Bánh mì chains bank on next sandwich trend
Four restaurant concepts around the country that specialize in the Vietnamese sandwich October 6, 2011 | By Lisa Jennings

Lee’s Sandwiches

One of the country’s largest bánh mì chains is San Jose, Calif.-based Lee’s Sandwiches, with 43 units in five states.

Lee’s was founded by a Vietnamese family that arrived in the United States in the early 1980s and initially built a catering truck business. Company founder Chieu Le changed the family’s business name to Lee so it would be easier to pronounce.

In 1983, Le’s parents, Ba Le and Hanh Nguyen, started serving bánh mì sandwiches from a catering truck. It was such a hit that the couple opened their first brick-and-mortar location of Lee’s Sandwiches in San Jose. In 2001, one of their children developed a more Americanized, contemporary take on the family sandwich shop, serving as a model for Lee’s Sandwiches today, said Jimmy Le, also a son of the founder and the chain’s vice president.

Today, 37 of Lee’s locations are operated by franchisees, and the chain is growing. Thang Hoang, director of marketing, said another 15 are expected to open by the end of next year. Lee’s Sandwiches also is considering international growth, Le said.

Lee’s is known for its freshly baked sandwich bread, as well as pastries, ice cream and Vietnamese desserts. Certain units also are bakery facilities that supply nearby locations with baguettes.

The company also produces bottled Vietnamese-style coffee drinks, as well as roasting beans and ground coffees, which are carried in some Costco and other retail stores.

Lee’s bánh mì variations range from the classic “Lee’s Combination,” with sliced ham, headcheese and pâté, to a version with sardines, onions and tomato sauce.

The average check ranges from $5 to $20, Hoang said, depending on whether guests are coming for a pastry and coffee or sandwich.

Huang said he has no fears of ShopHouse growing into a national chain and competing for bánh mì market share with Lee’s.

“We are Vietnamese,” he said. “We know our sandwich best.”

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