Thanh Lam's New Plan

The man who launched Ba-Le in Hawaii has a new bakery—and a new café coming to a location near you.


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Ba-Le’s Thanh Quoc Lam at the stone-shelf oven in his new La Tour Bakeshop. Lam started out baking the baguettes for Ba-Le’s bánh mi in the back of his Chinatown store.

Photo: Mark Arbeit

The office is 1,000 square feet, exactly the same size as the small sandwich shop Lam owned on King Street when I first met him in 1986.

I can still picture him as he was then, a white baker’s cap perched on his head. He was young, only 27, rail-thin, almost vibrating with energy.

He had plans, which he explained to me with the diffident, yet determined air of a man for whom life had been an uphill battle.

Thrown in jail for several weeks for the crime of preventing a government official from harassing a neighbor girl, he’d fled his native Vietnam.

He, his brothers and his fiancée, Xuan Chau, paid 10 ounces of gold apiece for the privilege of boarding a 42-foot boat bound for Malaysia. For four days, they shared the boat with 186 other refugees.

“No more food, no room even to sit,” recalls Lam. “It was hard to sleep. You couldn’t stretch out. All you could do is close your eyes and pray you’d make it to land.”

They did and, after a few stops and a crash course in English, he and Xuan Chau, now his wife, arrived in Hawaii in 1984. “I had no trade, no education,” he says. “To make money, I told my wife the only thing was business for myself.”


The dough for croissants gets buttered and folded again and again, for lightness.

Photo: Mark Arbeit

He’d saved his money to open this small Chinatown shop selling bánh mi, Vietnamese sandwiches. Bánh mi are now a staple, but, in 1986, few people in Hawaii had ever tasted them.

To me, the bánh mi was a startling food fusion: a French sandwich—baguette with ham, pâté or sausage—enlivened by Vietnamese flavors such as cilantro and do chua (pickled daikon and carrots).

His shop was named after a famous chain in Vietnam, Ba-Le, Vietnamese for Paris. If the name rings a bell, that’s because there are now 25 of them, a Hawaii success story.

Remarkably enough, even in 1986, Lam had bigger plans than becoming the bánh mi king of Honolulu. He dragged me into the back of his crowded little shop. Frustrated with the supply of baguettes in Honolulu, he’d turned himself into a baker.

Proudly, he showed me his new $17,000, single-rack Pavailler bread oven. It could turn out 1,400, 8-inch baguettes a day—excellent bread, soft, yet firm on the inside, the crust crispy without being hard.

Some day—“When I have money,” he said—he wanted to supply supermarkets, hotels and restaurants. “I want to be like Love’s.”

Oh, good luck, I thought. Still, it was hard to discount a 97-pound guy who worked 16- to 18-hour days and sometimes fell asleep next to his equipment, waking up with flour in his hair. If he wanted to rival the biggest commercial bakery in town, it was fine with me.

I wrote a piece called “The Man Who Would Be Love’s.” It began with one of those only-in-Hawaii leads: “The best French bread in Honolulu is made by a Vietnamese in Chinatown.”

Writing is odd. You never know what, if anything, happens as a result. For 25 years, till Lam told me yesterday, I had no idea that an angel investor read the piece, called him and loaned him some money at reasonable interest. He was on his way.

As if much was going to stop him.
 

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