Vietnamese chef and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen recently commented on the TASTE podcast that when the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants arrived in America following the Vietnam War, Vietnamese food was “barely existing.” But times have changed. As the Vietnamese population grew in the US, so did the ubiquity of Vietnamese cuisine.
Then the pandemic happened, eradicating virtually all social events that involved food, a kind of gathering Vietnamese people value in particular. But pandemic restrictions also gave restaurateurs like Sandy Nguyen and Cassie Ghaffar the opportunity to tap into a semi-obscure market: drive-thru ethnic cuisine.
Nguyen and Ghaffar are the owners of Saigon Hustle, which began in a ghost kitchen before opening a brick-and-mortar location in Houston, Texas in February of this year. Recently, the restaurant was awarded $1 million from the private equity firm Savory Fund, beating out 240 other potential winners. Their success story could serve as a blueprint for others to follow.
Why drive-thru concepts work
In a recent interview with Nation’s Restaurant News, Nguyen and Ghaffar, college best friends who also co-own two other restaurants in Houston, reiterated the idea that enjoying Vietnamese food (or ethnic cuisines in general) for the first time can be a daunting experience for many due to language and culture barriers.
“We had to find a balance to adapt to the American lifestyle,” they said. The answer? The drive-thru lane.
“The drive-through is less intimidating,” Ghaffar told The New York Times. “It is giving more people an opportunity to try Vietnamese cuisine.”
Using a drive-thru model to serve Vietnamese food—especially during an ongoing pandemic whose social distancing rules and health regulations have pervaded our lives for over two years—may be the key to Saigon Hustle’s current success. People who wouldn’t have otherwise tried items that are new to them, including consumers with specific dietary needs or those observing gluten-free or vegan diets, may feel more inclined to try something new when they can just pull up in their car to a restaurant that’s open late.
Many of the foods served at Saigon Hustle take on the fast-casual convenience model similar to Chipotle. Kenny To, co-owner of To Me Vietnamese Sub in Calgary, Canada, echoed the same sentiment to the Times.
“Vietnamese dishes like banh mi and spring rolls are portable and easy to package... making them well-suited for a drive-through format,” he said.
Location, location, location
Making a certain type of cuisine more accessible to diners via drive-thru is just one piece of the puzzle. A lot of times, a restaurant’s success comes down to its location.
Houston is home to the third largest Vietnamese population in America, behind Los Angeles and San Jose. Furthermore, people who identity as Vietnamese numbered 2.1 million in the 2020 US Census. Starting in Houston, therefore, is an advantage for Saigon Hustle. The city’s diverse cultural groups also serve as a platform allowing the restaurant to expand its business.
What Saigon Hustle is doing isn’t new, but how and where it’s doing it is. This isn’t the only chain looking to “Americanize” Vietnamese food. Other Vietnamese restaurants such as Mi-Sant Banh Mi Co. in Minnesota and both Oui Banh Mi and Hughie’s in Houston also operate on a drive-thru model. The result: diversified dining options for Americans, made much quicker through that profitable little window.