especially during timely events like Vegan month in November, created the conditions for a proliferation of her fast-casual Vietnamese food.
Even as a child growing up in Kentucky, Aregoni desired to learn more about her Vietnamese culture. The trips she took to her homeland as an adult, and the dinner parties she subsequently hosted to share her discoveries through an immersive culinary experience, laid the groundwork for her success as a restaurant owner. Though she spent 20 years working in corporate America rather than serving under great chefs, she developed skills in strategic planning, marketing, and analytics that would later serve her well as the chief operating officer of her own brand. And despite the emotional blow of leaving Procter & Gamble during one of the country’s worst economic downturns, she recognized opportunity in a sign seeking vendors for a new indoor market that she passed while on her way to a career counseling appointment.
Aregoni did not have much experience with restaurants, but her mother and grandmother had sold street food in the markets of Vietnam and Laos. So when her husband, mother, and sister Theresa all offered to help, she took the leap to become one of the first vendors in Chicago’s new French Market in 2009. It offered an incredible opportunity to spend a minimal investment to equip and man a small stand and receive maximum exposure for her family’s authentic recipes to the tens of thousands of commuters passing through the train station daily.
When the working professionals loved her grab-and-go healthy Vietnamese cuisine, she knew she had found a niche worth building on. Rather than rest on her laurels, the success convinced Aregoni to become more focused on building her team, her brand, and her vision. Since then, she has tapped into many resources and endured the ups and downs of handling every job in her operation to open her three additional locations in Chicago, with plans to expand to other cities. Between jumping in where needed during the lunch rush and running manager meetings, Aregoni offered Entrepreneurial Chef a quick helping of advice for other food entrepreneurs who may be crossing over from different industries or ready to take an initial success to the next level.
Why did you become an entrepreneur when you had a safe career in corporate America?
I always aspired to have my own business since I was 6 years old when I discovered that my mother was her own boss and a businesswoman. I thought at the time that I would take over what she was doing one day. But due to the Vietnam war, my entrepreneurial dream was shattered, and we had to start all over again in a new country where we didn’t even know the language.
Because it was always something that I aspired to do, it was an easy decision to switch from the corporate world to being an entrepreneur at the right time for me, which was in 2008.
At that time, my employer, Procter & Gamble, was going through a major change which required me to move to another city where I didn’t want to go. So I took their severance package and used the capital to start my own business.
How did your job prepare you to start your own business?
Procter & Gamble is a premier consumer products and marketing company, so I learned a lot about branding and consumer research from the various assignments that I had during my 20 years there. My information technology background really came in handy, too, because I was able to analyze market data, understand customer demand and deliver clear product messages. I used those skills to translate my idea of Vietnamese cuisine into something desirable for the mainstream market in the heart of downtown Chicago, where there was no Asian fast-casual concept for the lunch crowd.
The other key lesson that I applied from Procter & Gamble was to use tests and trials to determine what works and get rid of what’s not working before scaling.
I started small at the Chicago French Market and eventually took it to four locations with two brands: Saigon Sisters and Bang Chop Thai Kitchen.
How did you first get attracted to the culinary industry?
When I was working for my husband’s marketing company, I designed and developed several restaurant websites. I was intrigued by what they offered and their ambiance, so I apprenticed at a very small fine dining restaurant and worked in the kitchen for several weeks. I got more interested because of all the action and excitement that goes on in a restaurant. It’s the creativity, service and the hustle that I love about it.
Now that you are successfully running four restaurant locations, what do you think have been the biggest factors that got you past your fears and frustrations?
The biggest factors are the strong belief in my ability and product, and having a clear vision of how far I want to go with it. I also know that it can’t be successful unless I am constantly working on the business and keeping it sustainable by keeping up with customers’ demands and differentiating my company from my competitors.
I always have a mindset that something will go wrong, so I have to be ready to shift, solve problems, focus on the vision and get through the hard times.
Another key factor is the support and encouragement I get from my family and employees. Without them, I could not achieve this on my own.
How did mentors influence you, and what advice do you give to your employees and up-and-coming entrepreneurs who want to achieve your level of success?
Mentors, business education, and business coaching are necessary to be successful in business because it is a journey that requires constant learning, advice, and direction from someone who has been through it before and has the knowledge and expertise in areas where you need help. You have to delegate tasks and work on strategic planning to get your business to the next level.
If you do everything, you will not have time to do the critical thinking and planning to increase sales and profitability. Your business will only go as far as you have the capacity.
If you can only do so much with your time, that’s all you will get out of your business. Instead, I found that it’s better to be a motivating and inspiring leader, where people want to work for you, and you take care of them by understanding what motivates them.
Why is it important to travel to Vietnam and stick so closely to authentic recipes instead of offering more Americanized versions of your dishes?
The first thing you have to learn is the taste, palate, and experience of the food and its origin. I was fortunate to grow up with the food at its origin, so I have a food memory bank. But it’s not enough since I left Southeast Asia at a very young age.
I need to understand why we eat like this and how the ingredients became available to get a full understanding of the cuisine. I learned the subtle difference between one cuisine and another from exposure and real experience. And there is also a blending of ingredients and cuisines that interests me and helps me to distinguish what is distinctly Vietnamese vs. Thai or Laotian food.
I grew up eating all of those foods and was confused which food is from which culture until I traveled to the origin of these foods to really understand them. It’s important to me to not Americanize it because part of my mission is to convert people to Vietnamese cuisine and honor its essence, which is all about balance of flavor, lightness, healthfulness and great taste. It’s important to stay as true to the cuisine as possible. With the abundance and availability of all of the herbs and ingredients now, there is no reason to alter what already has been done and tested for thousands of years.
What do you think are the biggest opportunities and challenges on the horizon for the culinary industry?
The biggest opportunity is that there is room for growth for ethnic food, in particular, Vietnamese cuisine that is less well-known in America. We are still new immigrants since the ’70s, and we have been well-integrated in American culture now that people accept the cuisine as their own. It’s amazing to know how many people love pho now as much or more than ramen. Vietnamese cuisine has healthy benefits; because it’s naturally gluten-free and offers vegan options, it is a perfect fit for today’s customers’ demands and the general direction of food choices.
The challenges we have for the industry are the financial challenges of opening a restaurant due to high rent, high wages, and taxes. Besides that, finding great cooks and long-term employees is also a struggle due to the highly competitive employment market right now, with big chains and non-service-oriented companies luring workers away with higher wages than what the restaurant industry can afford.
Fulfilling customers’ needs is an ongoing challenge because people need food fast and they want it to taste good, better than restaurant quality. People want alternatives besides the typical burger or sandwich or Mexican and Italian chains. There is so much potential out there now.
About the Author
Diane Moca is a freelance writer who has contributed to dozens of other publications, including Us Weekly and the Los Angeles Daily News. She shares the secrets of entrepreneurial success through her video stories for the weekday financial news program, “Business First AM.” You can find her latest stories at DianeMoca.com.
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