Lee’s Sandwiches’ red, white and blue logo looks all-American even though the menu features specialties like Vietnamese banh mi made with pickled vegetables, head cheese, pate and other Asian-style fillings on store-made baguettes; and fresh-baked Korean Deli Manjoo snack cakes. The story of Lee’s Sandwiches is the epitome of the American dream. The Le family immigrated to San Jose, Calif. from Vietnam in 1980 and began building a company that now is a chain of quick-service restaurants with 34 units in California, Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Lee’s Sandwiches is scheduled to open another six locations, expanding into Nevada, Oregon and Washington. The company plans to add six to 10 locations per year and continue its geographic expansion, according to Tom Quach, chief operating officer.
The family’s foray into the food business began when Chieu Le, the family’s eldest son, purchased a catering truck in 1982. A year later, he and his younger brother Henry founded Lee Bros. Foodservices Inc. They added the extra “e” to their last name to make it easier for their American customers to pronounce. The industrial catering operation provided a full range of products, including its own bakery items and meats, to more than 500 independently owned and operated foodservice trucks.
In 1983, parents Ba Van Le and Hanh Nguyen began serving Vietnamese-style banh mi sandwiches from the original catering truck. The popularity of these Asian-style offerings soon led to the opening of their first store, which they quickly outgrew.
Based on this success, Chieu; his eldest son, Minh Le; and Chieu’s in-laws, the Quach family, developed a café concept to showcase banh mi, as well as European- and American-style sandwiches. Integral to the concept was the in-store baking of 10-in. baguettes and croissants for the sandwiches and savory puff pastries, sweet croissants, muffins, Danish and Deli Manjoo, a small, custard-filled sponge cake that is often described as “a Korean Twinkie.”
For the chain’s expansion, the blueprint calls for each geographic market to have at least one production store, equipped with mixers, sheeters and a full bread line to prepare the dough for the units in its area. Southern California is an exception with two production stores. One of these stores is the prototype production store for the chain and also serves as the Lee’s Sandwiches national training headquarters, dubbed “Banh Mi University.”
Half of this prototype’s total 8,300 sq. ft. is dedicated to bakery production. A curved glass wall gives customers a clear view of the dough production and baking. Although non-production stores do not make their own doughs, they do proof (for about an hour) and bake them off in smaller, glass-fronted exhibition areas.
Production crews gear up for dough-making at 2 a.m. each day. The production stores deliver fresh dough to the other units each morning. The double-rack ovens in the stores are capable of baking 360 baguettes per hour. Lee’s baguettes have a crisp crust, but it is not as thin and brittle as the crust on the traditional French-inspired Vietnamese version, and the crumb is dense, more like sourdough.
“Vietnamese baguette crust virtually shatters when you bite into it, and we thought that would make our sandwiches difficult to eat,” explains Ryan Hubris, executive vice president.
Aside from the sandwiches, Lee’s sells whole 24-in. baguettes. At some stores, bread accounts for about 35 percent of total sales. “Our stales are minimal,” Quach observes.
Expanding product line
Lee’s croissants, which are baked three times a day, also have a less flaky texture than the traditional croissants to make them more sandwich-friendly. Croissant dough is used for sandwiches and also stuffed and topped with sweet (coconut raisin or raisin) and savory (melted ham and cheese) fillings. The same dough also serves as the base for Danish.
On a trip to Korea, Chieu Le, Lee’s chief executive officer, noticed the popularity of Deli Manjoo, sold by the bag at stands throughout the country’s subway system. As a result of that trip, Lee’s became the exclusive North American distributor of the Deli Manjoo technology and products. Lee’s stores dedicate about 100 sq. ft. to the automated snack cake-making system, which moulds them into their signature shape imprinted with an ear of corn and injects the creamy center.
An operator feeds the batter and cream, both made from mixes provided by the supplier, into the baking equipment. Depending on the layout of the particular store, the Deli Manjoo station may be free standing or fit into the front counter.
Many customers like to eat them warm from the oven. Currently, Lee’s only offers the cakes with a vanilla custard filling, but other flavors may be added to create a variety of snack options, Hubris says.
Initially, Lee’s attracted a mostly Asian-American customer base. With a population of nearly 15 million, Asians are the third largest and second fastest-growing minority group in the country, projected to increase to more than 33 million by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About one-third of this population lives in California.
The company quickly recognized that its flavor profiles also appealed to a wider customer base, including Hispanics/Latinos, the nation’s largest minority group, with more than 44 million. They account for close to 15 percent of the total population with a projection of almost 36 million by 2050. Presently, at some of the Lee’s restaurants in California, as many as 80 percent of the customers are non-Asian. In Houston, the number is around 20 percent and growing, Hubris reports.
When the first Lee’s Sandwiches location opened in Houston in 2006, it was 11,000 sq. ft. Within a year, it outgrew that space and expanded to 16,000 sq. ft. With the establishment of production and warehousing facilities in Houston, Lee’s has opened a portal to the Southwest and Midwest, Quach notes.
The company has signed a five-store deal with a Dallas franchisee along with another five with the franchisee who will open the first Oklahoma unit in January. The majority of the new Lee’s locations are scheduled to open in Northern (15) and Southern (13) California. During the next two to three years, the company plans to move into the Washington D.C./Maryland/Virginia market.
|All baking at Lee’s Sandwiches stores takes place in full view of customers.|
Many of the current Lee’s locations and those planned for the future are close to college campuses. “Students tend to be more open to trying new flavors,” Hubris explains. “They appreciate the fact that they can get a good 10-in. sandwich for under $3.00 and a baguette for $1.00.”
“The Vietnamese culture is agrarian, which means freshness is key in all of our ingredients and finished products,” Quach says. “Our customers expect powerful and authentic flavors in everything. Based on our experiences so far, we see that those flavors are important to customers far beyond the Asian community. We know we are competing not just for the 15 million Asian Americans, but for the entire population of more than 300 million Americans.”