They reach safe harbor, then their ship comes in
At the age of 60, Chieu Le, who has lived near a golf course since 1996, is finally learning to play golf. But only because his customers want to play golf with him, he says, laughing.
Otherwise he is content to just “work more and more and more.”
That’s apparently the kind of thinking that propels a penniless refugee to king of a sandwich empire.
Le is the founder of Lee’s Sandwiches, 58 shops worth millions of dollars and still growing. The family’s first shop opened in downtown San Jose. The second, and the one that served as the real springboard for the Vietnamese-American sandwich chain, is the one on Bolsa Avenue in Westminster. Westminster and nearby Garden Grove are home to the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam.
Now the family is about to open their first international spot: Taiwan in July. Nos. 60 and 61 will be in Cypress and Anaheim. Nos. 62 and 63 will open in Virginia and Georgia later this year.
Jimmy Le, Le’s son and vice president, says they’re just getting started: “My dad’s goal is to be as big as McDonald’s.”
The family’s road from “boat people” to business leaders is the kind of American story you like to hear about.
Chieu and Yen Le married when they were 22. She worked for her parent’s hardware business. He was in his second year in law school. They had a nice house in Saigon. And then, in 1975, Saigon fell.
The north Vietnamese took over their property, as communists will do, and closed the law school. In 1978, the Les made a run for it.
“We left behind everything,” Yen says. “Everything come here only in memories.”
They took their chances on a small fishing boat, packed with 98 other people, part of the first big wave of boat people to arrive on American shores.
It wasn’t bad, as refugee boat escapes go, though, the couple says. No pirates, no storms, no deaths. They didn’t sink.
“Not all scary things happened to my people on the way to freedom, thank God for that,” says Yen.
After three nights the boat landed at a refugee camp in Malaysia. Stuck there for 13 months, it is where their first son, Minh, was born.
One month later, in July 1979, a plane brought them to the U.S., New Mexico to be specific.
“We know not a word of English,” Yen says. “The thing that touched me was the kindness of Americans. The Catholic Church gave us our clothing. We are so surprised that Americans are so nice, so generous. They opened their arms. So everything we do right now for America is not enough for what they gave to us.”
The best way to reciprocate, they thought, was to get to work.
After a year of learning to be a butcher in New Mexico, Chieu took his family to San Jose. About 20 relatives, Chieu’s, brothers and sisters and their families, had arrived by now.
Chieu began going to night school at San Jose High to learn English. Sometimes before class, he would buy something to eat from a food truck parked outside the school. After about a week the truck owner, who was Vietnamese, asked Chieu if he needed a job.
That night was Chieu’s last English class.
“I had many brothers and sisters,” some of whom were going to school, Le says. “I had to support them.”
In less than a year, Chieu had enough money saved to buy a truck of his own. Every weekday, Yen drove the truck through the streets of downtown San Jose, and Chieu cooked hamburgers and burritos, selling them out the window to office workers.
Soon he and his brother Henry Le noticed that other immigrant trucks were having trouble staying stocked with food and ice. So they started Lee Bros. Foodservices, which would eventually service 500 catering trucks all over Northern California.
By now Chieu was working from 3 a.m. to 11 p.m.
His truck, however, was sitting idle on weekends. In 1983, his parents asked if they could use the truck on Saturdays and Sundays to sell banh mi, essentially a French-influenced Vietnamese hoagie. A crusty French baguette slathered with homemade mayo and stuffed with meat of some sort, the banh mi is now on every hip menu, the darling of foodies.
But back then you wouldn’t have heard those words unless you were Vietnamese. Chieu’s parents parked the truck on weekends at Sixth and Santa Clara streets near San Jose State University. It was an instant hit.
By year’s end, the family opened a storefront not far from where they had been parking the truck. They called it Lee’s Sandwiches, changing Le to Lee so there would be no confusion about pronunciation.
In 2001, Minh, the oldest of Chieu’s three sons, the one born in the Malaysian camp, suggested that he and his dad open another Lee’s, in Little Saigon in Westminster, only with a simpler, bilingual menu and an American modern-chain vibe.
They would sell their banh mi on family recipe French baguettes. Customers could choose Vietnamese-style deli meats, like crunchy headcheese and pork liver pate made in Lee’s catering facility in San Jose, or grilled or steamed meats.
The family would also start selling ca phe sua da, Vietnamese-style coffee (dark roast, slow drip, sweet condensed milk, ice). A few traditional Vietnamese pudding desserts and appetizers, like spring rolls, would remain on the menu, as well as pate chaud, a Vietnamese puff pastry filled with meat. Croissants were added.
The new Lee’s opened to mobs on Aug. 8, 2001, with a flashing neon sign telling customers when a hot baguette was emerging from the oven and a recorded voice that announced when each order was up. But Minh wasn’t there to see it. He had been killed in a motorcycle crash on March 29, two months before graduating from San Jose State with a business degree.
Jimmy says that store is a tribute to his brother, as well as the prototype for all future stores, which can now be found in Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon and Nevada. Most are in communities with large Vietnamese populations.
“But a lot of our customers aren’t Vietnamese anymore,” Jimmy says.
Fans come first for the banh mi. (Lee’s bread blows every other sandwich chain away, according to the faithful.)
The coffee is the chain’s second best seller. Chieu’s brother Tom roasts a secret mix of beans at a facility in Garden Grove.
Chieu and his wife, both 60 now, still own six shops (the chain franchised in 2005), including the one on Bolsa. They still work every day, and about once a month they travel to Orange County from their San Jose home.
“Whenever I see a customer eat the last bite of a sandwich and the last sip of a coffee,” Yen says, “I’m very happy.”