Monica Wong and Quynh Nguyen are the co-founders of Little Green Cyclo, a food business based in San Francisco. The brand started as the first Vietnamese food truck in the Bay Area in 2010 and has grown to encompass three food trucks, a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and now a line of packaged food and drink products.
Hello Alice spoke with the co-founders about what it was like to open a food truck before it was cool, how they spread the word about their business, and the organizations that were key to their success. What follows are their own words, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Monica Wong and Quynh Nguyen
Co-founders, Little Green Cyclo | San Francisco, California
Monica Wong: Since I was a kid, I was around restaurants, but it was not something that I enjoyed. My family all worked really hard all the time. They could barely take vacations. So, the last thing I wanted to do was to get involved. I just did my own thing, got my degree in economics, said I wanted to do investment banking. Then, I transitioned into trading, underwriting, and, eventually, portfolio management. It was a nice career. When I eventually left the finance industry, I knew I wanted to start my own business in the food and beverage space. So, I came full circle and shocked everybody, especially my family and friends, because they knew how opposed to it I was when I was growing up. Ultimately, it was more like coming home to what my family had been doing, what they were building.
After I retired from finance, I wanted to go back to California. I wasn’t sure it was going to be Southern California or Northern California. When I came back up to the Bay Area, I met with Quynh’s business partner, who was a very good friend of mine. When she walked into the restaurant, that’s when the whole conversation about starting a business began.
Quynh Nguyen: In a previous life, I was working as a webmaster when I started going to a restaurant called Boiling Pot. We loved crawfish there and the spicy flavor. At that time in San Jose, there was nothing like that. So, my friend said, “Oh, why don’t we open something in San Jose.” And I was like, “OK, let’s do it!” When we all agreed, we found out no one knew how to cook, and they assigned me the job. I started learning, and we opened a Cajun restaurant that served seafood and jambalaya and all of that for four or five years. That was how I learned and where I first met Monica.
MW: We started 10 years ago with just one food truck before food trucks were popular. I’d say there were less than half a dozen trucks in the entire Bay Area, and we started the very first Vietnamese food truck.
QN: When I was little, I played ping pong professionally, so I traveled around the country a lot. We would always go out and eat street food, and I’m very comfortable and familiar with the taste, so I wanted to bring that here. That’s why we chose Vietnamese food — I’m familiar with the taste.
MW: It was really difficult. When you first approached companies, they would think of roach coach and that they would get sick from eating off the truck, that we would burn down their building. It was a lot of education. We had to teach and educate the public about food trucks. Actually, they’re inspected far more than your local restaurants because the health department inspects you in every county that you go to, whereas in a restaurant, you see a health inspector once a year. For us, the health inspector can hop in any time and all the time.
That was also really the time that Twitter started taking off, so that was instrumental for food trucks to be able to post to let our followers know, “Hey you can find us here on this day at this hour.” Food trucks don’t have a set schedule. We’re restaurants on wheels, so we will come to you. We’ll go to your office or the financial district or anywhere where people are looking for good food.
Twitter and word-of-mouth helped get the word out, but when Off the Grid started putting together these food truck gatherings, people were really able to find us. Now we’re at the point where Google has 20 food trucks or more, and people have us coming to their houses for birthday parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs. It took some time to educate the public. It went from something that they didn’t know anything about to this niche. Now, it’s more generally accepted, and they really understand that these guys are chefs in these kitchens that just happen to be on wheels.
QN: I make everything from scratch. It’s a lot of work, but I think it’s worth it because you have to start with good ingredients to make a good dish. I like the creative side of cooking. The more you do something, the more you learn about it.
MW: Right now, especially in this environment, everyone is so receptive. Everyone is so willing to help that if you reach out to anybody like, “Hey, I’ve been following you. I’m stuck here. Can you help?” Even on Facebook, groups like Asian Hustle Network, they’ve been awesome and supportive. There’s another group on Facebook that we’re a part of called Female Food Foundry. There are many organizations out there — you just have to search.
As a business owner, I don’t think I gave my family enough credit on how difficult it is to run a business. What you see when we go out for service is literally like looking at the tip of that iceberg. Everything else is down here, from behind-the-scenes prep work to cleaning to running the business to hiring staff. There are going to be great days, but there will be many not-so-great days. I would have walked away in the first three months if it wasn’t for Quynh’s perseverance because it was so hard for me to go from white-collar to blue-collar. I was driving the food trucks, cleaning the trucks, doing everything manual that you can imagine because if it’s your business, you just need to roll up your sleeves and do it.