Today we welcome Jess Nguyen to share her story of how she went from financial analyst in downtown cable car laden San Francisco to distributing delicious street food from the back of her bicycle in and around the Mission. Jess was the first speaker at our Food Entrepreneurs Series – a Feastly initiative to celebrate our community and incredible roster of talented cooks and innovators. She shares her story below.
Why are you a food entrepreneur?
When I was in grade school, kids used to look inside my lunchbox and get so jealous of what my Mother made for me. 20 years later, not much has changed. I can make my own lunch, but my Mother’s cooking is still unbeatable. My Mother, Kim, is my inspiration and working with her has allowed us to pursue this food venture in San Francisco. She has an intuition for Vietnamese flavors and ingredients that go beyond anyone I have ever met. While I’m very driven by the challenges and opportunities from starting a food business – at the end of the day, much of the credit belongs to her.
What is most rewarding about your current food job?
Being able to make people genuinely happy through food is the best reward. It’s a very direct exchange. All of the stress that goes along with cooking, prepping and serving are fully redeemable once you hand someone a dish you made. I think everyone likes to reward themselves with delicious food. It’s a treat and instantly boosts your mood once you take a bite. Being a part of that interaction is what makes working with food and running a food business such a labor of love.
How did you make the decision to leap from full-time finance to your food business?
The decision to take the leap and make Bicycle Banh Mi a legitimate mobile food business happened after the SF Street Food Festival in 2012. We entered a contest to win a booth at the festival and kitchen time at La Cocina (a food business incubator). It was a long shot, but the stars aligned for us that day and we won. It took selling a thousand bánh mi sandwiches over the course of 6 hours that gave my Mother and I the confidence to sign our first lease to a shared commercial kitchen space in the Mission.
What is the most influential piece of advice you’ve received and from whom?
Melissa Cohen, a chocolate chip cookie entrepreneur and owner of Salty Sweet, gave me some really great advice the other day – “take a chance on yourself.” It’s incredibly simple, but I’ve learned that taking chances are essential to starting and running a business. It’s a valuable lesson in learning how to trust yourself and have confidence in the decisions you make.
Nicest compliment you’ve been given about your food.
I have two that tie for nicest compliment:
(1) A Mother in SF sent us an email after having tried our slow cooked pork bánh mì sandwich at the SF Street Food Festival last year. She told us that her baby is an extremely picky eater, but absolutely loved our slow cooked pork. If a really picky baby gives our food two tiny thumbs up, I feel like we gotta be doing something right!
(2) My friend Kasey told us that what makes our bánh mì different than others is that when she takes a bite, it makes her feel like home. That statement truly captures the essence of what we strive for with Bicycle Banh Mi – a home cooked meal. Whenever my Mother cooks, she says she cooks as if she were making food for her family. And that is how I’ve learned to cook. As Bicycle Banh Mi grows, it’s important that feeling comes across clearly to everyone who tries our food.
If you weren’t doing this, where in time would you be and what would you be doing?
The future? I always loved the Jetsons more than the Flintstones. If I weren’t doing Bicycle Banh Mi, maybe I would try to fulfill my dream of being an animator at Pixar. Some girls liked horses. I ran a pretend animation studio in the living room.
The Feastly community is really amazing. I attended a Feastly event for the first time last month and had a blast. Firstly, everyone shares a passion for food. Secondly (but not as obvious), everyone embraces the idea of being part of a sharing economy. It’s exciting to feel like you are contributing to a movement that connects people in ways that are new and unheard of, but make total sense. For Feastly, having an online platform that brings the focus back to the dinner table is refreshing.
Thank you Jess for participating and thank YOU for reading about and supporting these entrepreneurs of our food movement! Follow us on Facebook to be in the know of Feastly events happening near you. #FeastOn