Vietnamese to Go: An Interview with “Nom Nom Truck” Co-Founder Misa Chien
The American cousin of the snack food stall vendors in Asia, food trucks have served as an source of fast and tasty sustenance for many people. Misa Chien and Jenn Green are two friends from UCLA who have successfully established their own popular niche within this emerging industry. Their Nom Nom Truck, based in Los Angeles, has been featured in the media for its banh mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwiches).
21CB’s William Hsu spoke with Misa about her and Jenn’s journey toward establishing a booming food truck empire. Read on to learn just how Vietnamese cuisine managed to find its footing — or shall we say, wheel-ing?
Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds. What did you do before hopping into a truck?
Misa: Before Nom Nom, I previously owned several businesses in retail which provided experiences in marketing and starting up a company. I graduated with a double major in Global Studies and French from UCLA. As for Jen, she graduated from UCLA with a double major in Biology and English. She is the innovator in the Nom Nom business, bringing family recipes and her love for cooking to the trucks.
How did Nom Nom truck come about? How did you get from a concept to actually owning a food truck business?
We believe that we are one of the pioneers of the food truck industry. There were no manuals to running a food truck before we started and because of that we are writing the manual everyday as we gain more experience.
Really what happened was that Banh Mi was not available to the masses of central LA. There were no providers of fresh Vietnamese cuisine during the lunch hours. Our goal is to bring fresh Vietnamese cuisine to these people and make them happy with our great sandwiches and services. We call that the “Triangle of Happiness” where our teammates provide great services and a great product to the customers making them happy. When the customers are happy, the team is happy. We want Nom Nom Truck to be a great company to work for and to bring popularity of the Bahn Mi to the world.
Just what is it about the sound “nom nom” that’s so appealing?
For us, “nom nom” is more than just a name, it has a double meaning. First, there’s the onomatopoeia of the noise you make when eating. Then there’s the similarity to ‘Nam in Vietnam. It’s like reminding people not only of the delicious food but also where the food is from. Nom itself has also become part of our lexicon. We held a “Nom Word of the Week” contest and the winner was “nomivore”. We also had words like “nomworthy” which meant awesome.
To date, we have added around 500 entries to the “Nom Nom Dictionary” and these words are featured in the t-shirts we sell from our trucks and other merchandise and advertisements. With this we want to start a “Nom Nom” movement to keep our teammates and customers involved and engaged. The end result should be servicing worthy Banh Mi to America and bringing the love of the “Nom” to the greater world. For example, when we were on Food Channel’s “The Great Food Truck Race”, we were very happy with the great responses to our truck and our food.
So how did you and Jen decide on a truck as opposed to a restaurant?
Our decision was based mainly on the pros and the cons of owning a truck as opposed to the restaurant. With a truck, we are always selling out all the time since we have no standing inventory. There are also truck issues like flat tires and location changes, especially when there is construction obstructing our planned sites. This meant that things are always changing and we need situational awareness; something can always happen and our team needs to be ready. However with a truck there is mobility. It is important to what the goal is – bringing food to everyone in as broad a range as possible.
What was it like when you first started? How many trucks were there and what about now?
In the beginning we were one of the first food trucks to come out, just scouting out locations and places to go. Now there are up to a couple hundred trucks in the area, but LA is big and we have a strong following. We are always able to find new locations to bring the food to people. It is very interesting to see how far the industry has come and grown. It is a fast changing industry and we are excited to see where it goes next.
How about the food? Why was Banh Mi the chosen product?
Like we said, Banh Mi is not readily available in LA and in America. It is only served primarily in predominantly Vietnamese communities. So the general populace have no access to fresh Vietnamese foods like Banh Mi. Also unlike the other dishes, people are generally unfamiliar with Banh Mi, which is why we chose to bring it to America and to those that have never tried it before. Most of our customers have never actually tried Vietnamese cuisine before Nom Nom Truck. We want to get them interested into trying new foods that they have never tried. Beyond the Bahn Mi, we also serve Vietnamese taco, a different take on Asian Fusion that Jen wants to offer. She’s a great chef and a great innovator and we are excited about what we offer.
What’s your best selling Banh Mi?
“Honey Grilled Pork” is our best seller. It is made with classic grilled pork and Jen’s secret recipe, secret marinate. It is definitely the first thing we recommend to new customers. People who are more familiar with Banh Mi, we recommend the “Deli Special”, made with Vietnamese head cheese, meat loaf and pâté. People who never really had it really enjoy our Banh Mi, and we are achieving our goal of bring great and fresh Vietnamese food to the masses.
So who are the people you target and how do you find them?
Our target audience varies depending on location. Weekday lunch hours, we go to the corporate crowd. During dinners we tend to serve families in suburban areas. We are also a huge hit among university students, especially UCLA. We have a pretty large demographic. We generally serve in the early hours and not too late past dinner as we don’t want to tire our team out.
What is the truck schedule like and how do you decide where to park?
We work the trucks Tuesday to Saturday. We also park where demographic is such as near corporate buildings, schools, and suburbs. We learned from trial and error to decide where to park, finding space on the street to park and getting the right space to attract crowds. A lot of it is experience based because before us, there wasn’t a manual as to how to run a food truck.
We usually return to the same spots every week, try one new spot every week, and also attend a lot of food fests. It allows us to serve together with other trucks, try other foods and draw a large crowd.
Now that there are two trucks, how do you coordinate between the two?
We have a great event manager and a great team. It is all about working together as a team to bring our products to the masses. With two trucks, it’s like “double trouble”. It is twice as likely for things to impede food service and twice as difficult to find locations, but we have a great team to spearhead the “Nom Nom” movement towards our goal . We give our team the credit in terms of being successful in managing the two trucks
Most of the time, trucks go into their own areas, providing separate services unless there’s a large event. For example we held a “Noms for Nom-profit” event where 10% of our profits was given to charity for local schools and the Japanese tsunami crisis. It was fun to have the entire team together and serve side by side, it was fun to see the turn out and see the feedback.
Now that your business is very successful, featured in major media, what are your plans for the future?
There are so many different paths we can take; owning food trucks we are all about organic growth. We are very happy where we are and our dream is to bring Banh Mi to America. There are many ways to do that, adding more food trucks, expanding to other cities, starting restaurants. It doesn’t matter how we do it, we just want to achieve our goal and that’s what’s driving us and we will just see where it takes us.
Thanks to Misa and Jenn for their kind participation in this interview! Please read more about the Nom Nom Truck here.
(Photographs via Nom Nom Truck’s Facebook and William Hsu)
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TAGS: banh mi • fast food • food truck • Jenn Green • Misa Chien • Nom Nom Truck • Vietnam • Vietnamese food
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