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.
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.”
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.
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.
“We can trace every bag back to the individual farmer if we have to,” says Weddle. “We now do the bread for Whole Foods. They’re strict about ingredients.”
“Well, we have our standards,” says Whole Food’s Claire Sullivan. She adds that, just the week before, Whole Foods needed a large emergency order of holiday bread. Ba-Le, which runs 24/7, immediately came to its rescue. “We’re delighted with the partnership.”
There are other major customers as well. Weddle walks me through the room where they make the pizza dough for all 15 Papa John’s on Oahu.
Then there are the supermarkets to consider—in addition to Whole Foods, there’s now Foodland—not to mention the 25 Ba-Le sandwich shops. Instead of the single French-bread oven in the back of Lam’s King Street store, there are now eight double ovens. “Italian, they’re the best,” says Weddle. They turn out 4,000 to 5,000 loaves a day. That doesn’t count the stone-rack oven, as large as a studio apartment, that Weddle uses to do crusty artisanal bread.
In yet another room, workers butter and fold and refold the croissant dough, so that the 5,000 croissants a day are light and airy.
Some of those croissants get turned into sandwiches for the box lunches Ba-Le packs for Hawaiian Airlines coach passengers, about 2,500 on an average day.
Weddle bakes a special bread for Macaroni Grill and only Macaroni Grill. “They do a great job for us,” says Jay Kaneshiro, operations director of Desert Island Restaurants, which also owns the five Ruth’s Chris Steakhouses here. “When we wanted to upgrade the bread basket at Ruth’s Chris, we went to them, too.”
Even if you don’t know you’re eating Ba-Le products, you probably are. “We’re behind the scenes at so many restaurants, caterers, hotels,” says Weddle. “Sheraton, Princess Kaiulani, Royal Hawaiian, more.”
The bakehouse turns out cakes, banquet desserts and a whole barrage of specialty products, including snack puffs and the granola that Lam likes to sprinkle over his oatmeal in the morning.
How many products in all? “I’ve lost track,” says Weddle. “Maybe 300. More every day.”
We’ve circled back to the offices, a long walk. Lam is meeting with his sons, the two little boys I saw in white tuxes, now young men. Trung, 29, has an engineering degree from UC San Diego and an MBA from UH. His younger brother, Brandon, 23, also has a UH MBA.
“I didn’t finish high school in my country,” says Lam. “Now, I say, I have a double MBA.”
Back in 1986, Lam told me that when he made it—having a 60,000-square-foot commercial bakery with 300 products, not to mention a 1,000-square-foot personal office, probably constitutes making it—he wouldn’t have to work so hard.
“He still works seven days a week,” say his sons in unison.
“I don’t bake any more, but I have to do too much thinking. Thinking, thinking, all the time,” says Lam.
So what’s the thinking behind taking an established brand—everyone in Hawaii recognizes Ba-Le—and renaming it La Tour Bakehouse?
“We worry about that,” says Lam. “But decided.” Lam owns rights to the Ba-Le name only in Hawaii; he can’t use it on the Mainland or internationally, as in China, which he has been eyeing for decades.
The name Ba-Le is associated with the sandwich shops, all but one of which are franchises. “They make money, I’m happy,” says Lam. “But they are not consistent, not always the way I like them. Sometimes, I’m embarrassed when people say, I went to your shop here and I couldn’t get this or didn’t like that.”
La Tour’s logo is the Eiffel Tower, an image of which appears on the Ba-Le logo as well. “We didn’t stray far,” says Lam.
The La Tour name strikes Lam as more fitting for the new line of healthy artisan breads. “You know how people write things on menus. I hope some day to go to a restaurant and read on the menu, La Tour bread. I want the restaurant to be proud of it.”
There’s one big additional reason for a name change: At age 51, Lam again has a plan.
He takes me down to his shiny new restaurant, La Tour Café, on the ground floor of the building, due to open this month. Except it’s not his restaurant. The partners are his sons and Weddle—“I want to tie Rodney to Ba-Le forever, family. We’re a family company now.”
Trung still has yellow Post-Its stuck up all over the new café and kitchen, things that need doing in anticipation of opening.
La Tour Café is casual, fast-serve, order at the counter, but it’s a bit more upscale and European than the Ba-Le shops. It will sell bread hot out of the oven every hour, with soups such as French onion or tomato basil, salads, tartine sandwiches, cheeses and pâtés. “Simple food, but good,” says Trung. “A place people can come and eat or maybe pick up things to make at home.”
Only two things remain as an homage to the original Ba-Le. One is the do chua, which gives flavor to the sandwiches, but pickled carrots only, no daikon. The other? “We will have espresso, but we’ll also have Vietnamese coffee. Of course,” says Lam.
Even if you don’t get down to Nimitz to the new La Tour Café, expect, like Ba-Le, one will still come to you. Lam’s plan: Five new cafés on Oahu in the next three years.
I ask his sons, you think he’ll ever slow down, retire ? “I hope he sticks around for a long time yet,” says Brandon. “He’s got the vision.”
“What would I do if I retire?” says Lam. He seems to consider the idea seriously. “I know. I would bake bread again. Rodney and I sitting at a table, all day long making bread.”
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.