Monica Wong and Quynh Nguyen of Little Green Cyclo: A Food and Beverage Business Surviving During COVID

November 10, 2020
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Photo Credit: Little Green Cyclo

Asian Hustle Network was founded on the principle that community always comes first. With that in mind, we wanted to create a marketplace that highlights Asian-owned businesses because we know that there’s a gap between consumers (like yourself!) wanting to support Asian-owned businesses, but not knowing where or how to find them. Not only is the discovery of these businesses hard, we know how important it is to truly highlight the faces and stories behind the products.

Meet Monica Wong and Quynh Nguyen, Co-Founders of Little Green Cyclo


So we present to you one of our first marketplace partners, Monica Wong & Quynh Nguyen, Co-Founders of Little Green Cyclo (LGC)! In 2010, LGC was the first Vietnamese gourmet food truck serving up healthy and delicious Vietnamese street food in the Bay Area. LGC is an Asian women founded and led business that has evolved into a food and beverage company with 3 food trucks, a 5,000 square ft commercial kitchen/commissary, a bistro, a full line of packaged grab 'n go products, smart vending kiosks and signature ready to drink Vietnamese coffee products.

A woman sitting outside in the woods smiling while holding onto a can of Vietnamese coffee, Little Green Cyclo.
Photo Credit: Little Green Cyclo


Monica and Quynh, tell us a little bit about Little Green Cyclo.

Little Green Cyclo (LGC) crafts delicious, healthy food and beverages that nourish the mind and body while sustaining the planet that sustains us. Our attention to sourcing, sustainability, use of local and organic ingredients and full transparency are what we are known for. Everything we serve our customers we would proudly serve to our friends and family.

We believe in supporting local businesses, knowing where our ingredients come from, serving as much organic and/or sustainably grown or raised food as possible, reducing our carbon footprint, and respecting our environment. We were the first food truck to serve Mary's free range air chilled chicken and it's not every day you'll find Snake River Farm Wagyu beef served on a food truck.

Our latest venture takes us to the Central Highlands of Vietnam where we are sourcing single origin premium quality beans from farms practicing organic and sustainable methods of farming. We've also partnered with a family owned local roaster in the Bay Area to create our signature blend, which we then combine with California organic condensed milk to create our new line of coffee products. Our Classic cà phê sữa đá & Matcha cà phê sữa đá are available in ready to drink 9.5 ounce cans that are now carried in over 20 stores in the Bay Area.


Our attention to sourcing, sustainability, use of local and organic ingredients and full transparency are what we are known for. Everything we serve our customers, we would proudly serve to our friends and family.

Photo Credit: Little Green Cyclo

Some of our accomplishments include... In 2011, we were the winner of Chase Sapphire’s San Francisco Favorite Food Truck award. In 2017, UCSF designated LGC as a Living Green Vendor and Diverse Supplier. In 2018 Visa named LGC as one of 50 Small Business National Winners of the Visa Cashless Challenge. In 2019, LGC was one of the first partners featured by DoorDash in their Kitchens Without Borders program.


In 2019, LGC collaborated with Monterey Bay Aquarium to raise awareness about ocean sustainability. During this 3-month partnership, Quynh crafted a special menu featuring local rock cod on Seafood Watch’s Green List that could be served on LGC food trucks using only minimal service ware and no utensils. LGC proudly served local, sustainable fish tacos, onigiri rice balls and banh mis at events like Hardly Strictly Blue Grass, Menlo Park SummerFest, Off the Grid Presidio, Ft Mason and Eat Real.

Wow, what incredible accomplishments! We’d love to hear more about the conception of Little Green Cyclo.

Monica: I was born in Hong Kong but spent my kindergarten through college years in the Boston area. Like many immigrant families, my parents started their own restaurant business. In fact, they opened the first Chinese restaurant in downtown Boston called Fortune Cookie. So growing up, I worked as a cashier, bus girl, waitress, hostess, basically any role you can imagine except cooking. However, because of this experience, I knew the restaurant industry wasn't for me as I watched my parents work 7 days a week while barely taking days off, never mind a vacation. Funny enough, I at first followed a completely different path, but wound up coming full circle 20 years later.

After graduating from Wellesley College with a BA degree in Economics, I went into investment banking. I was tired of the East Coast freezing winters and was fortunate enough to secure a position with Merrill Lynch's Public Finance Group in Los Angeles. From there, I eventually moved into trading and jumped over to the buy side as a Portfolio Manager at Montgomery Securities in San Francisco. Being in finance and never having worked in New York, I decided to head back East for a position as a Portfolio Manager at Prudential Financial, managing money market funds, bond funds and European denominated funds.

 

During my 20 year career in finance, I had always wanted to start my own business, but was always just talking the talk. Finally in 2009, due to health issues, I made the decision to leave the New York area and walk away from my career in finance and start a new life adventure. I had always loved the Bay Area and decided that I wanted to move back to San Francisco and see where life could take me.

 

That's when I met and joined my partner, in business and in life, Quynh Nguyen. Together we established LGC, Bay Area’s first gourmet Vietnamese food truck serving up healthy and delicious Vietnamese street food.

 

Quynh: I was born in Saigon and spent my teenage years as a professional table tennis player on the country’s national team. I came to the US at the age of 18 and earned my BS degree in Management Information Systems from San Jose State. In 2005, after spending five years as a Webmaster, I opted for a career change when I discovered Cajun food and started Gumbo Jumbo, a full-service Cajun fusion restaurant in downtown San Jose.


Can you tell us more about the joys (and horrors) of starting, running, and operating a food truck business?

The list of obstacles surrounding the operation of food trucks is extensive, especially since we began operations in 2010 when food trucks were not yet popular. At first, just purchasing a food truck was difficult. There were hardly any food truck builders around. It's nothing like today where you have the option to choose from purchasing a brand new truck with a custom design or purchasing one that’s fairly new but already built out. The first truck we purchased was an existing 1987 GMC taco truck simply because there was nothing else available.

With the use of Twitter and Square, we were able to let our customers know where to find us and we were able to process credit card transactions using an iPad instead of having to invest in an entire POS system, which would have required too much power, space and an internet connection. Nowadays, there’s plenty of other social media platforms and mobile POS systems which didn’t exist before to make running a food truck much easier. Also, driving a food truck is not for the faint of heart. The trucks normally exceed 10,000 pounds and are very tall and long. Although you don’t need a special driver’s license to operate the vehicle, it does take some training and getting used to.

People see the lines at the food trucks and think you just show up anywhere you want and open your doors and the lines form automatically. I guess we have the Great Food Truck Race to thank for that. In reality, that's obviously not how it works. In fact, the service part is just the tip of the iceberg. All the work that goes into prepping, loading and driving the truck to the location, as well as breaking down, driving the truck back, unloading and cleaning turns your 4 hour service into a 9-12 hour shift easily. You have to obtain and pay for a health permit for every county you operate in, and you need to do so for every truck you own. Local business licenses need to be in place for every city you serve in and permits are required to sell at any location. Otherwise, the police can shut you down and fine you for operating without a valid permit.

The Little Green Cyclo food truck in downtown San Francisco.
Photo Credit: Little Green Cyclo

Finally, food trucks break down constantly. My best advice is to partner with someone who is a mechanic or is very handy. No matter how much preventive maintenance is performed on your truck, it will break down on you at the worst possible times. Not only does the truck itself break down on you, but your equipment can also stop working even after you’ve just tested it.

The food trucks are mobile kitchens that travel over bumps, turns and hills day after day leading to many parts coming loose or apart. We have a checklist of what to go through before our managers leave our commissary; and that does help quite a bit, but we’ve still shown up for events where the generator was working just fine before we headed out and then it won’t turn on at location. Which means you now have no power for any of your appliances and can’t run a shift.

Being a food truck owner requires you to be, at a minimum, nimble, resourceful and great at trouble shooting.

What quality or characteristic of yours do you feel is most important to you as an entrepreneur? Why?

Our favorite quote is, “Change is the only constant in life.” Food trucks changed how restaurants reached customers by bringing the experience to them. But we didn’t stop there, we started offering pop-ups at customers’ homes, workplaces and private venues. We created our line of grab n go products so customers could pick up our food at their favorite local retail stores. And most recently, we’ve started selling direct to customers on our website with the launch of our ready to drink Vietnamese coffee line.

Over the past 10 years, we were able to diversify into a food and beverage company, stay relevant, continue to innovate, have fun and maintain our sanity along the way because we weren’t afraid of change. In fact, we embraced change.

A man holding a large camera, filming Monica of Little Green Cyclo in a kitchen cooking.
Photo Credit: Little Green Cyclo

How has your business changed since COVID? What are some lessons learned?

Our business has been greatly affected due to COVID. Our Bistro has been closed since mid-March. Major food truck gatherings and events have all been canceled for the entire year. Catering to companies and individuals is very hard to come by these days. Diversifying is key. Fortunately, our individually boxed lunches, grab 'n go products and our ready to drink coffee products have been doing well. Every couple of years, we’ve rebuilt our website to give it a fresh look, and it was ever more important this year to do so to add online ordering and direct to customer sales capabilities.

Our social media presence has always been important to us but we’ve never had to buy ads or run an ad campaign. In light of COVID, this was definitely necessary. We don’t expect to see a return to normal until 2nd quarter of 2021, at the earliest. Until then, we will keep doing what we’ve been doing, innovate and change with the times.

CEO of Little Green Cyclo, Monica Wong, sitting on a stool in a restaurant smiling.
CEO Monica Wong

We don’t expect to see a return to normal until 2nd quarter of 2021, at the earliest. Until then, we will keep doing what we’ve been doing, innovate and change with the times.

How has Asian Hustle Network contributed to your journey at Little Green Cyclo?

We were first introduced to AHN at the beginning of shelter in place. It was inspiring reading about how hustlers were being so open about their stories, struggles and accomplishments. It was equally amazing to see all the positive support the AHN community provided to everyone who posted. It did take us several months but we finally felt we too were ready to share our story with the AHN community. When we did, we were delighted to come across fans of our food trucks in the mix.

Our Classic & Matcha Cà phê sữa đá are featured on AHN’s Marketplace. We truly appreciate AHN’s continued efforts to assist fellow hustlers!

To keep up and follow along with Monica, Quynh and Little Green Cyclo:

Instagram

Facebook

Website

To support Monica and Quynh and get 10% off the Classic or Matcha Cà phê sữa đá, visit the Asian Hustle Network Marketplace!



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