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Vietnamese Sandwiches Make Chieu Le a Millionaire

Asian Week, News Feature/Commentary, Gerrye Wong Posted: Apr 18, 2006

The Le Family of San Jose is a prime example of hardworking Asian Americans that have built a successful, thriving restaurant and food service enterprise in just 25 short years. Lees Sandwiches has become a household name in many communities, with the company owning over 22 shops today. Lees Catering has 500 trucks delivering cooked food every day.

The story begins when Chieu Le, a third-year law student, decided that life under the communist regime in Vietnam, in 1979, was becoming too difficult. Le courageously escaped by boat to Malaysia. His wife, Yen, soon joined, and the following year, they emigrated to New Mexico.

In America, Chieu, not speaking any English, worked as a butcher, earning, what he says was very good pay for an immigrant like me who was learning how to cut meat right on the job $8 an hour. I worked hard, doing overtime every day because I needed to support my wife and new son here in America.

Moving to San Jose in 1980, Chieu enrolled in San Jose High Schools English as a Second Language (ESL) program. There, he noticed a Vietnamese-owned catering truck selling food to the students in the schoolyard, and got a job working for them. By the next year, with limited English, he went out to buy his own catering truck. He recalls, The man didnt want to sell it to me because he saw I couldnt even speak English and obviously, looked very inexperienced and poor.

But with his wife at his side, and a determination to work hard, they forged ahead. Soon they were able to talk some companies into allowing their catering truck inside the company parking lots during employees break times. Yen laughed, saying, My husband remembered what was popular, so we offered the same goods like Mexican burritos and tacos, Asian chow mein and egg rolls, and Vietnamese sandwiches. We would look for companies with large groups of employees, stay at each place 10-15 minutes when the employees took breakfast, lunch or dinner breaks, and move on to at least 10 companies three times a day.

In 1982, younger brother Henry Le bought another catering truck, and soon Lee Bros. Foodservices, Inc. was established. The family chose the name Lee Bros. instead of Le Bros. because it would be more easily understood in America. From these modest beginnings came the largest industrial catering company in Northern California.

I visited their 9th and Taylor Street warehouse in San Jose, during the post-lunch hours where a bustling parking lot full of trucks were being washed and prepared to go out with a new set of supplies bought from the Lee commissary warehouse. Lees Catering now delivers food as far as Sacramento, Fresno, Monterey and Napa.

You could feel the sense of pride that both Yen and Chieu exude when they speak of the satisfactions they get knowing that their company helps some 500 catering truck owners get their start in America, much like how they started. Yen explained, We know how hard it is for immigrant blue collar workers to find work or start a business, so we feel good that we can provide this opportunity for them to earn a living and become independent.

While Chieu and Yen were busy establishing the catering business, Chieus father, Ba Le, didnt sit still either. When he saw that Chieus first truck sat idle on the weekends, he decided to take the truck to downtown San Jose, where he parked and sold sandwiches to San Jose State students on Saturdays and Sundays. He was so successful that the local restaurants complained to the city about his selling from a truck. Undaunted, he bought a space at the very same 6th and Santa Clara Street location, and thus, the first Lees Sandwich shop was born in 1983. Five years later, he moved to bigger quarters at King and Tully Road to establish the first full-service Lees Sandwich Shop with expanded offerings.

Today, Ba Le, retired at 75, can look back with pride as he sees Lees Sandwich Shops in Northern and Southern California, Chandler, Ariz. and Houston, Texas. All are owned by the families of Chieus nine siblings and Yens 13, making it a true multigenerational family operation. Chieu said his eldest son, Minh, had the vision to create a new type of sandwich shop that would be a mixture of an entertainment caf and Asian American cuisine. Unfortunately, Minh died in an auto accident in 2001, without seeing the fruition of his dream, but he would be proud to see that their shops have attracted patrons from the mainstream, who enjoy seeing the computer monitors suspended from the ceiling flashing special deals, colorful bilingual menus signs and even chances for a free meal based on order numbers given to customers.

This Lees Sandwiches concept doesnt just serve traditional banh mi sandwiches (which, incidentally, are great to take on airplane rides in preference to airline food!). They offer traditional American sandwiches served on baguettes or croissants, and most popular is the Lees Vietnamese iced coffee, espresso, Thai tea drinks, and a large selection of smoothies. In many of its newer locations, Lees is a social experience, much like Starbucks, where customers come as early as 4:30 a.m. and stay as late as midnight.

Many stores have in-store computers where customers can check their e-mail or surf the Internet.

Lees Sandwich Shops have become one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in the West. That, combined with a commitment to the communities it serves, led to the Small Business Administration awarding Lees Sandwiches the Regional Entrepreneurial Success Award. In 2003, Chieu Le was also recognized as the Business Person of the Year in Orange County.

Chieu and Yen say their advice for up-and-coming entrepreneurs is pretty basic.

Hopefully you wont have to struggle as we had to do, said Chieu. We had to start from the very bottom and only through very hard, long days of work did we luckily become successful. We would tell you to go to school first and get your degree in whatever you feel happy doing. If it is a business you want, it isnt always easy to start afresh like we were forced to do. If possible, buy a franchise as the companies have the experience to teach you how to get started.

Yen added, Now it is easier for young Vietnamese immigrants to get a start as there are many more of us here to help show them the way. When we first came, we had to learn on our own.

Just like they started, both Chieu and Yen continue to work together, teaching their son Jimmy, a recent San Jose State graduate in Management Information Systems, who has come into the business, and son, 18-year-old Jeffrey, is approaching graduation from Harker School. Yen is the full bookkeeper and Chieu oversees an operation that employs up to 100 in the catering department and 500 in the sandwich shops.

Ryan Hubris, a business associate, said the Les have given away so many Lees sandwich products to organizations, nonprofit groups and schools, if laid side by side, they could probably run the length of California. They also established the Le Family Foundation, in memory of their late son, Minh.

Recently, along with friends and Southern California developers, Frank and Catherine Jao, the Les were honored at the new Learning Center of Coastline Community College for a $1 million contribution toward the colleges first endowment campaign. The campus of Westminsters first community college was christened in its January grand opening as the Le-Jao Center.

Chieu has just reached 50, but he hesitated while his wife laughed when discussing retirement. She said, He will always work. We live on a golf course and he has yet to learn to relax and play the game. Chieu admitted he enjoyed his work, and is excited about the future plans of Lees Sandwiches International to spread Lees Sandwiches to new communities through franchising. For more information, visit www.leesandwiches.com.

Its All in the Family

To turn the success of the Le familys ventures into numbers, its said that Lee Sandwiches baked more than 3 million baguettes in the year 2003 alone, a figure no doubt doubled by 2006. In 2003, they served more than 2 million cups of Lees special Iced Coffee. The largest Lees Sandwiches store, situated on the UC Irvine campus, is 8,300 square feet about one-fifth the size of a football field.

lee's sandwich
Photo by David Pham

Lees Sandwiches

Asian fusion- and European-style sandwiches

22 locations in three states

Menu of over 30 sandwich choices with unique drink and
shake choices

500 employees

Lees Sandwich Recipe

Lee's BBQ Pork Sandwich

Bread: Baguette

Size: 10 inches

INCLUDED: Pork, house mayonnaise, house pickle (daikon & carrot), green chili, cilantro, onion, salt, pepper and soy sauce.

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