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    The Sweet Side of Asian

  • A South Korean treat is ready to become an American favorite.

    Quach says the Oklahoma City location will be the “ultimate test market” because it is America’s “fast-food Mecca.” In addition to being the home of Sonic and close to 80 McDonald’s units, Oklahoma City has consistently placed among the top 10 cities with the heaviest users of fast food in an ongoing trend-tracking report by research firm Sandelman & Associates.

    For Lee’s, the city also represents a prototypical market, with a small Vietnamese population to provide a customer base familiar with the flavors, a college close by, and a large population of mainstream Americans. The Oklahoma franchisee has a total of five units on the drawing board.

    Because of its status as a growing international center, Las Vegas was cited by Hubris as a promising potential target market for Lee’s. A progressive population and substantial Vietnamese community also put Seattle on Lee’s wish list. Another probability is Portland, Oregon, which has significant numbers of Asians and Hispanics to provide a solid customer foundation.

    On the Savory Side

    Lee’s Sandwiches combines East and West with a sandwich menu that ranges from traditional made-to-order Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches to classic cold cut combinations. For the banh mi, Lee’s layers Asian favorites such as headcheese, paté, and jambon with house-picked daikon and carrots, onion, cilantro, jalapeño pepper, mayonnaise, and soy sauce on 10-inch baguettes. A special combination adds pork roll and other variations featuring cured or barbecued pork, pork meatballs, grilled chicken, or sardines. There’s also an all-veggie version with fried tofu, vermicelli, bean curd, and yam.

    European combinations, served on either a croissant or 10-inch baguette, run the gamut from ham and cheese to bacon, lettuce, and tomato to a club made with ham, turkey, roast beef, and cheese.

    The less than $3 bahn mi sandwiches outsell the more expensive (a little more than $4) European counterparts by about 10 percent, company Executive Vice President Ryan Hubris says. In some of the stores, customers buy 20 to 30 of the Asian sandwiches at any one time, asking that the baguettes and fillings be separated for at-home freezing and later assembly.

    “Before we opened our Oklahoma City store, we would have customers who would regularly make the almost seven-hour drive from Houston to take home large quantities of the sandwiches to share with their family and friends,” Hubris says.

    All baguettes and croissants are made from scratch and baked on the premises in exhibition bakeries. The Asian-style meats are produced at the company’s own USDA-approved central commissary in northern California. Called Lee Bros. Foodservices Inc., the commissary also services more than 500 independently owned and operated catering trucks, making it the largest operation of its kind in the U.S. The Le family’s first foray into the food business was a catering truck purchased by Chieu Le in 1981.

    “Having a vertically integrated company helps us more effectively control costs and be more responsive in our service,” says Lee’s COO, Tom Quach.

    One hundred years of French colonization had a major impact on Vietnamese cuisine. In the snack category, that is particularly evident in the population’s affinity for house-made puffed pastry dough (paté-chaud) stuffed with chicken or pork.

    Lee’s makes a flaky paté-chaud in two snack sizes. The large size (4.2 ounces) costs about $1 and a mini version (1.3 ounces) goes for about 50 cents.

    Other snack items on the menu range from all-American hot wings (available in five or 25 pieces) to Vietnamese egg rolls and spring rolls, vegetarian rolls, and pork and egg steamed buns.