Long before becoming “mompreneurs,” best friends Cassie Ghaffar and Sandy Nguyen met at the University of Houston. At the time, Nguyen ran a small Vietnamese restaurant, and Ghaffar had just entered the bar industry. Sharing a love for travel, eating well, and hustling to make something of themselves, the two became inseparable.

Twenty years, a brief stint in both wealth management and franchising, multiple different cafes, and seven kids later, Ghaffar and Nguyen realized they needed to align their future goals together to have a balance of everything they wanted in life: a legacy for their children.

“We wanted to be at soccer games but also build a brand,” Ghaffar says. “We took our combined experiences, put our heads together, and came up with a few concepts, Saigon Hustle being one of them.”

Both Ghaffar and Nguyen hail from a Vietnamese background and knew they wanted to infuse fresh, flavorful recipes from home with the convenience of a drive-thru. As a brand, Saigon Hustle puts an approachable twist to traditional Vietnamese dishes with its simplicity and ease of ordering.

Menu items include gluten-free Crispy Tofu Spring Rolls, ABC Beef Soup (pho), and the Vietnamese Sandwich (banh mi). The concept is supposed to be “the Chipotle of Vietnamese restaurants,” where guests choose from a list of different proteins and build their own noodle bowls or sandwiches.

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“People won’t be apprehensive about the food because it is familiar in the sense that it’s salad, it’s noodles, it’s chicken. It’s not too far off,” Nguyen adds. “Our flavor profile adds a bit of fun [to tradition].”

While Houston is known for its rich Asian restaurant scene, it became clear Nguyen and Ghaffar wanted to bring something different to the table with Saigon Hustle.

By sticking to authentic Vietnamese flavors and moving away from fusion-inspired menu items, the pair of entrepreneurs say they are introducing a mom-and-pop flair to the city in a way that is attractive to guests from all backgrounds.

“Getting good Vietnamese food in Houston is intimidating for the mainstream audience because you have to go to Chinatown where you can’t quite say the name of the restaurant or read the menu,” Ghaffar explains. “We created this comfortable space where we Americanized the concept, but not the flavors.”

As Ghaffar and Nguyen came closer to bringing their menu and concept to life, they battled with the stigma that opening a restaurant would be seen as a step back in their career. They came from an old school family, where restaurant operators had no experience in layering management or rallying for the support of private equity firms. But they knew the foundation of Saigon Hustle was always to expand, and they had the higher education and drive to do so. They just needed to align themselves with the right set of partners.

In 2021, investment company Savory Fund created the Million Dollar Restaurant Launch to provide operational support through industry-veteran lead guidance in finances, real estate, development, technology, construction, and more. On top of this, Savory Fund would invest $1 million in the winning concept. According to the company, over 240 U.S. restaurant concepts entered the contest, one of which was Saigon Hustle.

After a close friend recommended Savory to Nguyen and Ghaffar, they decided to stop by the private equity firm’s headquarters while on a snowboarding trip to Utah. At the time, they were running a cloud kitchen for Saigon Hustle and signed a lease, but the restaurant had not officially opened.

“We toured Savory’s office and loved them so much just on the initial encounter,” Nguyen says. “A month later, they called and asked if we were interested in joining the million-dollar competition. At first, we said sure, why not? We thought it was going to be like ‘Top Chef’ on TV.”

A few months later, Nguyen and Ghaffar were presented with the $1 million check and partnership with Savory. They remember praying for the win and their hearts wrenching in happiness when they received the news.

According to the pair, their dynamic with Savory has always been light-hearted yet down to business, even at the initial meeting in Salt Lake City. Ghaffar says the chemistry between everyone felt more like a friendship than a partnership.

Earning the support of Savory unlocked the ability to grow faster than they ever would have organically, even with Ghaffar and Nguyen’s experience and expertise in getting concepts off the ground.

“I only have two hands and two feet, and [Sandy and I] have a lot of kids,” Ghaffar jokes. “We can work really, really hard, but Savory brought a whole new aspect to Saigon Hustle.”

The first brick-and-mortar location opened in Garden Oaks, Houston, featuring a state-of-the-art drive-thru and locally sourced menu with gluten-free and vegan options. Additionally, the concept is working to develop a catering program.

Once Saigon Hustle trends positively enough in Houston, Ghaffar and Nguyen eye a growth path through Texas and into the Midwest, where Savory has ample experience. After working with Savory’s managing partner, a franchise program is coming down the pipeline.

As the fast casual expands, the pair are adamant about making an impact through education, social media, and community outreach. Both Ghaffar and Nguyen believe this will be the key to introducing themselves in markets where Vietnamese food is unfamiliar. 

“As we move into new markets, we want to increase our grassroots marketing and actually talk to people, really resonate with each city,” Nguyen says. “We’ve been involved in farmers markets for quite some time, and we want to do more things like that.”

A second Saigon Hustle is in the works for the Spring Branch, Houston, area, next to Ghaffar and Nguyen’s neighborhood. They have already imprinted their brand in the community by sponsoring local soccer fields and are looking forward to breaking into San Antonio and Dallas next.

“We aren’t intimidated [by the growth of Saigon Hustle], we’re excited,” Ghaffar says. “We never left entrepreneurship. Sandy and I have always run businesses, and when we had our kids, it only made us want to get together and dream a little bit bigger.”

Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Story