Through sheer will and focus on her cuisine's healthy aspects, Mary Nguyen Aregoni created the conditions for a proliferation of her fast casual Vietnamese and Thai food.
This month Aregoni just opened her fifth location offering the dishes of Saigon Sisters and Bang Chop Thai in Chicago’s Current Kitchen, a new concept on the lower level of 300 N. LaSalle St. Aregoni’s popular brands are among several other local eateries serving top-quality restaurant food in a convenient cashless cafe environment, where patrons order and pay in person or through a mobile device or computer.
“This is the new wave in restaurant expansion,” says restaurateur and founder Aregoni. “We can scale quickly and efficiently because we don’t need all the resources required for a separate storefront. We can reach so many new people every day through these kinds of open and inviting spaces."
Though CNBC says nearly 80 percent of restaurants close before reaching their fifth anniversary, Saigon Sisters just entered its ninth year of operation and continues to thrive and grow. Aregoni overcame those odds to create her first restaurant and expand to multiple locations through collaboration and determination to serve the delectable Vietnamese and Thai dishes of her childhood.
“I love entertaining,” says Aregoni, “so it was natural for me to serve and entertain others. I saw a niche in the downtown area where there was no fast-casual Vietnamese or Thai brands.”
The long and meandering journey that led Aregoni to open her own restaurant seemed to be guided by destiny, with critical factors presenting themselves to her at the right place and time. But the growth of her Saigon Sisters brand was clearly a deliberate and painstaking endeavor that succeeded in spite of external forces rather than because of them.
“I had to overcome a lot of doubts, a lot of issues, a lot of financial challenges,” says Aregoni. “Once you get bigger and bigger, you face more problems. You're going to have more stress. You have to be a stronger leader to be the one holding things together. It's really a mindset, and it's also focusing on priorities.”
Even as a child growing up in Kentucky, Aregoni desired to learn more about her Vietnamese culture. The trips she took to her homeland as an adult, and the dinner parties she subsequently hosted to share her discoveries through an immersive culinary experience, laid the groundwork for her success as a restaurant owner.
While working in corporate America for 20 years, she developed skills in strategic planning, marketing and analytics that would later serve her well as the chief operating officer of her own brand. And despite the emotional blow of leaving Procter & Gamble during one of the country’s worst economic downturns, she recognized opportunity in a sign seeking vendors for a new indoor market that she passed while on her way to a career counseling appointment.
“Fear is not an option. It is about knowing the risks and managing them,” she advises. “It is a privilege to do what you want in life. It's not easy being an entrepreneur; it is critical to be prepared, have the upfront capital, know that there will be long hours and accept that there will be failure. You have to know how to navigate the hard times and, above all, know that you can't do it alone. You need support. With a restaurant, it is about having the right team, the right food, the right ambience, knowing your customers, and knowing what they want.”
These are among the reasons Aregoni's business has thrived in an extremely difficult sector, coupled with challenging economic conditions. Aregoni had very little experience with restaurants when she came up with the idea, but her mother and grandmother had sold street food in the markets of Vietnam and Laos. So when her husband, mother and sister Theresa all offered to help, she took the leap to become one of the first vendors in Chicago’s new French Market in 2009. It offered an incredible opportunity to spend a minimal investment to equip and man a small stand and receive maximum exposure for her family’s authentic recipes to the tens of thousands of commuters passing through the train station daily.
“The hardest part isn't opening; it’s staying open,” says Aregoni. “You have to know what you are confronting, how much it will take in terms of time and money. Mentors, coaches, training and business development groups are all important.”
After the working professionals embraced her grab-and-go healthy Vietnamese cuisine, she knew she had found a niche worth building on.
“It was a huge success,” says Aregoni. “I couldn't believe it—the welcome we got, and the food: they want more, more, more.”
Aregoni attributes her success to offering a variety of convenient options, keeping prices low and refining her menu based on the most popular items among her customers. “I didn't want to create a book with too many choices. It's confusing for customers to understand. I tried to break it down in a simple format with pictures. We are not Asian fusion or a global cuisine. We are clear on what we serve and what we stand for. We are also more accessible through online ordering, carry-out and catering as well as dine-in. Our price point is more affordable, and we offer quicker service than a full service restaurant.”
The success of her first location in the French Market convinced Aregoni to become more focused on building her team, her brand and her vision.
“I think that if you have multiple places, you have to trust people to do their job,” explains Aregoni, adding that she's handled every duty in her operation but now focuses on the big picture. “You can't do everything. I found that it's better to be a motivating and inspiring leader, where people want to work for you and you take care of them by understanding what motivates them. I have multiple employees who can do multiple roles.” That helps her fill gaps at her four Saigon Sisters and her two Bang Chop Thai Kitchen locations—all in or near Chicago’s Loop. She also has plans to expand to other cities.
Aregoni recognizes the value of bringing her concept to other less traditional locations like airports and food courts. “I think there is room for our cuisine in the mainstream market because people want alternative food other than the typical burger, sandwich, Mexican or Italian chains.
“There's so much potential,” adds Aregoni. “There's not a lot of national Asian brands besides P.F. Chang’s and Panda Express. Converting people to this other cuisine is my goal. It's one of the healthiest cuisines; there’s no gluten, not a lot of fat, not a lot of dairy. Even people who never heard of Vietnamese cuisine say, ‘This is so good. What is that?’ It's fulfilling to see that.”