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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Flash forward to the present.
I’d never lost track of Lam. That would be hard to do with a Ba-Le shop on every corner and his bread starting to appear in retail outlets. In 1989, I attended the luncheon at which he was recognized as regional Small-Business Person of the Year. He was there with his wife and their two small sons, both decked out, in the Vietnamese fashion, in shiny, little white tuxes.
In 2002, he went on to win the Small-Business Person of the Year award nationally—which accounts for the large picture of the Lams with President George Bush that now hangs on the wall of his 1,000-square-foot office.
Just recently, I ran into him and he asked that I come see his new La Tour Bakehouse and Café.
What happened to Ba-Le? I asked.
“The company is still Ba-Le, but we are making some changes.”
Ah, I thought, the man still has plans. It was time to catch up with him.
Two years ago, Lam bought 51 percent of the old Weyerhaeuser warehouse on Nimitz Highway for $7.1 million.
“I didn’t think I could do it,” he says. “I give up almost, but finally we get it.” He needed the space, having outgrown the Ba-Le production facilities on Dillingham Boulevard, split between two buildings. But $7.1 million was a big bet for a company that grosses little more than $10 million a year. The Weyerhaeuser was landmark space in a resurgent retail district, but it was a bare-bones, old, corrugated box factory, and took nearly two years to rehab.
Construction crews are still hammering and painting on the parts of the building that belong to other tenants, but Lam has his half up and running, all 60,000 square feet of it. “More space than Love’s,” says Lam, with a sheepish grin.
Physical space aside, Ba-Le is, of course, still smaller than Love’s Bakery. It does nowhere near Love’s $57 million in annual sales, and it has about a third as many employees. But it’s become a considerable enterprise—100 employees, one of whom now does Lam’s baking for him.
A flour salesman introduced Lam to Rodney Weddle. Weddle, after a career as a pastry chef in high-end resorts like the Kahala Mandarin, was running a small commercial bakery in Kakaako. The salesman told Lam: “You’re both nice and you both work hard. You should work together.”
“Rodney and I think the same, we’re brothers,” says Lam. “But I was not a baker, just no choice, had to learn. I cannot do what he can do.”
What Weddle can do is bake artisanal, small-batch breads. “Because I spent so much time in hotels, I can do sugar work, cakes, pastries,” says Weddle. “But bread—bread is in my blood.”
Weddle seems as proud of the new bakeshop as the boss—whom he calls Mr. Lam, as in, “Mr. Lam has vision, and knows how to treat people.”
Weddle walks me through the whole facility, starting with the two 8,000-pound lifts that bring up pallets of flour from the loading dock. A pallet of flour contains 50, 50-pound bags, and Ba-Le uses 18 pallets a week, all from a small Utah mill that specializes in organic and natural flours.