Lee’s Sandwiches, the multi-million dollar Vietnamese banh mi sandwich empire, began as a modest food truck run by a family that arrived in America with little to nothing.
Chieu Le, the founder of Lee’s Sandwiches and the eldest of nine children, was in his second year of law school before the fall of Saigon. In 1975, the Vietcong shut down the law school and took over the family’s property and sugar plant business.
The Les were forced to flee on a small fishing boat filled with 98 others, one of the first waves of people to escape Vietnam by boat. Fortunately, their boat avoided disasters like pirate raids and storms that countless others faced.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Le and his wife arrived safely at a refugee camp in Malaysia where they stayed for 13 months. A month after welcoming their first born son, Minh, Le and his wife were on a plane to America.
When Le, his parents, four brothers and four sisters finally made it to the U.S., they settled down in San Jose, California. Le began taking night classes to learn English at San Jose High and bought food from a food truck that parked nearby the school.
Soon after Le stopped his English classes and began working for the Vietnamese owner of the food truck in order to support his younger brothers and sisters. Within a year, Le had saved enough money to buy a truck of his own and began a family operated food truck business in 1981.
He and his brother, Henry Le, the second oldest of the siblings, started Lee Bros. Foodservices after noticing that other immigrant trucks had trouble stocking food and ice. The brothers decided to add an extra letter “e” behind their name to help others pronounce it.
Lee Bros. Foodservices would grow to become the largest industrial catering company in northern California. In 1983, their parents Le Van Ba and Nguyen Thi Hanh asked to sell their traditional Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches on the weekend to students and residents near San Jose State University. The rest was history.
They opened their first Lee’s Sandwiches location on Santa Clara street. In 2001, Le’s eldest son, Minh, proposed the idea of adding euro-style sandwiches, fresh baked baguettes, desserts, drinks and the famous Vietnamese iced coffee or “ca phe sua da” to the menu.
Thanks to Minh, the family also adopted principles of American fast-food companies and transformed Lee’s into what it is today. Unfortunately, Minh wasn’t able to see the fruition of his ideas as he was involved in a tragic traffic accident a few months before Lee’s opened up shop.
The family went on to establish their first store in Southern California on Bolsa Avenue in Westminster. Today, Lee’s Sandwiches is the world’s biggest chain of banh mi sandwiches with 60 shops throughout the U.S. and plans of expansion to Taiwan.