Bringing Vietnamese cuisine to the forefront of American culture
Signature dish of Tay Ho restaurants, the bánh cuốn. | Photo by Slique Media / Tay Ho Restaurants
Vivian Yenson, who was born and raised in Fountain Valley, Orange County, isn’t your average 21-year-old college graduate. In fact, there’s nothing average about this young lady who opened her quirky restaurant at San Gabriel-Tay Ho Takeout Restaurant earlier this year. And that was before she graduated from Cal State Fullerton last May. As if that weren’t enough, she inaugurated her second restaurant in Chino Hills a month ago.
Interviewed by telephone, Yenson talks about the history of the Tay Ho Food Family BusinessTay Ho Takeout Restaurants, and some of his plans to grow the business.
“My grandparents immigrated to the United States in 1980 when my father was 10 years old. They went to Illinois when they moved here—I don’t know why they chose Illinois—but they found the weather too cold. Moreover, they sought to settle where there was a Vietnamese population. So they headed west to California.
In 1986, the family opened their first Tay Ho restaurant in Westminster, home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. Yenson is quick to point out that at that time the Asian Garden Mall had not yet completed construction (it opened in 1987) and the Vietnamese community called Little Saigon was still in its infancy. Originating in Westminster, Bolsa and Brookhurst, Little Saigon later spread to the adjacent town of Garden Grove.
Recognizing the needs of the thriving Vietnamese community, his father Jayce Yenson established the Tay Ho Food Company. Today, he is the CEO of Tay Ho Restaurants and Tay Ho Food Company (West Lake Food Corporation) in Santa Ana. The food company makes cold cuts, such as ham, and some basic ingredients, including canned broth, and sells them to Vietnamese restaurants. Tay Ho means West Lake and is located in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. The flagship dish of Tay Ho restaurants, bánh cuốn, originates from this region.
Yenson explains why the Tay Ho brand exited Orange County: “We currently already have a few locations in Westminster that my grandparents started and which continue to be run by my great-aunt and uncle. There’s no point in opening another one in Orange County so close to where Tay Ho restaurants already are, although we’ll get to that soon. We decided to focus on more remote places where people are not likely to find bánh cuốn.
“This new version is mine, it’s been remodeled and rebranded with a totally new look and feel – it’s much more modern. Instead of staying in the Little Saigon area of Orange County, we wanted to branch out So our first stop was to go to 626, the area code for the San Gabriel Valley, which has a large Vietnamese population, and then we went to Chino Hills, a rising Asian community that is growing so quickly. is such a warm and welcoming community with people of all races and backgrounds who want to try new things, whereas San Gabriel is more populated by an older generation who already know what Tay Ho is. used to be a Tay Ho restaurant sitting down the street from where our current location is. It was run by my great uncle but he passed away recently so it closed. That’s also the reason I opened t the first Tay Ho take-out restaurant in San Gabriel.
A surprising revelation is that Yenson never considered being in this company; fate intervened. She reveals, “I always thought I was going to be in the corporate world. Having grown up around my family and loved ones who are in the restaurant business, I know all the stress and pressure. You go to work and you bring that work home. I was supposed to study abroad the summer when COVID hit, but due to the global lockdown I didn’t end up doing it. Instead, I worked at West Lake Food Corporation when my father had a position available in the company and assumed the title of family business manager. I helped in various projects, like franchise restaurants, which interested me. The first thing I did on the project was R&D (research and development), especially Vietnamese coffee.
“It was after completing this first project that I got involved. I had a free weekend and spent it reading about Vietnamese coffee drink and what makes it special. I love coffee and Tay Ho restaurants use a very good brand of coffee – Trung Nguyen – which has a light chocolate flavor. We mix it with condensed milk and hazelnut cream. It’s creamy and sweet with a chocolate flavor, without being overly sweet or bitter.
When asked what part of her business degree she could use at Tay Ho restaurants, Yenson replied, “The most important skill I learned was project management. I worked part-time at my dad’s business while I was in college, and he wanted me to be fully involved. So I got to know people and network with people my age. I was the president of my business fraternity and of the entire College of Commerce and Economics. It taught me how to manage multiple projects, including marketing. Although it was on a much smaller scale, I had to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes. I learned how to manage my time and prioritize, in general, what I now use in the restaurant industry.
A key decision made by Yenson was to adopt a take-out business model. She explains, “We launched during COVID, so we were very careful because you never know if restaurants will stay open or if another pandemic or variant will cause closures again. Even with our sit-down restaurants, a good portion is take-out. By focusing on takeout, it’s easier for us to scale and open more, as it doesn’t require a lot of staff. Right now, staffing is so difficult; takeout also reduces the amount of space and labor required to stay operational.
Yenson is aware of the challenges inherent in the takeaway business. “I understand that people enjoy a restaurant dining experience. But our primary goal is to bring Vietnamese cuisine to the forefront of American culture, however that is accomplished. Bánh cuốn is an easy-to-eat dish, whether take-out or sit-down. That said, we are incorporating phð into our fall menu. We teach our staff how to prepare it and we prepare all the necessary materials. We will have a phð kit which includes a reusable bowl, broth, noodles and vegetables. We will provide a sturdy bowl, utensils and small containers for the sauce and chilies. There will be a small removable tray on top for the meats and noodles so they don’t get soggy. It will be the same as eating in a restaurant even if it is a take-out. There are limits, but we can always evolve and adapt, and find solutions.
Reviews of Tay Ho Takeout restaurants have been very good and mostly positive, Yenson reports. “A comment among the older generation involves the fancy packaging. However, I am addressing a new generation of people. I am using the same recipe my grandmother used; I just made it prettier with the packaging.I have read reviews that they don’t need extra packaging and at the same time I have received great reviews from people who say they have never seen or heard of of bánh cuốn wrapped in this way.
“The orange-red color of our packaging comes from the color of our old logo,” continues Yenson. “I insisted that even though we have a new logo, I want to have the same color and look. The boxes are packed in a reusable tote suitable for containers – there is an inch of space between the boxes and the bag.Once you take out all the boxes, the tote folds up very differently than other restaurant takeout bags.An amazing marketing team helped design the distinct packaging of Tay Ho Takeout; sit-down restaurants have their own.
Yenson has two younger siblings, although they are unlikely to join the family business. She says, “My younger sister, who is starting college this week at UC Riverside, has helped out at the restaurant from time to time. But she plans to be an organic major and not go into the family business. My brother is much younger – he’s only 16 and still in high school, and he doesn’t know what he wants to do yet.
“There are about 20 people at the store itself and I have my kitchen team members. At the corporate level, there is my father, my COO, my COO and myself. While I stand by the core values of our family business, I do not limit the business to a strictly family operation. I want my team to know that they don’t have to be blood related to be family. I see them every day and hope they feel like part of my family; they are my Tay Ho family.
Family and tradition are paramount to Asians. And it is in this vein that Yenson honors the timeless practice of preparing authentic and delicious Vietnamese street food that his grandparents and parents grew up with. She hopes that through the distinctive culinary offerings of Tay Ho restaurants, a new generation of food enthusiasts will make Vietnamese cuisine a regular dining choice.