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How Saigon Sisters won over the foodie crowd

When Mary Aregoni decided to venture into the food and restaurant business four years ago, she wanted to avoid biting off more than she could chew. A former project manager at Procter & Gamble, Aregoni caught wind of small spaces that were available in the Chicago French Market, which opened on Clinton Street in 2010.

“They wanted about 30 vendors, it was a brand-new concept that Chicago never had before,” she says. “I jumped on that. It was low risk, only 200 square feet. I didn’t have to build anything out. I just had to buy equipment and get up and running. It was an easy entry to this business for me.”

Aregoni may have eased her way into the business, but she’s since pushed her chips to the center of the table. Today, the founder of Saigon Sisters, which specializes in Vietnamese cuisine, has two West Loop locations and is preparing to open a sandwich shop in Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Galter Pavilion next month.

Saigon Sisters this year received attention from Bon Appetit magazine, was featured on the Food Network’s “Sandwich King,” and has also garnered high marks from Zagat and Open Table.

“We got off to a really good strong start,” says Vietnam native Aregoni. “We’re a family-based business with really good authenticity. We started this business out of love for our food and our culture and for Chicago. That helped us, and we’ve been very consistent with our quality food and customer service.”

She decided to focus on banh mi, a sandwich that’s as ubiquitous in Vietnamese food stalls as the cheeseburger is in America. The simplicity of the dish means that when the lunch rush comes, Aregoni can sling them in a hurry — an important differentiator.

“I wanted something small and manageable, and there was no banh mi, fast-casual concept like this downtown,” she says.

Business took off, forcing her to seek outside kitchen space. Her husband found a site in the CTA headquarters, a block away, and they decided to expand by converting that into a 40-seat restaurant. At lunchtime the restaurant also serves sandwiches, but not at dinner. That’s when Aregoni flips the script and breaks out chef-prepared Vietnamese cuisine of the fine-dining ilk.

Aregoni says from day one she has focused on making Vietnamese food approachable, paving the way with selections that combine American favorites with Vietnamese ingredients. The Hen House, for example, pairs caramelized chicken with lemongrass, a staple in Southeast Asian kitchens.

A personal touch also has been key to the restaurant’s success, she says. “My mom is a taster. She helps people order and will say to customers, ‘Come, try this sauce.’ My husband explains to customers how the food is prepared,” Aregoni says. “We help people who’re indecisive.”

She says taking advantage of free help she received from the U.S. Small Business Administration and guidance from Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program has helped keep her business on the right track.

As for publicity, she says satisfied diners have done the lion’s share of the work. “You really have to interact and love your customers,” she says. “They’re your best marketers.”

For restaurant owners looking to get and stay on foodies’ radar, Mary Aregoni advises:

Do

Take care in hiring your chef. Find someone “that executes your vision, but has creativity and ingenuity that elevates it,” Aregoni says.

Concentrate on consistent, high-quality, delicious food; excellent customer service; and cleanliness.

Make sure you have enough money “not just to open, but to keep it running because unexpected expenses can kill you,” she says.

Don’t

Underestimate the importance of social media. “It gets people here from all over the world,” she says.

Choose the wrong partner. If you decide not to go it alone, make sure your partner is someone you can trust and “who is going to stick behind you if things are not going well.”

Expect quick success. “It’s like a marathon, not a short sprint,” she says.

Photo of Mary Aregoni by Heath Sharp