By Peggy Chapman
Northwest Asian Weekly
George Nguyen never imagined he would be running grocery stores and food distribution businesses along the west and north coast in the U.S.
Nguyen left by boat from Vietnam, in 1979, the age of 19, with pretty much nothing, including his devoted wife, which he had been married to for three months. He was 18 when they married. (She ended up coming to the U.S. two years later, when they were finally reunited.) His experience on the journey to the U.S. was painful and hard. Sparing details of his experience on the boat, Nguyen simply stated, “I wouldn’t take a hundred million dollars to experience that again.”
Settling in was difficult, being in a new country, and being separated from his new wife. Fortunately he had family in the United States which helped him get a foothold. He stayed with his brother and aunt in Kansas, both who had grocery businesses. Grocery and distribution runs in the family. Nguyen’s grandfather did import in Vietnam.
The reunited husband and wife team worked at a meat plant in Kansas, cutting meat, earning $6.40 an hour, working eight hours a day. The wage was decent for the 80s. They were able to save $30,000 for their first Asian grocery store, albeit a small space—approximately 1500 square feet. Nguyen was now 23 at the time, and also had three children with the opening of the new store.
He sold the store in 2000 and moved from Kansas to Michigan, where he opened stores in both Detroit and Grand Rapids. He started branching out into different ventures in 2007, opening warehouses and expanding into wholesale—canned goods, noodles, etc. Michigan ended up being a good home for the Nguyens, for their family and their businesses. All five of their children went to college in Michigan.
Children and spouse contributed to the family business. Nguyen says of his close-knit family: “I teach them [my children] well. They listen.”
Nguyen’s desire to expand led to creating distribution businesses in California and Arizona.
That leads to the next milestone in Nguyen’s journey: Seattle.
Why Seattle and why Lam’s? Believe it or not, one of the primary reasons is weather. George will be staying several months to establish the regimen, but son and daughter Terry and Nhung Tran will be running the business afterwards.
A little bit of history about Lam’s—the iconic seafood and grocery store in the International District was founded by Mac Lam. Daughter Yen Lam-Steward, has been managing Lam’s since her father retired.
However, former owner/manager Lam-Steward is pleased with the transition. She stated she didn’t mind selling the business because she could spend more time with her family. She will however, be staying on for the next several months to help the Ngyuyens with the transition process.
“The Lams have been like family” states George about the help with the change.
Although the Seattle store is only 10,000 sq. feet compared to the Nguyen’s 14,000 sq. ft store in Los Angeles, it is obvious there is a lot in store in the future for Lam’s.
Some interesting facts:
Most of the wholesale products are 80 percent from Thailand, 20 percent from Vietnam, and five percent from China.
Under Lam’s new ownership, all 63 current employees will remain on staff, with the inclusion of the Nguyen family members. At the farewell party, some cried, employees both old and new. (end)
Peggy Chapman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.