Her Mom Sold Rice Cakes in a Refugee Camp. Now She Sells Her Mom's Hot Chili Sauce in Gourmet Grocery Stores. Her Mom Isn't Impressed… Yet.

February 10, 2021 15+ min read

Nothing leaves a mark on the heart quite like rejection. “I still remember the first time somebody tasted one of our sauces and said, ‘Ugh, not for me,’” Lisa Tran says. “She just left the sample on the counter, didn’t even throw it in the trash can. I went to the bathroom and cried. People can be so blunt, and I didn’t know how to not take it personally because our — well, the sauces we make are so personal.”

Fifty years before Tran, 39, stood behind a demo counter in a gourmet in , Oregon — watching a woman wrinkle her nose at her mom’s hot chili sauce — Tran’s grandparents were selling pho on their stoop in the Southern Vietnamese village of Soc Trang. “It was a way to make a living during the war,” Tran says. “My grandfather was a politician in our little village, and my grandmother wasn’t very educated, but she was a wonderful cook. She raised pigs and chickens, so she would use the meat from her pigs to buy beef and make pho soup. They called their little stall ‘Pho for the People.’”

Lisa Tran’s grandparents with their pho stall in the village of Soc Trang, Vietnam // Image Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Tran

Lisa’s parents, Vinh Tran and Mai Nguyen, fled Vietnam on a tiny fishing boat carrying 13 refugees in 1976. Two decades later, they opened Tân Tân Cafe & Delicatessen in the Portland metro area. Tân Tân means “New Beginnings,” and they were the first Vietnamese restaurant around. The venture began as a deli to showcase high-end Vietnamese meats, but word spread over time, the dishes became more elaborate, and the Tran family set up more tables for guests. In 2017, Lisa launched Tân Tân Sauces — authentic Vietnamese vegan, gluten-free hot chili, hoisin, “fish” and peanut sauces taken straight from her mom’s restaurant recipes. The line is now sold in over 300 grocery stores in the Pacific Northwest (and is coming soon to Safeway and Albertsons). 

“Please just let me do this for a year”

Lisa’s endeavor to bring her family’s sauces to the retail marketplace was animated by tensions that exist in many multi-generational immigrant families. Her parents leaned on their cultural traditions to help them make ends meet in the U.S. so their daughter could become a doctor. But Lisa was drawn to the family business, and while she loved the restaurant, she also saw an opportunity to create something bigger. She recognized that her family’s could be branded beautifully, distributed on a wider scale, and even become a more mainstream part of U.S. food culture. But as she pushed toward her entrepreneurial vision, she faced resistance from the very person who created the product she was trying to sell: her mom. “My mom couldn’t stand the financial uncertainty of it,” Lisa says. “She was like, ‘You have kids, you are running this restaurant, this is a pipe dream. I don’t see any money coming in. You should just go back to the restaurant because at least there you have a paycheck every day.’ She would’ve rather opened a bigger restaurant than put that money into the sauces, because she felt like Vietnamese food was too niche, and you have to sell so much to make it big. But I begged her: ‘Please just let me do this for a year and let me see what I can do with it.’”

Given the traumatic story of how the Tran family came to the U.S., it’s entirely understandable why Mai would want a safer, less tumultuous path for her daughter. But how often do we follow in our parents’ footprints, without even recognizing the path? February 12 is the start of the Lunar New Year, or Tết in Vietnam. It’s a holiday for relaxing with family, remembering ancestors, playing games, and eating classic comfort foods prepared in advance. And one traditional Tết dish the Tran family makes every year is Bitter Melon Soup. “Bitter Melon is this kind of squash-looking thing with little bumps and nooks and crannies, like an oversized green bean,” Lisa says. “In Vietnamese it’s called Khổ qua, which means ‘the bitterness of the past.’ It’s symbolic to eat this soup as a reflection on the bitterness and negativity of the past year along with the promise of the new year.”

So, in the spirit of Bitter Melon Soup, while looking forward to a new year of luck, Lisa reflected on her family’s terrifying, tragic, and ultimately inspiring story of survival — along with powerful lessons learned from their journey into entrepreneurship. 

Lisa’s dad, Vinh Tran, making Bahn Tet, the New Year Cake // Image Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Tran

“Just when they thought all hope was lost”

Lisa’s mom, Mai, and her dad, Vinh, met while trying to escape the first time. When Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) fell in 1975, Mai was an elementary school principal, and Minh was a seminarian — just months from becoming a priest. Under the new communist regime, educated people were persecuted. Vinh was 23 and Mai was 20, and they both dreamed of starting a better life somewhere else. They happened to buy passage on the same escape boat but were intercepted before getting far. Vinh jumped out and swam away, leaving his jacket behind, and Mai grabbed the jacket to keep warm. She spent nearly two weeks in jail, and when she got out she asked around about who the jacket belonged to. A friend of hers’ recognized it as Vinh’s. “My dad was always a leader in his own right, so he was organizing the escape party and collecting money from people and doing all the communications,” Lisa explains. “My mom went to return the jacket, and my dad fell in love right away. He said she was so beautiful and chubby! In Asian culture, chubbiness is a sign of prosperity and health, so that really caught his eye. My dad loves to tell stories about how he would try to bike her around, but she was so heavy, it was hard for him to go up hills.”

Soon the couple was engaged, and in 1976, they tried to escape again — this time with Vinh’s younger brother and sister, as well as Mai’s younger sister. They chose a small fishing boat to avoid attention. They spent the first days of the journey terrified and seasick, but that was just the beginning of the horror to come. “Within a few days they were attacked by Thai pirates,” Lisa says. “The women were raped, and the men were beaten. They were stripped and robbed of their belongings, and all of their food and water was taken. Then they were basically left to die out on the open ocean.” Stranded at sea for days, Vinh led the group in prayer. “Just when they thought all hope was lost,” Lisa says, “a Thai fisherman came and was able to feed them and give them water.” He pulled them safely to Thailand, a triage point for thousands of other refugees fleeing South Vietnam. Heartbreakingly, once they were ashore, Vinh’s younger sister died from internal injuries sustained during the attack. “My dad lived with a lot of guilt from that,” Lisa says. 

For a long time, Lisa says her parents were reticent to talk about their harrowing journey from Vietnam, in part because they didn’t see their pilgrimage as exceptional, however traumatic and painful it might have been. “Our experience as ‘Boat People’ is not very unique,” she says. “Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people fled, and when they were able to reach America or Canada or whichever country, they were more focused on the future and assimilating to the culture.”

From selling rice cakes in an Indonesian refugee camp to making pho in Portland, Oregon

After some time in Thailand, Mai and Vinh were sent to Galang Refugee Camp on an island in Indonesia, where they stayed for over three years. “Living in barracks and having no money and no sense of what was going to happen in the future really shaped who they are today,” Lisa says. “They got enterprising. My dad would take bark and carve little figurines to sell, and using that money, they would go to the commissary and buy the cheapest thing, which was rice flour. Then my mom would make little rice cakes and fry them up to sell. They were very entrepreneurial.”

Vinh Tran and Mai Nguyen at Galang Refugee Camp in Indonesia // Image Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Tran

Despite the poverty and uncertainty, there were happy times during those years. “My parents were very beloved there,” Lisa says. “My dad helped the priests build a church on the island, and my mom and dad were actually one of very few couples who were gifted a wedding at the camp. And then I was born there.”

Finally, in 1981, Vinh and Mai made contact with Lisa’s aunt, who was going to school in Oregon, and she was able to sponsor their immigration to the U.S. The first years were hard. But they joined a church, and one couple helped them apply for a car loan and a mortgage. Members of the congregation also helped Vinh get landscaping work as he took night classes to become a machinist. After graduating with an associate’s degree, he got a job at Boeing, just a small airplane company back then. With her background in education, Mai spoke French but not English, so she started working as a seamstress while taking ESL classes and eventually got steady temp work in the warehouses of a then-nascent Nike. Mai worked at Nike for nearly two decades, until she retired because she was diagnosed with breast cancer. And after three decades at Boeing, Vinh was laid off, so the family started thinking about other ways to make money.

Mai Nguyen and baby Lisa, just after they arrived in America // Image Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Tran

Lisa’s aunt and uncle ran a popular Vietnamese meats shop in Vancouver, and they offered to teach Lisa’s parents how to open one themselves. Vinh and Mai figured, “Why not?” They took over the lease of an old Mediterranean deli in Beaverton (about ten minutes from downtown Portland) to open Tân Tân Cafe & Delicatessen. Lisa was 15 at the time, and she went to Beaverton High School, which happened to be across the street from the restaurant. “In the morning, my parents would take my younger brother and I to the restaurant. We would help them fix things up or whatnot, and then walk across the street to school. After school we’d come back and there was an upstairs room where we would take naps and do our homework.”

“Your hot chili sauce isn’t as good as your mom’s”

As the years went on, Tân Tân Cafe & Delicatessen earned itself a loyal following. Meanwhile, Lisa went away to college and graduated on a pre-med track, even though she knew her heart wasn’t in it. “My brain is not wired for science,” she says. “When I was a kid I always played store with my little brother, and I wanted to be a teacher as well. But ever since we were little it was, ‘You’re going to be a doctor.’ So I just never felt like I had the option of doing anything else. But when I didn’t get into med school after three rounds of applications, and I wanted to get married, I was just like, ‘I can’t do this,’ you know? So I had a hard, long talk with my mom. And she said, ‘Well, let’s open up another location in Vancouver (Washington) for you to manage.’ So the new restaurant was going to be my project and give me a career.”

The family restuarant, in Beaverton, ten minutes from downtown Portland // Image Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Tran

Lisa was excited for the new venture, though she soon discovered there were some inevitable mother-daughter dynamics to contend with. ‘During that time I learned that I had very different managerial skills than my mom,” Lisa says, laughing. “I was like, let’s do timesheets so that people can know what time they came in and out. And let’s really do an inventory. Let’s write down all of our records and recipes, because regulars at the Beaverton location who just happened to find themselves in Vancouver would say, ’Why is the peanut sauce a little bit different here?’ Or, ‘Your hot chili sauce isn’t as good as your mom’s.’ And I would be like, really? It’s the same recipe! And then my mom would be like, ‘Well, are you using a cup of this?’ I’d say, yes. But then it would turn out that my mom’s ‘cup’ was not an actual measuring cup, it was whatever tool she had on hand. And with everything, when I would say, ‘Show me how to do this,’ she would say, ‘No, just let me do it for you.’ If I said, ‘Can you show me how you did this dessert?’ My mom would say, ‘No, I’ll just make it for you and your brother will bring it along with the weekly meat deliveries.’ So that’s how it always was.”

When Lisa became pregnant with twins, she began to wonder how sustainable “14 hours a day, seven days a week” restaurant hours would be while raising kids and decided that some formal business training would be useful. She signed up for a class on making a business plan at the local small business development center (SBDC). While there, she saw a flier for a class on “Getting Your Recipe to Market.”

Over the years, Tân Tân Cafe’s hot chili sauce had become so popular with regulars that they often sold it in 32 ounce to-go containers for $5 a tub. “Customers who bought tubs of sauce for years and years always told us, ‘Why don’t you bottle this sauce?” Lisa recalls. “We probably lost so much money selling those tubs, but we were just happy that people loved it. So I brought that flyer home to my husband and I was like, ‘Let’s try it.’”

With twin babies (Grace and Seth) at home, Lisa took the plunge and signed up for the course. “We learned everything from how to demo the product, to getting feedback, how to set up your products, what kind of labels to choose. And the final of the course was to pitch to New Seasons Market, which is kind of like a Gelson’s for the Portland area. They ended up loving our sauces so much that Tân Tân was the very first company to go through this program that launched in all of their stores.”

So that’s how Lisa wound up standing behind a demo counter in a gourmet grocery store in Portland, watching a lady wrinkle her nose at her mom’s hot chili sauce. 

“I’m just going to kill her with kindness”

That unpleasant moment happened early in Lisa’s demo days, when she was still learning the ropes. “But,” she says, I got some advice early on that I’ve always taken to heart, which is that getting into stores is only half the work. The other half is actually selling the product. And that’s so true: Some demo ambassadors stand there on their phones and just kind of stick a spoon in something. We really have to work hard at sharing these flavors with people, because so many consumers don’t know what they are.”

Coming from a restaurant family, Lisa understood the importance of presentation. So she brought an induction stove to her station and cooked dishes with the sauces right there in the stores. “I would actually make a mini-version of our pad Thai, tossing noodles with our peanut sauce, and then glazing tofu with our hoisin and hot chili sauce. Not only were customers drawn to my little table to see a live ‘ show,’ but they were able to taste our sauces and learn how to recreate this super simple recipe at home. Pretty soon I established a lot of wonderful relationships with the staff and employees at New Seasons, and they gave me the prime counter space where people would come in to grab their cart, grab a free cup of coffee and grab a sample.”

Image Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Tran

Lisa was under a lot of pressure to make every moment count, because with her parents’ blessing (albeit a resistant one), she’d sold the restaurant in Vermont to launch the sauces line and promised her mom that she would devote one year to getting the sauces off the ground before coming back to work at the original restaurant. “Honestly, looking back, I don’t know how I made it through that period,” she says. “I was exhausted, getting no sleep, working through these double demos, picking up the babies and then coming home, feeding them and then taking care of the paperwork portion of the restaurant, because my mom didn’t do any inventory.” But over time, Lisa’s dedication, the network she built and the hours she logged demoing began to pay off.

“My biggest triumph was when the very first woman — the one who said, “This isn’t for me,’ and just left it there — well she came back,” Lisa says. “It was a lot later, after I’d kind of busted my chops and learned more about how to demo. I thought, ‘I’m going to kill her with kindness.’ Anyway, she tried the sample and was like, ‘Oh, this is great. I love this.’ We had a conversation and then she actually walked away with a sauce. I was so emotional about it. When I got to the car, this time it was tears of happiness and gratitude that I just didn’t give up after the first time or when it got hard.”

So how does Mai feel now, about her homemade sauces being sold in hundreds of grocery stores across the Pacific Northwest?

“Oh my mom is still thinking it’s a side hustle,” Lisa says, laughing. “Every time I tell her I have to leave early because I have a demo or a meeting she gives me this look like, ‘Oh, geez, your thing again’ — even though she’s my partner in all this! I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that our sauces are placed in a little bit more of a premium market and my mom — and our whole family quite frankly — is very frugal. We don’t shop normally at these markets. My mom doesn’t shop at Trader Joe’s because she thinks it’s too expensive. She’s like, ‘Who charges bananas by one banana?!’ So even if I got into Trader Joe’s, she would not be very impressed. My mom is like, ‘If you get into Costco, then I’ll be very excited for you!’ But we’re not there yet.”

Related: ‘Max’ Brenner Was Pushed Out of His Own Company, Financially Destroyed, and Banned From Making Chocolate For Five Years. But He Learned: ‘Hell Has Benefits.’

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