Nowadays, 90% of Asian food products in the markets across the United States are produced by Vietnamese businesses. However, my dream has not been fulfilled,” said Ms. Chinh Nguyen, CEO of CTWS Group.
Mrs. Cong Huyen Ton Nu Ngoc Bich is the fifth generation of the royal family from the collateral branch of King Minh Mang. She gave birth to 8 children, including 4 sons and 4 daughters. When her youngest daughter, Chinh Nguyen, was 19 years old, the entire family moved to the United States to live and establish their careers.
Both parents are originally from Hue, born in Saigon, and have been living in the US for 35 years. With confidence, Chinh Nguyen, the CEO of CTWS Group – one of the largest Asian food distribution companies in the US – describes herself as “completely Vietnamese.” Even after all these years, she still cannot eat hamburgers, hot dogs, or foreign dishes.
With a voice that blends accents from various regions, Chinh Nguyen retains some intonations from her Hue heritage. During conversations, when she stumbles on a word, she turns to her assistant for help: “How do you say this correctly, Trung?”
Chinh Nguyen was the first to officially import Vietnamese dragon fruit into the US. Following that were milk apples, rambutans, longans, and lychees. More recently, she introduced sour shrimp paste, sticky rice cakes, and Vietnamese clear dumplings. One 60-year-old customer even teared up while eating the sticky rice cake, as it reminded them of the taste of home.
I came to the US when I was 19 years old, a rather awkward age because I hadn’t completed high school and hadn’t gone to college either. Like many families who immigrate to establish themselves, we pursued the “American dream” with many aspirations.
Despite my royal background, life in a foreign land was actually very tough, not any more advantageous than for others. Due to financial difficulties, my older siblings had to sacrifice and work so that the younger ones could attend school.
However, it seems that in our family, our parents were a bit stricter with us. Our grandparents often told us, “A nation becomes strong through its educated citizens. For our family, wealth isn’t just material possessions; it’s about knowledge and character.” When someone possesses knowledge and character, other things will come, and success is possible.
I grew up in New York and became an accountant and interpreter, guided and educated by the adults in our household.
So why did you switch to the food business?
In 2004, at the age of 34, due to economic difficulties, I moved to Houston to start a new chapter. I believed that in life, you can give up many things, but not food. That’s why I chose the food industry. Rich or poor, everyone has to eat, right?
Actually, it also stemmed from my personal experience of not being able to enjoy American food. I only liked traditional Vietnamese dishes. Many Vietnamese people in the US face similar challenges with food.
I saw the potential in the Asian food market in the US because, in general, Vietnamese cuisine has its own unique flavors, diversity, and is notably lower in calories compared to dishes from other countries. The trend of consuming low-calorie dishes isn’t only followed by Vietnamese people but also by Americans. Once they get used to it, they prefer it over local cuisine.
However, in this industry, it was all very new to me at that time, I didn’t know anything. I learned bit by bit.
Back then, if you went to the market, you would see that 90% of Asian food products were dominated by Thailand. Vietnamese products accounted for less than 10%. I harbored a dream of bringing Vietnamese agricultural products to the US and introducing Vietnamese dishes to fellow Vietnamese living far from their homeland.
The US market isn’t lacking businesses in the Asian food distribution sector. How did you compete?
I built teams in both Vietnam and the US to search for products and manage paperwork, with assistance from legal professionals. They are experienced and have been reliable partners.
The criteria I set for the team in Vietnam was to meticulously select delicious foods and traditional regional specialties of Vietnam, produced by reputable partners in the Vietnamese culinary industry. The products needed to meet food safety standards and have appealing packaging. The items brought to the US had to capture the authentic flavors and presentation, delivering not only great taste but also the positive messages of Vietnamese culture.
Consuming these dishes is also a way to reconnect with our homeland’s culture, ensuring that young individuals born and raised in the US remain connected to their Vietnamese heritage.
My competitive edge lies in quality, because with food, you cannot deceive the consumers. People need to find the food delicious to become repeat customers; otherwise, if it’s not good, they might try it once but never return.
That’s why, after carefully selecting potential products, we consult with top culinary artisans in Vietnam to ensure the most authentic flavors. Afterward, I personally taste-test the products. Only if I find them pleasing, do we proceed with production.
I take pride in being a skilled cook and having high standards for food quality. Therefore, I’m confident in the consumption potential of the dishes I’ve tasted and chosen.
Looking back, when I started the business, my parents emphasized the importance of having integrity. It means putting your heart into everything you do, especially when it comes to food. If I eat the food, find it safe, and enjoy it, when it reaches the consumers’ hands, they’ll also feel safe and not have any worries. That’s what it means to do business with integrity.
The business world is always fiercely competitive, especially in the culinary sector. But CTWS has its own distinct approach. Additionally, CTWS employs unique “algorithms” to understand customer needs, so our strategies often outpace our competitors by a few steps. That’s the secret behind CTWS’s business success.
Importing and distributing Vietnamese food products into the US, what challenges are there?
Among various industries, the food sector is a challenging one. It involves going through numerous procedures and documentation scrutinized by the FDA because the US market is a demanding one. Traditional products like various types of fish sauce and naturally fermented items require over 6 months to complete the documentation process and meet strict regulations for approval. All traditional foods must undergo scrutiny and testing in the laboratory to ensure food safety.
Fortunately, CTWS has managed to establish an ecosystem with reputable food production companies. They’ve put in tremendous effort and wholeheartedly supported CTWS, dedicating their efforts to meticulously researching products to ensure their success and competitiveness against Chinese and Thai products in the US market.
During the last Lunar New Year, you brought sticky rice cakes, Vietnamese clear dumplings, and sour shrimp sauce to the US. What interesting aspects were there in this business venture?
As I mentioned earlier, CTWS’s criteria for selecting products involve choosing regional specialties of Vietnam. When we unexpectedly discovered the potential of sour shrimp sauce and Vietnamese clear dumplings from Song Huong, which met our standards, we got in touch, and they sent sample products for me to try.
When I tasted the Vietnamese clear dumplings, I couldn’t help but exclaim “Wow.” Since the US doesn’t allow the official import of various types of meat, these dumplings only contain shrimp filling. Despite that, they are still delicious, aromatic, and have just the right amount of richness, not losing to the traditional pork and shrimp dumplings of Vietnam.
However, fermented foods like shrimp sauce are quite challenging to get approval from the US FDA. Despite this, years of experience and the combined efforts of CTWS and Song Huong have helped us meet all FDA standards, making us the first entity to bring all the traditional fermented products from the Northern, Central, and Southern regions of Vietnam into the US.
How have consumers responded here?
Fortunately, the products we brought to the US were warmly embraced by the overseas Vietnamese community. I once witnessed a customer in their 60s eating a sticky rice cake and tearing up. They said, “It’s been so long since I’ve felt the taste of home like this. Memories are flooding back.”
This demonstrates that our Vietnamese food isn’t just about filling one’s stomach. It carries the unique culture of the Northern, Central, and Southern regions and invokes emotions for those who consume it.
As for Americans, their favorite is the Vietnamese “Chả Cá” fish cake. This dish is widely supported by Americans due to its convenience for quick breakfasts before work.
Is sour shrimp sauce or Vietnamese clear dumplings the most challenging business deal that CTWS has ever undertaken?
Importing dry products from Vietnam to the US is difficult, but fresh fruits are even more challenging and risky. You might not know, but I was the first person to officially import Vietnamese dragon fruit into the US.
For this type of fruit, it went through numerous stages, from sourcing raw materials that met the standards to dealing with FDA procedures. In 2007, I successfully imported the first 4 containers of dragon fruit via sea freight. However, during the inspection for food preservative residue, 3 containers didn’t meet the requirements and had to be discarded in the US. It was a significant loss, but I persisted in finding ways to import Vietnamese fruits here.
To prevent such incidents in subsequent shipments, the collaboration process with Vietnamese businesses and the control measures right in Vietnam had to be even tighter. After learning from the experience with dragon fruit, milk apples were also challenging. It took us 5 years to successfully import them into the US.
As of now, I’ve been fortunate to be the first to bring 7 types of fruits—dragon fruit, milk apples, mangoes, lychees, rambutans, Bac Giang lychees, and most recently, Ben Tre green-skinned pomelos—into the US.
A business in the US like CTWS, when working with partners in Vietnam, what issues do you usually encounter?
We have a prerequisite requirement for quality and consistency in quality. However, many Vietnamese businesses struggle to maintain their reputation. The first batch of goods is always the best, but the quality of subsequent batches tends to decrease. I’ve encountered partners like that before.
After many years of experience, we always demand a commitment to ensuring consistent quality with every batch of products. We don’t accept the practice I mentioned earlier. Fortunately, up to now, I continue to work with agreeable partners like Mr. Tuân from Perfume River and Ms. Thục from Phúc An Company, as well as other individuals who work diligently until the standard is met. Everyone wants their product to reach and stay with customers, not just arrive and depart.
As you said, everyone wants their product to reach and stay with customers. However, when exporting goods to the US, Vietnamese businesses often can’t maintain their brand and only act as contract manufacturers for importers. Is that really their “own” product anymore?
That’s also an issue.
When I first started, I was like a young foal eager to kick, wanting everything to carry my brand name, everything to be named after my kids, Thiên Ân and Patrick. Then I realized something: “You take care of your own child.” So later on, I stopped using my own brand name and used the company’s name. Only when it’s their own flesh and blood will they take care of it, right? If I used my own brand name, they might not have put in the effort to ensure the product’s quality.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to collaborate with individuals who want their products to go further, to touch people’s hearts. Everyone is dedicated to their own creation. That’s something I’m very open to.
So, do you accept being just the distributor behind Vietnamese brands in the US market?
Exactly, that way the goods will have a longer reach. I’m also 54 years old, I know what to let go and what to hold on to.
Like with Phương Ngọc Cái Bè durians, the owner said if I wanted to create my own brand, he would still do it, but I said, “No, I’ll sell it with your brand to maintain your reputation.”
I’m just a bridge that brings them to the US, that’s my aspiration.
After 20 years in this field, importing a lot of Vietnamese products into the US, I’ve never put my name or my brand in the media. Now, by stepping back and bringing Vietnamese brands to US consumers, that’s when I want to speak up. This is also the first time I’m officially talking about my business.
In almost 20 years of business, have you achieved what you wanted?
Now, 90% of Asian food in US markets is products from Vietnamese businesses. For example, in the past, Thai durians dominated, but now Vietnamese durians are number one. The Phương Ngọc Cái Bè durian brand that we distribute is extremely famous in the US. Anyone who eats durian asks for Phương Ngọc Cái Bè.
We’re present in 32 states, and our company’s business and communications team are working on promoting and opening branches in Canada, Europe, and Australia in the near future. My wish is for wherever there are Vietnamese people, there will be CTWS products. Even further, I want to introduce our agricultural products into the native US market.
I’m not an overly ambitious person. I enjoy what I have been given by fate. I just want to do what I believe is right.
But my dream hasn’t been fully realized. I want all the famous fruits of Vietnam and the distinctive products of each region to be accepted in the US, too.
In the upcoming time, I will once again be the first person to bring Diễn pomelos to the US, hopefully around the Lunar New Year in 2024. I’m very excited about this plan; the fragrant aroma of Diễn pomelos, the king of pomelos, will undoubtedly bring a deeply Vietnamese Tet holiday here. At the same time, exporting Diễn pomelos to the US can also help improve the lives of the pomelo farmers in Hanoi.
Thank you for these insights!
Ngô My – Hải An