Hughie’s on 18th Street West Houston, established in 2013, is one of many Vietnamese-American restaurants. This restaurant has switched to a “drive-through” style (the dining style of many Americans, customers drive to the window and receive food to take away, no need to step down) in 2020 to limit exposure to the Covid-19 virus.
Bringing banh mi to the U.S market
Hughie’s owner Paul Pham told The New York Times he has opened a second restaurant a few kilometers away and will open a third next year. In his future plans, he will expand his business throughout Texas and possibly in other regions. According to Paul, the drive-through is a way to bring Vietnamese cuisine into the US fast food industry. He said that the number of Americans who love banh mi has gradually increased over the year. That would make this dish ideal for the next generation of drive-through customers.
In recent years, many other Vietnamese restaurant owners with similar ideas have opened their restaurants in Houston, including Oui Banh Mi, Saigon Hustle, and Kim’s Pho & Grill. Outside of Texas, there are restaurants like Simply Vietnam in Santa Rosa, California; Mi-Sant Banh Mi in Brooklyn Park, Minneapolis and To Me Vietnamese Sub in Calgary, Alberta. All of these restaurants are crowded, and the owners are trying to attract more people by combining Vietnamese cuisine with American drive-through convenience.
“We’re going to move more towards Chick-fil-A,” said Pham, who was born in Houston – home to the largest Vietnamese community in the US with more than 150,000 residents. Chick-fil-A is the largest chicken sandwich restaurant chain in the US with nearly 3,000 stores.
That means he has to invest in technology to improve customer service, opening more bars in densely populated areas and closing on Sundays. This is what Chick-fil-A does, but many Vietnamese restaurants in Houston do not.
There are 2.1 million people of Vietnamese origin living in the US, according to the 2020 census. Many cities in the north of the US such as Philadelphia, Washington, and San Jose have many newly opened Vietnamese restaurants. With the drive-through opening, the restaurant owners hope to attract a large number of diners beyond the traditional Vietnamese-American clientele.
Ambitions and barriers
Cassie Ghaffar and her partner Sandy Nguyen opened Saigon Hustle last February in the Oak Forest area of Houston. Saigon Hustle sells banh mi, rice, and vermicelli. The restaurant is designed as a 1950s drive-in restaurant. The restaurant only has one establishment, but the founders say it could hit $1.8 million in sales this year and they’re working on a plan to open branches across the United States in the next two to three years.
For many non-Vietnamese diners, a trip to the Asian neighborhood to enjoy the food will be challenging, because the menu is not written in English and the prices are high. “But it’s much simpler to just drive by and grab the food right away. So it’s a way to bring Vietnamese cuisine closer to American diners,” said Ghaffar.
Drive-through restaurants appeared in the US in the mid-20th century and flourished in the 70s, mainly selling burgers and fries. Fast food chains of Mexican descent, such as Taco Bell and Taco Cabana, have adopted this selling method and have been successful.
“Every morning I usually buy drive-through coffee from Tim Hortons, which is very convenient for my work and lifestyle,” said Mr. To (60 years old). From there, he thought why not sell Vietnamese banh mi and spring rolls in such a way, as they are easy to pack and take away. However, the difficulty with selling sandwiches is that they have to be made according to each order and need to be baked fresh. So they can’t be made as fast as American burgers and fries.
For Paul Pham, the biggest barrier to the Vietnamese banh mi business in the US is that some ingredients are rare and unavailable.
However, at least one Vietnamese fast food restaurant has expanded nationwide, Lee’s Sandwiches, founded in San Jose in 1983 by Ba Le and Hanh Nguyen. Today, the chain has 62 locations in eight states, including California, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Texas. Some restaurants also offer drive-through services.
The chain’s expansion began in 2001. Jimmy Le, Vice President of Lee’s and grandson of the founder, said: “Back then, we were a little more cautious. The company only selects areas with a large number of Vietnamese people.
Although Lee’s has opened stores in more ethnically diverse neighborhoods, half of its locations are still in Asian-populated areas. The company didn’t want to turn Lee’s into an American-style fast food chain, it didn’t need to change. “People know Lee’s Sandwiches and are used to it,” says Jimmy Le.
However, it is difficult for Mia Nguyen, 58, a Vietnamese restaurant owner to feel excited about new restaurants. She has run the beloved Vietnamese restaurant Mai’s in Houston since 1990, which was opened by her parents in 1978.
“What I see is that later generations have invested in better restaurants but the food is not authentic,” she said, adding that it is necessary to understand because most of us were born and raised outside of Vietnam.