Their entrepreneurial spirit, plus a high dose of creativity, creates the perfect blend to make a culinary success.
It all started in a yoga studio. Well, the name did anyway. Just months after opening their restaurant’s third location in Chicago, Mary and Theresa Nguyen of Saigon Sisters reflect cheerfully on their now distant beginnings.
“We were sitting in this New York yoga studio a while back, coming up with the design and logo,” recalls Theresa, smiling. “Mary came up with the name of the restaurant.” Saigon Sisters honors their heritage, as both of their parents were born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam). They were raised in Laos and migrated all over Southeastern Asia before ultimately settling in Kentucky in 1976. While they went on to pursue successful careers in their own fields – Mary served as an IT project manager for Procter & Gamble and Theresa developed a career in the fashion industry – they shared a dream of one day working together.
So in 2009, when the Chicago French Market opened and scouted for vendors, the sisters jumped at the chance. “I didn’t want to work for someone else anymore,” says Theresa. For Mary, who enjoys cooking and entertaining, the booth offered an escape. “I was always behind a computer at P&G, and I moved a lot. Once I moved to Chicago and met my husband, I didn’t want to move anymore.”
The booth at the French Market flourished and they expanded, opening a restaurant on Lake Street in 2010 and in Northwestern Memorial Hospital in 2013. Theresa stays on top of culinary trends, making sure that the restaurant keeps up with the latest craze. It was her idea to cater to gluten-free and vegan patrons, a move that they say has been very successful. Mary, on the other hand, is the entrepreneurial whiz, marketing products to as wide a demographic as possible with social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest. Besides offering authentic Vietnamese cuisine, the sisters also create approachable dishes that attract even the most wary foodie. Critics praise Saigon Sisters for its traditional yet innovative dishes like Hot Diggity Bao, a Vietnamese-style hot dog.
Their lineage hints at a possible genetic trace and explanation for their entrepreneurial minds. The sisters credit their mother – affectionately called Mama Soo – for their success. “Our mom is our inspiration,” says Mary. “She was an entrepreneur in Asia, and we grew up in that environment.” Besides her unwavering support, Mama Soo also provides traditional recipes that keep the restaurant authentic and help the women stay connected to their Vietnamese roots. “My mom always keeps us in check,” admits Mary. “She speaks only Vietnamese to us and still cooks for us sometimes. We crave her food.” The love for the family’s food is reciprocal, and you’ll often find Mama Soo working tirelessly at the French Market. It’s one generation paving the way for the next.
By Madeleine Ptacin | Kasia Jarosz Photograph